For Families of Palestinian Assailants, Grief, Pride and Unanswered Questions

Two 17-year-old cousins attempt a copycat car-ramming attack – and one ends up dead. A 15-year-old boy is killed when he tries to stab a soldier. The families are in mourning in different ways.

Kayed Rajabi, father of Muhammad, in the mourning tent in Hebron with his sons.
Alex Levac

According to the Israeli media, Raghad al-Khadour and Firas al-Khadour were engaged. But the fact is they never could have married. As “milk siblings,” the 17-year-olds were forbidden by Islamic law to wed one another. Their mothers are sisters, their fathers cousins (and also partners in the family stonecutting business). Raghad and Firas were breast-fed with the same milk: their mothers fed them together, or perhaps — it’s no longer clear — one nursed both of them.

They grew up as close cousins. Only a few hundred meters separate their homes in the town of Bani Naim, east of Hebron. Now Mussa and Abdullah, the fathers of Firas and Raghad, respectively, are sitting in the yard of Firas’ home, lamenting the death of the boy — he was killed while he and Raghad were trying to perpetrate a car-ramming attack — and praying for the recovery of his cousin. Raghad’s sister Al-Majad, too, was killed three months ago when she tried to carry out a car-ramming attack at the entrance to the settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron.

Raghad and Firas attempted to run over settlers at the exact same spot. Raghad was furious at Israel’s refusal to return her sister’s body for burial. Her father is convinced this was her primary motive — “90 percent because of that,” he says. He has no idea what her condition is, nor even whether she is conscious. The milk siblings, Firas and Raghad, are no longer united.

A few kilometers from here, in a neighborhood of west Hebron, Kayed Rajabi is mourning the death of his firstborn son, Muhammad Thalji al-Rajabi. The 15-year-old was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at the Gilbert checkpoint in Hebron at the same time and on the same day — last Friday, September 16 — as the milk siblings carried out their car-ramming attack not far from there.

The two houses of mourning, in Bani Naim and Hebron, are very different from each other. Lamentation and grief prevail in the mourners’ tent in Hebron; resignation and pride in Bani Naim.

An Israeli soldier stands guard in Hebron's Tel Rumeida neighborhood, September 18, 2016.
Hazem Bader, AFP

In Hebron, the men of the Rajabi family are sitting in a schoolyard, which has become a mourners’ tent. The family members wear tags indicating their family connection: “Father of the martyr,” “Brother of the martyr,” “Cousin of the martyr.” The father wears a knitted Muslim head covering. Utterly grief-stricken, he has the stubble of a man in mourning. The father of five children (including the dead Muhammad), he runs a used-industrial machinery business.

The image of Muhammad in the memorial posters comes from his cell phone. It was taken during Id al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice), a few days before the boy was killed. He’s festively attired in this, his last photograph. A photo studio added the Tomb of the Patriarchs as a background.

Muhammad wanted to be a journalist, his father says. He was always taking pictures with his phone. Last Friday, he joined his father for prayers in the mosque; after lunch, he told the family he was going to visit his cousins. Nothing in his behavior betrayed what was about to happen. He left his cell phone at home — but that was not unusual, his father says. He didn’t always take it with him.

Kayed went to his store to pass the time. A radio blaring in the street announced that there had been an incident in Hebron. Opening the Al Huriya news agency website, Kayed saw a photograph that showed the body of a youth. The clothes appeared to be those of his son. He called his wife to ask what Muhammad was wearing. Blue jeans and a blue shirt with a white stripe, she said. His heart sank.

Meeting Capt. Amin

Kayed called the cousins that Muhammad had said he was going to visit — he hadn’t been there. For an hour Kayed drove the streets of the neighborhood, looking for friends of Muhammad who might know where he was. Or maybe he was just trying to escape the horrible thoughts. The news sites reported that the person who had been killed was 20, then corrected the age to 15. First they said he was from the Abu Rajab family, but afterward reported that his name was Rajabi.

