Israeli Troops 'Were Out to Kill,' Says Family of Palestinian Rock Thrower Shot Dead by Sniper

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The spot where Muhammad Kanaan was killed.
The spot where Muhammad Kanaan was killed.Credit: Alex Levac

Hearing that soldiers had entered his town, Muhammad Kanaan rushed to join the young people who greeted the troops with stones. “He thought it was his duty,” his bereaved brother, Abed, says sadly. “He always went first and kept everyone away from the site.”

Another brother, Sufian, 16, wanders about the house in quasi-camouflage pants and a black T-shirt. Two dog tags are hanging around his neck, one with a photo of his dead brother, Muhammad; on the other, a photo of his imprisoned brother, Hamza.

From his parents’ bedroom one can see the foundations Muhammad laid for his house, with a few tangled iron rods thrusting up from the cast concrete. That house will not be built, certainly not for its original purpose. It’s become a kind of mute monument to the dead son.

A makeshift memorial has been created at the spot where an Israel Defense Forces soldier shot him on July 24 with live ammunition from a distance of a few dozen meters, and he fell to the ground, bleeding from the head. It consists of a flower pot set in the shadow of a fig tree, with pottery shards arranged around it in a circle. Muhammad’s picture is pasted to the concrete wall of the house in whose yard he was killed, and below it a handwritten inscription in Arabic: “Rest in peace. You are a hero. You fought for the future and now you are in heaven.” In Hizma, located northeast of Jerusalem, Kanaan is viewed as a shahid, a holy martyr, who fell in the line of duty in defense of his hometown. Around here there’s no other way to put it.

The site where he was killed looks more like a full-fledged battleground than an arena for “riots” and “disturbances.” Kanaan was killed in the yard of a house at the edge of town, on a hill. The soldiers climbed up on foot and hid behind another house, on the slope. A broad, empty rock-strewn valley separates Hizma from the settlement of Adam, which is perched on the ridge across the way to the northeast; the main road winds its way below, hundreds of meters from where Kanaan was killed. No stone he threw could have reached the road and endangered the safety of drivers.

He was probably shot from a distance of about 30 meters by a sniper, firing upward from the slope where the soldiers were concealed, toward the summit on which the young people were gathered. A single live round slammed into Kanaan’s head, leaving him no chance of survival. Hizma residents are convinced that the soldiers came with the express purpose of killing one of the town’s young people, in the wake of the frequent incidents of stone throwing at cars on the road, a phenomenon that intensified during the Al-Aqsa crisis of recent weeks. Why was Kanaan singled out? Because he was the tallest and was positioned in the front row of the stone throwers, his friends say.

Now a yellow iron gate seals off the entrance to Hizma, in the direction from which the soldiers invaded; the town is accessible only from the other side. This week soldiers guarded that gate and, in what has long since become routine, armored military jeeps hurtled through the town as if their passengers owned the place. Kanaan’s freshly dug grave is situated at the far end of the local cemetery, a few steps away from where he fell. The bloodstains in the shade of the fig tree and the pomegranate tree are still visible.

Muhammad Kanaan's room.Credit: Alex Levac

He was 28 when he was killed, the same age as his cousin Khaider Kanaan was when he was killed, in 2001, when settlers opened fire on his car, in front of his father, who was also in the car. Khaider’s bereaved father, Jadua, accompanies us to the home of his brother, the newly bereaved father, Fathi. Fathi Kanaan, 55, is a truck driver employed by the Palestinian Authority’s public works department. He and his wife, Ne’ima, have nine children – Muhammad was the eldest.

Hizma is a large town that was split in two and in large part severed from its mother city, Al-Quds – Jerusalem – by the separation barrier, which cut off the townsfolk from their places of work. Most of the young people are now unemployed, living just five minutes away from Jerusalem but unable to get there, not even for Friday prayers in the city that offers freedom of worship to followers of all faiths. A poster in Muhammad Kanaan’s memory shows him with Al-Aqsa in the background, but it’s a photomontage. Like all his friends, Kanaan hadn’t been able to enter Jerusalem for years. He worked as a construction worker in nearby Anata, and was not married.

He’d been arrested only once, and sentenced to four months in prison for disturbing the peace and throwing stones. That was about five years ago. Now the men of the family are sitting on the balcony, with the women inside, sitting on the floor of the guest room, below a huge memorial poster hanging on the wall.

