The video leaves the viewer perplexed. Was he deliberately trying to run over Israelis, or was it a traffic accident in which the driver lost control of the car? The contradictory reports about the investigation conducted after his death in an Israeli prison raise equally disturbing – and unanswered – questions: Did he hang himself, as the Israel Prison Service claims? Or did he die from blows to the head, as his family and the Palestinian Authority allege?
What is incontrovertible is that Raed al-Jaabari died in Eshel Prison, outside Be’er Sheva, on September 9, about six weeks after he was arrested on suspicion of perpetrating a terrorist act by deliberately driving into a group of Israelis at the Etzion Bloc junction, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Jaabari turned himself in to the authorities shortly after the incident. A few weeks before his death, a military judge ordered his release from prison after being convinced that the event in question was an accident; that ruling was overturned by a higher instance.
Jaabari, 35, a dealer in auto parts and the father of six children, ranging in age from seven months to 11 years, had no record of involvement in security offenses. His father, Abed a-Salam al-Jaabari, is in the fruit and vegetable business and has had an entry permit to Israel for years. He is certain that what happened at the intersection was an accident, and that his son was beaten to death by prison guards. He vows to fight until those responsible for Raed’s death are brought to justice.
The Jaabaris are an affluent family. Raed drove a Skoda Superb, a luxury car. It was while driving that vehicle, on July 25, that he was involved in the incident at the Etzion junction. His father says that Raed had undergone surgery on his leg in Jordan a few weeks before, and was taking painkillers. That might explain the loss of control of the car, his father thinks. He had just finished recovering at home, in Hebron, which was apparently why he decided to drive down to the Dead Sea on the day of the incident. “My son wanted to relax a little,” his father explains now.
On the way back Raed was going to do some shopping in Bethlehem. He reached the large traffic circle at the intersection and turned right.
The security video shows his car moving fast out of the circle and then swerving toward a group of Israelis who were standing at a bus stop. The car hit a woman and immediately turned away sharply and kept going. The woman was slightly injured. There is no doubt that if Jaabari was determined to ram people, he could have done a lot more damage.
Eyewitness Naftali Goldberg told the police: “I saw the Skoda swerve sharply to the right into people who were waiting at the bus stop, hit them and then drive on. The car continued to drive fast in the direction of [the settlement of] Efrat.”
Jaabari pulled over at the entrance to the nearby town of Beit Ummar and turned himself over to the soldiers at the checkpoint. He told them he had been involved in a road accident; they called the police, who took him into custody. His father says that his son’s foot might have been somehow caught on the gas pedal, and when he saw that he had hit the woman he quickly swerved away.
His father is convinced that Raed fled from the scene of the incident for fear that the soldiers and settlers there would shoot him. The truth is, it’s quite surprising they didn’t. In any event, the younger Jaabari was arrested, questioned and transferred to Ofer Prison, near Ramallah.
On August 14, Maj. Shlomo Katz, a judge in the Judea Military Court, decided to release Jaabari on bail of 8,000 shekels (about $2,300 at the time), after he became convinced that it was indeed an accident. The prosecutor, Capt. Barak Tamir, asked for a stay of execution until an appeal was heard; two days later, the decision to release Jaabari was reversed and he was ordered to remain in custody until the conclusion of proceedings against him. His lawyer, Khaled al-Araj, assured the family that he would be able to persuade the court that the event had been an accident.
Raed’s father, who saw his son in court, says his impression was that Raed was in good spirits and was already planning for his release. Two days before his death, Raed called his wife to say she should prepare for his homecoming. A week before the road incident, the family says, he had received a one-week entry pass into Israel. In short, they say, he had no reason to perpetrate a terrorist act.
On September 9, Jaabari was moved from Ofer to the Eshel facility in the Negev. It’s not clear what happened, but at about noon that day the family learned from the media that Raed had died in prison. No one bothered to inform them about the death or explain the circumstances. Not until that evening did someone from the Israel Police station in Hebron call them, to ask permission to perform an autopsy. The request was granted.
The Israeli media reported that Jaabari had hanged himself in his cell. Raed’s father rules out that possibility completely: His son would never have committed suicide, he says, and had no reason for doing so. He was a well-off businessman, had a family and was certain he’d soon be released from prison.
A Palestinian pathologist, Dr. Saber al-Aloul, was allowed to take part in the autopsy, which was performed at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir, Tel Aviv – but he was not allowed to report the findings, which are still classified. As far as is known, the autopsy revealed that Jaabari hanged himself, as the IPS claims.
The family had a second autopsy performed at the Palestinian Institute of Forensic Medicine, in Abu Dis, outside Jerusalem. According to a report in the newspaper Al-Hayat, that autopsy found that Jaabari died from bleeding in his head and from a concussion, the result of blows. The report notes that no marks consistent with hanging were found on his neck, but that injuries were found on his teeth and head.
Jaabari’s family confirm that they saw a wound on the back of his head and damage to his front teeth. That, they say, is proof that he was beaten to death.
According to the head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Committee and former PA minister for prisoners’ affairs, Issa Karaka, the second autopsy found that “the principal cause of death was repeated blows to the head, on the right side, which caused a concussion and bleeding, and contusions were found on the head and the lips. The beating took place during his transfer from Ofer Prison to Eshel Prison.”
The family believes that Raed was beaten to death by being punched repeatedly in the face in the vehicle that took him to Eshel Prison. That is what they were told by their pathologist – they have no proof of this. A relative showed us the brown prison uniform Raed wore on the day of his death, with a blood-saturated paper towel in the pocket. That too is proof, the family says, that Raed was beaten and did not hang himself.
IPS spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told Haaretz this week: “The report about the detainee’s suicide was conveyed to the authorities via the usual channels. The allegations that the prisoner was beaten to death are unfounded. However, a police investigation is under way in the wake of the event, and the prison service is cooperating with it fully.”
The marvelous grapes of Hebron are served directly from the vines in the yard of the home where we are talking to Raed’s father and other members of the family. Abed al-Salam says there is no way his son wanted to die.
“He wasn’t a young man who was tired of life; he was a young man who had everything,” he says. “All I want now is for something to change. For the Jews to stop believing what they’re told on their newscasts. I will go to the ends of the earth to get a trial. I want to prove that he was killed. He didn’t die ‘from heaven’ – they killed him.
“And it wasn’t terrorism, it was an accident,” he continues. “We are not a family that hates Israel. And he had no record at all. After he died, Hamas and Fatah wanted to say that he belonged to them, but I wouldn’t let them. He didn’t belong to anyone. He was God’s. If a stone were to see what happened to my boy, the stone would cry, too.”