The soldiers hid behind the tallest oak tree in the valley. That’s where the six teenagers were headed, as they descended from their town, Silwad, northeast of Ramallah, into the deep, steep valley to hang out together on that Friday afternoon. On the way, they bought potato chips, sunflower seeds and chocolate, and they planned to boil water for tea over a campfire. Suddenly, without warning, a gunshot rang out. The teens had no idea where it came from. Ayman collapsed, rolling over and landing on his back. A bullet had sliced through his chest from the left, below his neck, and exited from his hip. When Mohammed tried to approach, to pull him out of the line of fire, another shot rang out. Mohammed was hit in the arm and ran for his life.
Ayman lay on the ground, dying.
The firing grew more intense. The shooters emerged from the ambush site behind the oak tree. They were joined by two more soldiers who came out of an Isuzu jeep parked on the other side of Highway 60. Bursts of automatic gunfire, aimed at the teens who were fleeing for their lives, echoed through the valley. The group rushed up the hill on which Silwad – meaning “above the wadi” in Arabic – is perched.
That evening, the Israel Defense Forces returned Ayman Hamad’s body to his family. He was 17 years old and was buried the next day in the town.
Not far away, on that same day, last Saturday, January 26, settlers from the outpost of Adei Ad, and/or soldiers who joined them – it is still not clear – killed Hamdi Na’asan, 38, as he was plowing his field next to his village, Al-Mughayyir. Last weekend was particularly lethal for the Palestinians. Four of them were killed by Israelis, in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
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It was raining when we visited Silwad on Monday, and the killing field in the valley that separates the town from Highway 60 was draped in thick fog. Through the fog a stunning view could be made out – of olive trees, the towering oak and the verdant valley. The last house in town, on the wadi’s edge, belongs to Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a former cabinet minister and prisoner. Fares, fluent in Hebrew, is one of the more impressive leaders in the Palestinian Authority, an associate and good friend of the jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.
The Silwad community center – above which looms the turret of the local mosque that locals say is the tallest in Palestine – had been turned into a venue of mourning and condolences. The dead teenager was a relative of Fares’, who, in an elegant wool coat, was among those welcoming the guests who had come to comfort the family. Next to him was the bereaved father, Ahmed Hamad, 44, a metalworker who once had four daughters and two sons. Now, he has four daughters and one son.
According to the dead teen’s history teacher, Aouni Fares, Ayman, a high-school senior, was well-informed and knew a lot about the Nakba, the Palestinians’ suffering and the history of the occupation that began in 1967. Ahmed Hamad says his son promised him that he would always be proud of him. Ayman’s uncle Mohammed Othman was the first fatal casualty in Silwad during the first intifada; two other uncles, Akram Hamad and Rifat Hamad, are serving life sentences in Israeli prisons.
Last Friday morning, Ayman had coffee with his father and then attended prayers in the mosque. At midday the family drove to its olive grove in the valley for a picnic, not far from the place where their firstborn would be killed a few hours later. The weather was ideal, under the winter sun, and Ayman was in high spirits, the mourners recall. The family ate stuffed vegetables prepared by the mother, Inas; Ayman cleared away the dishes.
When they got home, around 2:30 P.M., Ayman asked his father, who was driving to the nearby village of Rammun to shop, for money to buy snacks; he was given 20 shekels ($5.60). At the end of the day, two shekels would be found in the teen’s cellphone case.
Almost every Friday they would head out to the valley, Ayman and his buddies, all of them about the same age. There, amid the olive trees, about a kilometer or two from their homes, is the local gathering place.
When they arrived, the group split up. Ayman and two friends went on ahead, the other three stayed behind for some reason. Later on some of the eyewitnesses, among them the wounded Mohammed Hamad, would say that the group did not throw any stones, although one authoritative source admitted that they had. Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, noted that Ayman was shot at around 4:30 that afternoon – almost Shabbat – so there were certainly no religious settlers’ cars on Highway 60 at the time. Candle-lighting time in the nearby settlements was 4:31 P.M. in Beit El, 4:40 P.M. in Shiloh and 4:49 P.M. in Ofra.
Many questions remain about what happened this week, and they are very disturbing – even if stones were thrown. The Israel Defense Forces soldiers shot Ayman Hamad from a distance of between 50 and 100 meters, from which he could not have posed any threat. When he was shot, he was also more than 100 meters from the highway, again a distance from which no stone could have hurt anyone traveling on the road. The soldiers fired live ammunition from an ambush with no prior warning, hitting him directly in the chest. They shot to kill, of that there’s no doubt. A teenager, a high-school student, who maybe did throw stones (which hurt no one), or maybe didn’t throw stones, was executed. The soldiers went on shooting even after they had hit him. Fortunately, they didn’t kill anyone else.
The IDF Spokesman’s Unit made do with a laconic, dry response to Haaretz’s query, one that only raises additional questions: “A Military Police investigation has been launched into the matter, and at its conclusion the findings will be conveyed for further examination to the office of the military advocate general.” We’re unlikely to hear any more about this incident – either about the conclusion of the “investigation” or about a trial of those deemed responsible for the killing of the teen from Silwad.
After the incident, the wounded Mohammed Hamad made his way into town, where he was taken to the local clinic and from there by ambulance to the Government Hospital in Ramallah. Ayman was still on the ground, with the soldiers gathered around him. A Palestinian ambulance driver who happened to pass by and saw what was going on offered to evacuate Ayman, but the soldiers told him to leave. It’s not clear whether Ayman was still alive at that point. Mohammed said he saw him take a few heavy breaths before he himself fled the scene, as did the third one in their group. The other teens were far off and didn’t see what was going on.
After almost an hour, after an Israeli ambulance evacuated Ayman, the soldiers left the site. The boy was taken to a military guard tower next to the nearby village of Ein Yabroud, where an intensive care ambulance arrived, lingered for about 10 minutes and then drove off, according to the testimonies. Ayman was apparently already dead.
In the meantime, one of the friends phoned Ayman’s father to report that his son had been wounded and was with the soldiers. A few minutes later, he called back to say that Ayman had not been wounded, only arrested. Then Qadura Fares phoned to tell Ahmed to drop everything in Rammun and get back to Silwad fast. When Ahmed reached Fares’ house, he saw the crowd that had gathered there, among them his brother, Suheil, who was weeping bitterly, and he realized what had happened.
Fares meanwhile contacted the District Coordination and Liaison unit in order to get Ayman’s body back; at about 7:30 that evening, the family were instructed to go to the military base at Beit El to retrieve the body. At the Government Hospital in Ramallah, where they brought the body, Ahmed saw the bullet’s entry hole in his son’s chest and the exit wound in the hip.
While we are visiting, Mohammed Hamad, the survivor of the shooting, enters the community center. His entire arm is bandaged. This is his first encounter with Ahmed since the incident. The teenager had undergone surgery in the Government Hospital shortly after arriving there, but walked out the next day, against his doctors’ instructions, to attend Ayman’s funeral.
Mohammed is clearly still in a state of shock. Ayman, he relates, walked about 30 meters ahead of the rest of the group toward his family’s olive grove. He denies that they threw stones. After Ayman collapsed on the ground, Mohammed says he saw that he was still moving his fingers, even as blood spilled out of his chest, but doesn’t remember anything else because he was then shot himself. At first, he didn’t feel anything as he was fleeing for his life, with bullets whistling around him. He didn’t feel any pain until a few minutes later. Now he tells us he’ll have to return to the hospital in a few days for additional surgery.