On July 24, Muhammad was working at a friend’s plant nursery, after the Anata construction job had come to an end. He got home in the afternoon, showered and was sitting on the balcony we’re sitting on now, when a friend called to say that soldiers were climbing up the hill on their way into town. Kanaan got into his car and sped to the site, on the other side of Hizma. The car, a blue Ford Focus, is parked outside the house now, draped with flags and mourning posters.

The battle of stones against the soldiers lasted about an hour and a half, until witnesses – whose testimony was collected by Amer Aruri, the East Jerusalem field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem – saw a soldier aim his rifle at Kanaan. There were a few dozen stone throwers on the top of the hill and 11 soldiers below, according to the witnesses.

Kanaan collapsed instantly after he was shot. On the balcony of his house, his brother, Abed, heard that Muhammad had suffered a head wound. He ran all the way across town to where his brother lay. He ran barefoot, he says now, as though possessed, and covered the distance in a few minutes. When he arrived he saw his brother lying on the ground, blood seeping from his head. “I went crazy,” he says, in Hebrew. “I went crazy.”

Abed picked up his dying brother and carried him quickly to the local health clinic. There the bleeding from his head was stanched, and about a quarter of an hour later a Palestinian ambulance took him to the Government Hospital in Ramallah. The soldiers hurried away without proffering first aid to the man they’d wounded.

“Why did they shoot him in the head? Why not in the legs?” It’s the standard question of bereaved Palestinian parents, this time asked by Fathi, who adds, “And why with live fire? Wound him and then arrest him. But the soldiers wanted to kill him. They wanted to kill someone in Hizma.”

Eye witnesses told the family that the soldiers hadn’t used any weapons that day other than lethal live ammunition. Not rubber-coated bullets, not stun grenades and not tear-gas grenades.

When Fathi got to the hospital in Ramallah, he was told that his son was in critical condition. Muhammad never woke up: He died four days after being shot and was buried the following day in the cemetery at the far end of Hizma.

At first, Israeli sources claimed that Kanaan had been killed during internal clashes that erupted in Hizma. This week, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz: “On July 24, 2017, some 30 Palestinians were involved in violent disturbances in the village of Hizma. After they set fire to tires and threw stones, IDF troops responded with tear gas and shots fired into the air. The shots were fired in the air at 5:40 P.M. According to information received by the army, Muhammad Kanaan arrived at the hospital at 4:10 P.M., in serious condition, and was brought to the operating room. Therefore, because there was no other activity by our forces in Hizma that day, there could be no connection between IDF activity and the death of Kanaan.”

The IDF statement is contradicted by the official medical report from the Ramallah Government Hospital, of which Haaretz received a copy. That report, signed by Dr. Wafa Shehadeh, states that Kanaan was admitted by the hospital at 7:07 P.M., and not at the time claimed by the army.

Kanaan had raised pigeons on the roof of his house. Every day after work he would go there to feed dozens of birds and give them water, sitting below the steel sunshade he’d installed, sometimes for hours. We climbed up to the roof. The pigeons cooed, each in a tin box in a large cage. It was afternoon when we visited, and Fathi told us that in the evening many more birds would return home.

Next to the dovecote is the place where Kanaan would chill out in the evenings: plastic chairs, a pleasant breeze, a view of a mosque with a gilded minaret and of settlements on almost every hill – Adam and Pisgat Ze’ev – and the separation fence snaking between them. Also visible from here is a chop shop, one of the biggest in the West Bank.

In Kanaan’s room below is his orphaned bed, with the image of a girl on the pinkish bedcover. IDF soldiers have raided this house several times in recent years, always in the dead of night. Sometimes soldiers sit on the street below the house, just to demonstrate their presence. Four months ago, they came to arrest Hamza, Muhammad’s 18-year-old brother, and he’s been in detention since, awaiting trial on a charge of stone throwing. Hamza learned from the news he saw on the prison television that his brother had been killed. He had worked with him on the construction project in Anata.

The very idea that he would be allowed to attend his brother’s funeral, or at least observe the mourning days at home, is of course totally delusory in the reality of the Israeli occupation.

Muhammad’s friends have installed a new street sign in the alley leading to the family’s house: Street of the Shahid Muhammad Kanaan. His picture is attached to the sign.

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