'The War Is Over - and Hassan Is Dead'

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A memorial poster for Hassan Ashour. His friend suggested they leave the demonstration, but Hassan continued to throw stones.Credit: Alex Levac

On the day after his death, his pen pal in the Gaza Strip, Abdullah, wrote on his Facebook page: “Are you joking? You’re really joking. Please, please, tell me it’s not true. God … oh, God … oh, God. Don’t tell me Hassan was killed. Please tell me it’s a mistake.”

But it was no mistake. Hassan’s pen pal, with whom he corresponded throughout Operation Protective Edge via Facebook, finally had to come to terms with the fact that Hassan had been killed – far from the killing fields in the Strip. Another friend wrote Hassan, “I’m so happy that there is a cease-fire and the war is over” – to which the bereaved family replied, a few days later: “The war is over – and Hassan is dead.”

Hassan was seriously wounded on Friday, August 22, and died three days later, on the eve of the cease-fire. He was 16, the only son among the five children of Hazem, a tailor, and Nasrin, a kindergarten teacher. About to enter 11th grade, Hassan spent the summer working in a restaurant in Nablus, his hometown, as a junior waiter, to help with the family’s livelihood.

Their home is perched on the side of Mount Gerizim. Access to it, between a barbershop and a metalworking shop, is achieved via a staircase, recalling the houses in Haifa’s Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood in the old days. On the way up, the visitor passes memorial posters printed with three photographs of Hassan at different ages.

At home, Hassan’s mother’s face is sallow and her forehead is wrinkled below the white kerchief that covers her head. This is a religiously observant home.

Hassan attended Al-Kindi School in the center of Nablus, and he was a member of the school’s soccer team. He worked in the restaurant during the last school year, too, in the afternoon. The images of the war in Gaza shook him, as they did most of his peers in the West Bank, and he spent most of his spare time glued to the television screen. The TV is now tuned to a channel that broadcasts verses from the Koran nonstop.

His parents say they protected Hassan, their only son, the apple of their eye. On the evening before his death he sat on the verandah with cousins and took a selfie, harrowing in retrospect. He asked both his mother and one of his cousins to wake him at seven o’clock the next morning. When Nasrin woke him before leaving the house, he told her that he was going to work, as usual.

Friday is a short day; work ends at 4 P.M. He didn’t tell his mother what his plans were after that. She usually calls him in the afternoon, but didn’t do so that day. Before leaving, she requested only that he come home after work in order to organize his schoolbag, his books and his clothes for the start of the new school year, which in the West Bank was to begin two days later, on August 24. Hassan told her not to worry and asked if he could borrow her bandana. Now she says this should have made her suspicious, since demonstrators usually cover their faces with bandanas; she would not have allowed him to go to the protest.

After finishing up at the restaurant, Hassan called two friends and suggested that they go together to a demonstration against the war in Gaza. One of the friends, Mohammed Ashour, 15, is sitting with us now in the house of mourning.

From the morning of that fateful day, cars carrying loudspeakers drove around Nablus, urging people to come to the Beit Furik checkpoint, at the city’s eastern exit, to take part in the protest. In the afternoon, cars picked up people who wanted to join the demonstration and drove them to the site. Hassan and his two friends took a taxi in the direction of the Balata refugee camp, from where they proceeded on foot.

Israel Defense Forces troops – in six jeeps – deployed in advance about a kilometer and a half from the checkpoint. Four soldiers emerged from one of the vehicles and fired tear-gas grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets at the demonstrators, who were throwing stones at them. The other soldiers remained inside their armored vehicles. About 50 meters separated the soldiers and the demonstrators. Hassan was one of the stone throwers.

When the protest became stormier, Mohammed, Hassan’s friend, suggested that they go home. Hassan told Mohammed that he could go if he wanted. Hassan stayed and went on throwing stones at the soldiers. At its peak, the demonstration numbered about 200 people, but after a time, when the soldiers began firing live rounds, only a few dozen young people remained. Only four continued to throw stones, according to testimonies, and Hassan was one of them.

Aiming their fire at the demonstrators’ legs, the soldiers shot seven of them, inflicting light to moderate wounds. At about 6:45 P.M., one soldier fired a single live round, from a distance of approximately 50 meters, directly into Hassan’s chest. He managed to stagger toward a Palestinian ambulance that was parked about 30 meters away, as is usually the case in West Bank demonstrations. Stripping off his shirt, he asked the paramedic, “What hit me? A nail?”

The next day, the paramedic who had been standing next to the ambulance told Salma a-Deb’i, a fieldworker for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who was investigating the event, that he saw at once that the wound was worse than Hassan thought. He got him into the ambulance, and almost immediately Hassan collapsed and lost consciousness.

The bullet had hit a major artery that connects to the liver, causing massive internal bleeding. By the time Hassan reached Rafidia Hospital in the city, his blood pressure was low and his pulse weak. Hassan underwent a five-hour operation in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding and repair the artery. His parents rushed to the hospital but were not allowed to see him.

The next day, Saturday, the loudspeakers of the city’s mosques urged people to donate blood for Hassan. According to the hospital report, he received 16 units of blood, 10 units of plasma and 10 units of blood platelets. But the efforts were in vain. Hassan died at 8:30 Monday morning, after his internal systems failed, one after another. He was buried that afternoon in the Nablus cemetery.

In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit provided the following statement this week: “The forces were present at the site because of a violent disturbance. The subject is being examined by the relevant personnel, after which the findings will be conveyed to the Military Advocate General for consideration.”

Hassan’s parents are still visibly shattered by the tragedy. His sister, Sundus, a 14-year-old in the ninth grade, wearing a huge head covering that cloaks almost her whole body, also still looks stunned. She was Hassan’s confidante – the only person in the family who read what he wrote on Facebook. The images of the devastation in Gaza, she says, caused her brother great suffering.