Here, next to the house’s fence, is where the car rolled to a stop after it had continued to move even though its driver was already dead. And here’s where the Border Policemen stood as they shot dozens of bullets into her car. It all happened on this normally quiet residential street at the edge of the town of Silwad, north of Ramallah. Only the shell casings still scattered along the side of the road and the fragments of the shattered windows of the Hyundai Lantra testify mutely to what happened here last Friday.
This is where Israeli troops killed Mahdia Hammad, a 40-year-old mother of four, the youngest a child of 10 months. In Israel it was claimed that she tried to run over the Border Policemen, who were standing in the street. Her husband claims that she was an inexperienced driver who was hurrying home to feed their son and was apparently rattled by the sight of the Israeli force and lost her head. One way or the other, nothing can explain the rage and lust to kill that seized the troops. They sprayed her car and her body with bullets in a frenzy of shooting that continued even after she was dead.
Together with Ashraf Idabis and Iyad Haddad – field-workers for the International Red Cross and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, respectively – we spent a few hours at the scene this week, taking testimonies from residents and passersby who witnessed the incident. The testimonies, which were given separately and were for the most part identical, raise two very disturbing questions: Why did Hammad keep driving after the police signaled her to stop? And why, since she was driving very slowly – about 20 kilometers an hour, according to all the eyewitnesses – without apparently intending to ram anyone, was she shot so many times, in what seems like an apoplexy of fury and craving to kill, including a “confirmation of kill” after the car had come to a stop. Is it possible that this woman, who hadn’t driven a car in over a year and was apparently rushing home to feed her baby, intended to perpetrate a ramming attack? Was killing her the only way to stop her?
An acrid smell of tear gas was still hanging in the air in Silwad, even midweek. There are demonstrations here on Fridays, opposite Highway 60 and the settlement of Ofra, not far from where Hammad was killed. The street running perpendicular to the site is blocked by a mound of dirt and strewn with stones and the remains of scorched tires. Hammad did not take part in the demonstrations. She was a housewife and mother; her husband, Adib, works as an inspector for a construction company.
December 25 started off as a routine day. The couple had breakfast together, after which Adib attended prayers in the mosque, followed by lunch. In the afternoon, Mahdia said she wanted to use the family car to visit her sister, Samira, who lives on the hill opposite Silwad, and bring her some firewood.
According to Adib, his wife had a driver’s license but rarely used it and hadn’t driven for around a year, since the birth of their last child. Mahdia promised to be back quickly, before the baby woke from his sleep, in order to feed him.
Now Adib is tormenting himself for having given her the car. He’s been left to take care of the children, along with their grandmother. Samira said afterward that her sister had been in such a hurry to get home that she didn’t even stay for coffee.
At 4:20 P.M., Adib heard the sound of distant gunfire. Suddenly filled with foreboding, he rushed out to the street. He phoned his wife, but she didn’t answer. He called her sister, who told him Mahdia had left for home a few minutes earlier. Then came a call from their eldest, Zakariya, 20, who asked his father who had been driving the family car. When Adib told him that his mother had taken it, he heard cries of anguish on the other end of the line. Weeping and shouting, Zakariya told his father that he had seen the bullet-riddled car from a distance and knew it was theirs – and now came the appalling realization that his mother was in the vehicle.
A relative, Yihyeh Mubarak, who lives in New Orleans, served in the U.S. Army in the Iraq war and returns to his hometown for a few months every year to work as a paramedic, immediately took Zakariya into his ambulance and gave him tranquilizers. Mubarak already knew Mahdia had been hurt badly, but the Border Policemen prevented him at gunpoint from approaching her car in order to take her to the hospital. He received her body, riddled with 17 bullets, that evening from the Civil Administration’s Beit El base – which was unusual, because Israel almost always delays the return of bodies of perpetrators of attacks – and took it to the hospital in Ramallah.
Mubarak is on the verge of tears as he recounts the day’s events. Never, he declares, has he seen such violent behavior by soldiers and police in the territories as during the past few months.
Back on the street of death, a mule is now tied up next to the spot from which the Border Policemen opened fire at Mahdia Hammad. She’d begun to drive up the street and in front of her a Mitsubishi jeep carrying construction workers who quickly turned around when they saw the Israeli troops ahead. They related that they had shouted to Mahdia to turn around, too, but she ignored them. Her window was closed and maybe she didn’t hear them. She went on driving.
From a distance of dozens of meters, a Border Policeman signaled her with his hand to stop, but she continued on, slowly.
The shooting started when she was some 20 to 30 meters from them. One witness said that a warning shot was fired into the air, but none of the others saw that. In any event, the volleys of rifle fire began immediately. According to one eyewitness, a policeman knelt on the ground and aimed his rifle at the car, while the others fired bursts of bullets. The testimonies indicate that there were about eight Border Policemen on the street. One person present related that he saw Mahdia raise her hand in the car, possibly to signal the policemen to stop shooting.
When the car came to a halt, another policeman emerged from the perpendicular street, thrust his rifle into the bullet-riddled car and fired another volley into Mahdia’s head, even though she was certainly dead by then. The troops then took the car and the body away and prevented everyone, including the ambulance driver, from approaching.
The Border Police spokesperson stated this week that its investigation revealed that, “the shooting took place during an attempt to run over Border Policemen involved in an operational action in Silwad. The terrorist, who saw that the forces were busy dispersing persons that were disturbing the peace, accelerated suddenly while swerving in their direction. The forces fired warning shots in the air but she kept moving toward them while accelerating her vehicle. The forces fired shots at the car to avoid being hit and immediately stopped firing when the danger had passed. The attempt to omit facts and twist the circumstances of the incident constitutes a futile effort to distort the truth.”
What actually happened? Did Mahdia understand that she had to stop? Did she try unsuccessfully to brake? Was she really trying to run over the policemen? Her husband says she suffered from hearing problems. He says she was a bad driver, and finds it impossible to imagine that she intended to run over anyone. She loved her life, he says, and most of all she loved Yihyeh, their baby.
The car has not yet been returned to him, nor has the computer that was in it, with all the construction plans he was working on.
The widower asks quietly, “How was the story presented in Israel? Do the Israelis know what happened? Did the way Mahdia died lead to a public discussion?”
We, of course, are ashamed to reply.
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