Two Palestinians, From Different Walks of Life, Brought Together in Death at a Checkpoint

One man was the well-to-do owner of a company, the other a poor student. Israeli soldiers killed both of them at a West Bank checkpoint. Why did they die? Was there a connection between them?

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A poster hanging in Al-Jadida, where Ali Abu Maryam resided.
A poster hanging in Al-Jadida, where Ali Abu Maryam resided. Credit: Alex Levac

They were not “from the same village,” as the Naomi Shemer song goes, nor did they have the same iconic forelock, as it continues. In fact, they probably never met. One was a very affluent businessman, propertied and with a family; the other was an abjectly poor student and occasional farmhand.

They lived in two neighboring villages, Zawiya and Al-Jadida, outside Jenin in the northern West Bank. People in Zawiya say it’s possible that the wealthy resident of their village gave the poor worker a lift last Saturday in the rain and cold. People in Al-Jadida believe that they never met – until their deaths – and that the student arrived at the checkpoint in a vehicle carrying laborers.

What is not in doubt is that these two people were killed together, by volleys of live fire unleashed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers last Shabbat morning at the Beka’ot checkpoint – called Hamra by the Palestinians – that abuts the partially annexed Jordan Valley. Rich and poor were unequal in death, too: The soldiers fired a total of 11 rounds into the affluent man but made do with three for the needier one.

Much about the incident is not clear, beyond the oppressive thought that, as in most cases of deaths caused by Israeli security forces in recent months, here too there was no need to shoot to kill, certainly not both men. But the lives of Palestinians continue to be cheap: Their deaths were barely reported in the Israeli media.

Said Abu al-Wafa owned one company that imports and sells food, and another that imports cars from Germany. It’s important for his family to elaborate on his financial situation, to show that their loved one could not possibly have been involved in terrorism.

They bring us to the jam-packed food warehouses belonging to Wafa Brothers, of which Said was the founder and driving spirit. Inside the warehouses, situated not far from one of the brothers’ homes, there are snacks from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, candy from India and China, cooking oil and flour from Egypt, cookies from Belgium and soft drinks from Ramallah. Parked outside are Said’s Mitsubishi Pajero SUV and the new Hyundai he bought his brother-in-law as a present two days before he was killed. His own spacious home is situated in the valley below, amid his olive groves.

This week the courtyard outside the Wafas’ warehouses was converted into a mourning site, with a huge poster of the deceased hanging in the center.

Said was 35, married to Ghadir and the father of Mohammed, 8; Shirin, 6; Darin, 5; and Jaudath, 4. All are now cuddling up to their uncle Shaher, their father’s brother, a lawyer of 30.

Said Abu al-Wafa's family.Credit: Alex Levac

Shaher recounts what happened on Saturday. It was his brother’s day to distribute merchandise in Jericho. Twice a week, on Saturday and Monday, Said would drive there through the Jordan Valley in his 2015 Mercedes van, loaded with food products. The last day of his life was no different.

Said apparently left home around 5 A.M., by himself, as usual. People in the village of Farah, abutting the valley, saw him driving alone. Did he pick up someone on the way? Shaher says it’s possible, though only because of the cold and the heavy rain; his brother did not generally pick up hitchhikers.

Said arrived at Beka’ot around 6. About an hour later, Shaher got a call from the Palestinian security forces asking who was driving the company’s Mercedes, which had stopped at the checkpoint. Shaher set out for there immediately, filled with foreboding. The checkpoint was closed. The Mercedes was parked in the middle of the road, where soldiers usually stand. The only damage seemed to be to the two front windows on both sides, which were shattered.

After Shaher identified himself, the soldiers allowed him to approach the vehicle. Next to it there was a body – that of his brother. Shaher remembers now that he thought to himself that the soldiers had, unusually, behaved respectfully: They had placed the body on a stretcher and covered it with a blanket.

The Shin Bet security men and police officers who were at the site questioned Shaher about the identity of another dead man, whose body he was shown only in the form of a photo on a cell phone. Did he know him? Did his brother know him? Did he work for their company? Shaher replied that he had no idea who the person was. “I know my brother,” he told his interlocutors. “He knew the rules at the checkpoint. I’m positive he did not make a mistake of any kind.”

According to Shaher, a Shin Bet man said they knew his brother was a prominent businessman. “Allah yerhamo,” one officer said. God have mercy on him.

Someone told Shaher that his brother was killed while he was still behind the wheel. The van was standing at exactly the spot where it was supposed to stop when approaching the checkpoint.

About an hour later the family received Said’s body. That’s an important detail, because the IDF typically takes its time when it comes to returning the bodies of terrorists.

Shaher hurried to the home of their elderly mother, Adila, to be with her in the ordeal.

The courtyard is now filling up with mourners, dozens of them. Shaher says he thinks his brother was killed because of something the other dead man did. The body of that man, whom Said apparently did not know, was also returned immediately to his family. But Shaher still has no idea what happened at the Beka’ot checkpoint.

About 15 minutes away from Zawiya is a different village, a different mourners’ tent, a different reality. Here, in Al-Jadida, poverty is rampant. While Said was on his way to Jericho, Ali Abu Maryam, in his early twenties and unmarried, was also heading for the Jordan Valley, where he worked in the fields of herbs owned by the Israeli settlement of Beka’ot. A third-year management student at Al-Quds Open University, he provided for his family as well: His father, Mohammed, has been ill and unemployed for years. Now Mohammed, his features ravaged by illness or grief, mourns his dead son.

The locals dismiss the idea that Ali got a lift with Said; they say he got to work in a vehicle that picked up laborers. These villagers seem to know even less (or are saying less) than the residents of Zawiya about what happened at the checkpoint on Saturday. Mohammed thinks Ali left the house at 4 A.M. and wanted to recite the morning prayers at work. At about 6, a worker called Mohammed to say Ali had been wounded. The caller added that he hadn’t seen what happened, he only heard shots.

The checkpoint has two lanes for vehicles and a fenced-off walkway for workers. What happened there? Did Ali pull a knife? No one has any answers.

An oppressive pall due to the death of a son of this remote village hovers almost palpably over the yard in which dozens of mourners have gathered. Israel Air Force planes slice through the skies, with an earsplitting din.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz this week, in reply to a request for information about the incident: “During the course of a routine security check of a car at the Beka’ot checkpoint, there was a stabbing attempt. The incident is still under investigation, and for that reason, cannot be discussed in detail. When the investigation is complete, its findings will be sent to the office of the military advocate general.”

During the week, Israeli security forces arrived in the middle of the night at the poor dwelling belonging to the Abu Maryam family and, according to the bereaved father, measured and photographed the house, signaling its imminent demolition. The family relates that Ali had just paid his tuition for the next semester, a sure sign he wasn’t planning a terrorist attack. One bullet penetrated his eye and from there entered his brain, they said; the eye had been covered in the photograph we saw. His father says Ali was thinking of becoming a bus driver. Meanwhile, Mohammed adds, no one has told him what happened to his son. Mohammed’s brother, Ali’s uncle, was also killed by Israeli soldiers. Back in 1993.

Later on, at the checkpoint, one of the two lanes was closed and traffic was sparse. Bored-looking soldiers were standing around, seemingly in all innocence, as if two people hadn’t been killed there two days earlier, apparently for no reason.

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