Muhammad’s younger brother, 13-year-old Osama — who had eaten lunch with him shortly before — also saw the photograph of the body and was certain it was his brother, he tells us in the mourners’ tent. Kayed understood, once and for all, that the body was that of his son.

A Shin Bet security service agent called him: “I am sorry to inform you that your son was killed.” Kayed was on his way to the Palestinian liaison and coordination office to ask about his son, but the agent said he should go to Checkpoint 160, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where “Capt. Amin” would be waiting for him.

By now it was evening. His brother was not allowed to accompany him into the office above the checkpoint. Capt. Amin showed him a cell-phone photograph: his son’s blood-covered face. It was definitely Muhammad. Kayed hoped he would be allowed to see the body, but in vain.

“You killed my son,” he said to the Shin Bet agent. “He was a boy.” To which the agent replied, “We Jews do not kill children for no reason. Your son tried to stab a soldier.”

Kayed: “He’s just a boy. How could he stab a soldier?”

Amin: “We’ll show you the video footage.”

Kayed says he was shown footage of about 15 seconds in which a blurred figure is seen running toward soldiers. He did not see a knife. The agent told him to go home. When he got there, the whole neighborhood was waiting in the street.

Kayed falls silent and takes a deep breath. In the meantime, Muhammad’s uncle, Majed Rajabi, is conducting a conversation in Hebrew with an Israeli client who wants to buy the shoes he manufactures: “32 pairs in all colors.”

The bereaved father continues, “I will agree that it was my son. But why didn’t they shoot him in the legs? Can’t three armed soldiers subdue a 15-year-old boy without killing him? But they didn’t want to just stop him. They wanted to shoot and kill him. They wanted to kill him.”

When asked what made his son pick up a knife and go to stab soldiers, Kayed says only God knows. Nothing in the boy’s behavior indicated that he was about to commit the deed. “Everyone talks about the occupation all the time,” he says, “but nothing beyond that. Imagine that soldiers had killed your son.”

In the wake of the incident at Kiryat Arba, the shoe manufacturer’s permit to enter Israel has now been revoked, and the extended Rajabi family in its entirety — about 17,000 people — has also been banned from entering Israel. Muhammad Thalji Rajabi’s body remains in Israeli hands, of course.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated, in response to a query from Haaretz: “On Friday, September 16, a terrorist arrived at the Gilbert checkpoint in Hebron and attacked the soldiers there with a knife. The soldiers opened fire at the terrorist, killing him. One soldier was wounded in the face in the attack.”

The atmosphere in the Bani Naim home of Firas al-Khadour is different. It’s one of resignation to fate, particularly on the part of Abdullah, who has already lost one daughter and now has a second who is wounded and under arrest. Firas’ family home is in a state of neglect. Firas and Raghad were 12th-graders. Last Friday afternoon, Firas — who didn’t have a driver’s license — took his father’s Mitsubishi Magnum pickup without permission. He picked up Raghad and they drove to the hitchhiking site at the entrance to Kiryat Arba from Route 60. The two tried to run over settlers who were waiting for a ride and who were protected by large concrete blocks. Soldiers at the site opened fire, killing Firas and wounding Raghad. On June 24, Al-Majad, Raghad’s sister, had taken the exact same route, from which she never returned. She was 18.

According to their father, life somehow returned to normal some time after Al-Majad’s death, but Raghad could not accept the fact that Israel refused to return the body for burial.

Are you angry at your children?

The two fathers are silent for a moment. “We are sorry and grieving, but we are proud of them,” says Firas’ father. Abdullah adds that he hopes his daughter will recover.

The fathers don’t know if their children planned what they did, or if it was a spontaneous decision. Raghad wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, Firas a veterinarian.

Sirens are wailing in Hebron, to which we’ve returned. Another stabbing attempt at the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Two more young Palestinians killed, both from the Rajabi family, the same family as Muhammad Thalji Rajabi, who tried to stab a soldier three days earlier and was killed, and whose father is now lamenting his death.