Gideon Levy

Were These Palestinian Sisters, Ages 13-23, Planning a Hebron Stabbing Attack?

The three Abu-Sall sisters are in jail after the youngest was found in possession of a knife near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A visit to the bare-bones refugee-camp home of a family of 14

Maisoun and Masalem Abu-Sall.
\ Alex Levac

The house is stark. A typical refugee home, some of whose walls are tiled, the rooms are barren and the cold is fierce. It has been emptied of a number of its residents. Three of the girls who live here were arrested by Israeli security forces on January 11 next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. A knife was found in one of the girl’s bags at the checkpoint; the other two sisters apparently had thrown theirs away before their arrival. Currently negotiations are underway with regard to the punishment to be meted out to the youngest, Razan Abu-Sall, 13. The family says that defense attorneys have proposed a deal whereby she will serve a four-month jail term and pay a fine of 2,500 shekels ($730), but no decision has been reached and the court is due to discuss the subject again on Sunday. Her sisters, Ruah, 17, and Nivin, 23, have been ordered to remain in custody until their trials.

On Monday, when we arrived at the Abu-Salls’ home, deep inside the Al-Arroun refugee camp between Bethlehem and Hebron, there were only two children, in this family of 12 siblings, on hand: Rida, 16, and her brother, 9-year-old Ibrahim. Their parents, Maisoun and Masalem, both 44, were in Hebron, at the offices of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, trying to get the money to pay the fine levied on their youngest daughter. But to no avail: The PPC no longer pays fines, they were told.

Rida and Ibrahim hosted us in their bone-chillingly cold house. The two cheerful and delightful children forgot to tell us at first that their brother, Karim, is also in prison. Afterward, they remembered. Karim, who’s almost 20, has spent six years of his life in Israeli prisons, incarcerated almost nonstop since first being arrested when he was 13. Right now, he’s serving a 28-month jail term for throwing stones and disrupting the public order. The children also didn’t know where their sisters were being held.

Another sister, Hala, who’s 20 and married, also served a jail term a few years ago, of 20 months, and was fined 2,000 shekels: A knife had been found in her possession at the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Is this a family of female knifers? What were the three sisters thinking when they set off for the same site with knives? What did they intend to do? Not all these questions were answered. According to one relative, however, the three headed for the checkpoint with knives in order to be arrested, not to stab anyone. There are apparently some problems at home. The only question is why the two older ones took the little one with them. But the family denies that any of the girls had knives.

Rida, barefooted, was washing the floors when we arrived. She hasn’t attended school since seventh grade, and instead helps her mother with the household chores. Ibrahim had come home early from school. Every so often he huddled with his big sister, whispered something in her ear and laughed. The two have probably never before seen unarmed Israelis, certainly not in their home. Until their three sisters were arrested, the 10 children who usually live here slept in one room on three mattresses that are laid on the floor at night and stacked in a corner in the morning. Now, the mattresses are a bit roomier.

Other than the mattresses and a doorless closet, there is nothing in the room in which we're sitting. The walls are splotched. Furniture is scarce in the rest of the house, too. Asked if he misses his siblings, Ibrahim smiles mischievously and lapses into an embarrassed silence. He responds with similar awkwardness when asked what he ate today and the day before.

There’s no way that two decrepit coil heaters can overcome the intense cold that fills the high-ceilinged rooms – which is possibly why they were turned off when we arrived. “What – you want us to die?” Rida says when we ask her whether the heaters are left off at night, too. The two oldest daughters are married, and the others live at home.

The family is originally from the village of Iraq al-Manshiya, on whose ruins the Kiryat Gat industrial zone in the southern part of Israel now stands. The family’s surname, Abu-Sall, comes from one of their forebears, a legendary figure who was said to have been extremely pious.

Masalem, the father, has been unemployed since he was injured two years ago in an accident at the stone-cutting business in nearby Beit Fajar where he was employed. His face is scarred from a road accident. The family lives off charity and welfare allocations. The latter were recently cut. The Palestinian Ministry of Social Development formerly paid them 1,800 shekels (currently $525) for three months, but that has been slashed to 750 shekels. Additionally, UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, pays the family 120 shekels per capita every three months, but now – in the wake of the U.S. decision to slash its contribution to that agency – that allocation is also in danger.

In the meantime, while we are still visiting, another daughter, Sara, comes home: a sweet girl in the second grade, in her striped school uniform, with a schoolbag on her back and brown hat on her head.

On Thursday morning, two weeks ago, Nivin, Ruah and Razan left home around 10 o’clock, saying they were going to Hebron to buy shoes. Toward evening, the family learned by way of a television report that they’d been arrested by Israeli troops. Subsequently, they got a phone call from an Israeli, probably a Shin Bet security service agent, who told them that the sisters were in custody and that Razan’s trial would start the following Sunday.

Nine-year-old Ibrahim: “The same thing happened that always happens. The army arrests children that they suspect have come to stab someone. But my sisters weren’t going to stab anyone.”

The sisters had gone to the Old City of Hebron – to what’s called the H2 quarter, most of whose Palestinian residents were forced out of, because of the large settler presence there – where shoes are cheaper. More than that, the family doesn’t know or, perhaps, isn’t telling us. Was there a conspiracy by the three sisters to perpetrate a stabbing together?

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz this week: “On January 11, three Palestinian sisters were detained at the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, after it was discovered during the security check that one of them was carrying a knife. An investigation revealed that they had arrived there with the aim of carrying out a stabbing attack against the security forces, and that two of them had thrown away the knives they had in their possession for carrying out the attack before arriving at the security check. Indictments against all three were submitted to a military court. The two minors will stand trial at a military court for juveniles. Proceedings against all of them are still underway.”

Leaving the house in the refugee camp, we drove to Hebron, to meet with the children’s parents as they left the PPC offices.

Masalem: “I have a daughter named Razan. She’s a schoolgirl. She was sentenced to four months in prison. She was arrested on Thursday, and by Sunday she’d already been convicted. She is now losing a year of school; next year she will repeat the grade. Now I have to pay a fine of 2,500 shekels, and I don’t have it. I will not be able to pay that sum. We are a family of 14 souls.”

Karim, the son who was fined 5,000 shekels in addition to being sentenced to jail, still has six months to serve. They haven’t yet paid his fine, either. Actually, Karim turns out to be a nickname; his real name is Sameh.

Maisoun, the mother, tells us that she saw the knives and the bags in which they were found on television, but claims they didn’t belong to her daughters. “We don’t have knives like that in the house,” she says.

According to their lawyer, if Razan’s fine isn’t paid, she will spend another month in prison for each unpaid 1,000 shekels. It goes without saying that her interrogation was not carried out in her parents’ presence, as Israeli law stipulates.

Data collected by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem show that, as of last November, Israel was holding 313 Palestinian minors in custody; about 180 of them have been remanded until the conclusion of proceedings against them – imprisoned even before being convicted.

Last Sunday, in the military courtroom of Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, Maisoun saw her youngest daughter for the first time in two weeks. Razan was handcuffed and her feet were shackled when she entered the courtroom. Her mother tells us that she looked ill and her face was swollen. The child cried when she heard she was not being released to go home, and a female prison guard yanked her out of the courtroom by force.