What Drove a Popular Palestinian Girl to Attempt a Stabbing Attack?

A Palestinian teen who tried to stab an Israeli woman in the West Bank was run over and shot to death. Her father, imam of the refugee camp where she grew up, says his daughter was 'responding to the occupation.'

A memorial poster of Ashrakat Qattanani on the wall of the Askar refugee camp. “If the Israelis want to live in peace and security,” her father Taha says, “our children too must live in peace and security.”
Alex Levac

One can, of course, label a 16-year-old girl a “terrorist” and also justify, with unbelievable, knee-jerk insensitivity, the wild car-ramming and then the confirmation-of-kill that occurred immediately after her attack – the two bullets fired by a settler, and the two others by a soldier, into the body of the girl who was run over and lying injured on the road.

No one is questioning the fact that this past Sunday morning, the teenager Ashrakat Qattanani, wielding a knife, chased an Israeli woman at the Hawara junction, near Nablus, attempting to stab her. But we must ask what motivated the daughter of the imam from the Askar refugee camp to tell her father that she was going to school – where she was a good student and a popular girl – and then instead to go to the junction and try to stab an Israeli woman.

The next day, memorial posters were pasted in the narrow alleys of Askar, a crowded, desperately poor refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Nablus. But Qattanani’s funeral has not yet been held, because Israel hasn’t yet returned her body. (“That is something that takes time,” a Shin Bet security service officer told her father on the day of her death.)

On Monday traffic in the camp was slow and totally chaotic; only one car at a time can travel through the crowded streets here. Groups of young people huddled on street corners. Even this battle-weary camp hasn’t yet come to terms with the idea of a 16-year-old shahida (martyr).

Taha Qattanani, the girl’s father and the local imam, is an impressive man in a traditional robe and with a well-groomed beard. Speaking softly, he doesn’t try to conceal the fact that his daughter set out to stab Jews.

“Ashrakat responded to the occupation,” he says with self-control, hiding his emotions. Those are the emotions of a newly bereaved father who must face the loss of his daughter alone, because Israel continues to deny Ashrakat’s mother entry into the West Bank, even during the mourning period.

Such was the reality in which Ashrakat grew up and in which she went to her death. Her mother, Abala, 46, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, had been living with her family in the West Bank without a proper entry permit. In 2006, when Ashrakat was 4, Abala went to Jordan to visit her parents. Taha was being detained by Israel at the time for being active in Islamic Jihad.

Taha explains now that his wife went to Jordan in the wake of psychological pressure and a campaign of intimidation conducted against her by the Shin Bet in an effort to extract information about him. Her plan was to stay in Jordan until Taha was released from prison. That happened on the last day of 2007, but since then, Israel has refused to allow Abala to return home to her husband and what were, until Ashrakat’s death, their three children, even for a short visit.

Nine years without a mother. That is the lot of those who live in their own country, defying the law, the law of the occupation, and then are banned from returning after they’ve left it.

Until her father’s release, then, Ashrakat and her siblings were without either parent and resided with the family of her uncle, Yassin, her father’s brother.

Every summer the children went to Jordan to be with their mother. This past summer they were accompanied by their uncle Hassan, Taha’s brother, who speaks fluent Hebrew and is familiar with almost every residential building in the affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, some of which he renovated. He spent two months in Jordan with the Qattanani children.

This year Ashrakat was in the 11th grade in the Cordoba School in the old section of Askar, not far from the new camp, where her family lives. She’d already begun preparing for the first high-school matriculation exams. Her father shows us her photo on his cell phone, taken a few days before her death. She’s giving a sermon to the girls in the schoolyard, a white kerchief on her head, a sheet of paper in her hand, wearing the striped school uniform and using a microphone to be heard.

What happened to the 16-year-old on Sunday morning? She got up around 5 o’clock for the morning prayers, fed her cat and added water to the birdcage. She asked her father how he was doing; he had felt sick during the night. She left home after a quick breakfast, at about 7:30. She said nothing to him about her plans. Nor did anything in her behavior indicate what was about to happen, he says.

At around 9 o’clock, news spread in the camp that there had been a stabbing attempt at the Hawara junction by a local girl and that she had been run over by a settler and shot to death. Shortly afterward, a Shin Bet agent who called himself “Zechariah” phoned Taha Qattanani and instructed him to come to the army base at Harawa. The caller promised that he would not be arrested. Taha went with Hassan; he already understood that he was being summoned about his daughter. Zechariah told the two brothers what had happened and asked them to try and calm tensions in the refugee camp and not call for revenge. “We have to move on from these things,” the agent said.

The stunned father left immediately. Hassan stayed on to speak to the Shin Bet man. He says that the agent expressed regret over the incident. “He related that the girl had come to the junction that morning and tried to stab someone, and then the settler ran over her. She was knocked to the ground but got up and then was shot by settlers and soldiers,” Hassan says.

The settler who hit the teenager with his car was Gershon Mesika, the former head of the Samaria Regional Council, who was forced to resign from that post earlier this year after being suspected of corruption offenses involving the Yisrael Beiteinu party and turned state’s witness in the police investigation of the affair. This is not the first time Mesika, recipient of a 2012 national award from the Education Ministry on behalf of his regional council, has run over a Palestinian. In 2001, he hit a 90-year-old pedestrian but was acquitted of causing death by negligence.

In the meantime, Ashrakat’s mother, in Jordan, was given the news by phone. Here’s the last text message between mother and daughter – Taha reads it out from his cell phone: “What were you cooking?” Ashrakat asked. “We woke up in the morning from the noise of the army coming into the camp. The intifada is starting. I hope we get through this year safely,” she wrote her mother. Ashrakat concluded the correspondence with the parting words, “Salamu alaykum” – peace be upon you. That was on the eve of her death. As her father reads out his daughter’s last words to her mother, tears well up in his eyes for the first time. He quickly wipes them away.

In the past month, he tells us, Ashrakat spoke a great deal about her dream of praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. “The occupation prevented her from living with her mother, and the occupation also prevented her from praying at the holiest place for her in her country,” he says. She often watched television reports of the recent acts of stabbing and the killing of the assailants, he says.

“I will not beg the Israelis: If they want to live in peace and security, our children too must live in peace and security,” he says. Pointing to a soft-drink bottle on the table, he adds, “This bottle has a price.” The import of that comment is that the occupation, too, has a price.

Ashrakat’s uncle, Hassan, adds, “Since the Dawabsheh family in Duma was burned to death, all our children see on television what is going on – the terrorist behavior of the settlers and the army that supports them. No respect for women or the aged. The humiliation is so deep in the soul of every Palestinian. The way our women are pushed around at Al-Aqsa. Everyone starts to light a bonfire in his head, and that is not good for the Jews or for the Arabs. It's one big bonfire.”

“You are deepening the hatred,” Khaled Abu Hashi, who lives in Askar, tells us. His son, Nur a-Din, stabbed a soldier to death in an attack at a Tel Aviv train station a year ago. He has not been allowed to visit him in prison even once, and is waiting for Israeli forces to demolish his home.

“I don’t care about the house, I care about the children who are growing up with all this,” he says. “As a father, I know what effect all these photographs have on our children. How will we live together with all this hatred?” Abu Hashi relates that he built and renovated “all of Ra’anana, from Kfar Sava to Kiryat Sharett,” and that, like most of the older people in the camp, he misses the old, beautiful days of friendship with the Jews.