The Eldest Casualty: The Story of Said Ali, 89, Killed by the IDF

Ali, who lived through British, Jordanian and Israeli rule over this land, died last week of asphyxiation from tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers.

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As far as is known, he was the oldest Palestinian to be killed by the Israel Defense Forces. Born in 1925, almost 89 years old, he was from the generation of people like Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, a native son from the village of Kafr Qaddum, near Nablus. Said Ali, who lived through British, Jordanian and Israeli rule over this land, died on a mattress on the floor of his home in the heart of the village. Cause of death: asphyxiation from tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers.

The event occurred last week, on the first day of 2014, which is Fatah Day in the territories. January 1, which is also the anniversary of the consolidation of that Palestinian movement, was Ali’s last day on the face of the earth.

Here, then, are examples of the impressively broad range of the army’s innocent victims – from 2 years until 89 years old, from the very young to the advanced in years – during this period of relative quiet of the last few years. Ali suffocated on the second anniversary of the death of Jawaher Abu Rahma, a young woman from Bil’in who also died of tear-gas asphyxiation; the IDF refused to investigate the circumstances of her death.

On December 8, there had been another incident involving tear gas in Kafr Qaddum after IDF soldiers entered the village late at night. It was a fairly standard type of army mission, involving the displays of force and harassment that are typically seen in West Bank villages, usually at night. This time soldiers traversed the village and on their way out let loose with a barrage of tear gas, apparently because stones were thrown at them. Again, the gas spread and entered the villagers’ houses. On that occasion, an 18-month-old child, Khaled Joum’a, the son of a local teacher named Majid Joum’a, began to choke in his sleep from inhaling the tear gas that seeped into his room. His parents rushed him, in serious condition, to the hospital in Qalqilyah, where he remained for a few days in intensive care until he recovered.

Gathered in the home of the deceased in Kafr Qaddum this week are Ali’s six sons – Jasser, Yasser, Nassar, Maher, Bassem and A’araf – all middle-aged, all strikingly resembling one another. This was not the way they envisioned his death, choking to death on a mattress. The sons have never counted the number of grandchildren their father had – around 40, they say. All his life he worked the land, cultivating his olive grove; even in old age, too, he enjoyed going out and looking at the earth and the trees.

On that fateful Wednesday, however, Ali did not want to go out. At around 3 P.M. his son Yasser suggested that they both go to the grove. The weather was fine, but the father stayed home and the son set out alone.

When Yasser returned to the village, at about 4:30 P.M., a pungent smell of tear gas hung heavily in the air. Kafr Qaddum is familiar with tear gas. Every Friday for the past three years, the villagers have demonstrated on the road that leads from the village to the checkpoint at the settlement of Kedumim. This road, closed to traffic some time ago, has long since acquired the look of a battlefield, strewn with stones, ashes that are blacker than black and scorched tires. The closure of the road – because of the expansion of Kedumim – forces Kfar Qaddum residents to make huge detours and travel 14 kilometers instead of a few hundred meters to get to the main road to Nablus. Every Friday, young people emerge from the mosque after prayers, holding stones, flags and posters, and march to the blocked road. Waiting for them there are IDF soldiers who repulse them with tear-gas grenades, stun grenades and by other means. The gas usually wafts through the village and seeps into the houses, as it did on the first day of the new year, on Fatah Day.

Yasser entered the house that day and found his father lying on the floor of the upper level. Israeli troops were just 200 meters away. The gas from the canisters they fired from that distance spread rapidly. According to Yasser, the smell was particularly acrid that day, more than usual, with the winds also working against the villagers. The gas permeated a number of houses including Ali’s, where the windows were open. Yasser says he too found it hard to breathe.

His father did not respond. At first his son thought he was asleep, but he quickly discovered that he could not wake him. “What’s wrong, Dad?” Yasser asked. His father emitted a gurgling sound, grasped his chest and said it hurt. His eyes were shut.

Yasser called the village physician, Dr. Mohammed Al-Awt, who arrived within minutes. His examination showed that Said Ali was suffocating from tear-gas inhalation. The doctor gave him two injections and hurried off to treat another villager who was also suffering from the tear gas. Meanwhile, the stifling, searing smell in the house became more intense, and within minutes Yasser’s father lost consciousness. Yasser called the doctor again. He returned immediately, but also found it difficult to breathe.

Sakr Obeid, a former head of the Kafr Qaddum local council, happened to pass by the Ali house just then after leaving the nearby mosque. He relates that he also had great difficulty breathing.

One has to see for oneself what it’s like in these villages when the IDF unleashes its tear gas. A suffocating, stinging cloud covers everything; the gas insinuates itself into every house. There is nowhere to escape.

Back at Said Ali’s house, Dr. Al-Awt summoned an ambulance, which arrived within minutes and took the elderly man to the Arab Hospital in Nablus.

The medical report, drawn up by two physicians from the emergency room, Dr. Makram Abu Al-Aymon and internist Dr. Bashar Al-Lail, states: “The patient arrived in the ER after inhaling gas. It should be noted that he was elderly and suffered from high blood pressure. He arrived unconscious, with a low pulse, low blood pressure and shortage of breath. After initial treatment he was transferred to intensive care. His condition then deteriorated. His heart stopped beating and his internal organ systems collapsed. Attempts were made to resuscitate him, but finally he was pronounced dead.”

Said Ali died at about 11 P.M. He was buried the next day in the village cemetery.

Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights dispatched a field worker to investigate Said Ali’s death. On the day after he died, in fact, the organization demanded that the office of the IDF military advocate general order the Military Police to look into the circumstances surrounding the event.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office stated, in response to a query from Haaretz: “After receiving a report of claims made in the incident involving the deceased [Said Ali], the office of the military advocate general immediately ordered the criminal investigation department of the Military Police to open an investigation. The purpose: to examine whether there is a connection between IDF activities and the death of said individual.”

As the former Kafr Qaddum council head, Sakr Obeid, told us: “That man, of blessed memory, was the best we had in the village.” We went with out with him to the blocked road, where Obeid showed us an electricity pole beyond which villagers are not permitted to pass. The houses of Kedumim, a huge settlement that continues to expand, loomed at the end of the road that no longer leads anywhere. The settlers’ cars continued to drive by freely.

Mourners outside the house of Said Ali. Credit: Alex Levac