'We're Not a Nation of Terrorists. We're Only Trying to Defend Our Country'

Friends and family describe Haitham Saada as a smart and gentle boy – and now a martyr, too. What led up to the Palestinian 14-year-old's death by IDF gunfire one Friday afternoon? His loved ones may never find out.

Haitham Saada's schoolmates stream into the banquet hall in the town of Halhul, north of Hebron.
Alex Levac

He’d been sitting next to us but hadn’t said a word. A young boy, almost a child, albeit with the first inklings of a mustache and sad blue eyes. He asked us not to identify him by name. M., as we’ll call him, was a classmate of the deceased and wanted to tell us a few things about him. He had picked up his fine English from the many cartoons he’d watched in his earlier childhood. But the movie that sticks most in his mind, and apparently not by chance, is “Kingdom of Heaven,” about the Crusader period. The bereaved father suddenly interjects, “Haitham also spoke English like that.”

M. was in the same ninth-grade class as Haitham Saada, who is now dead. “They took what was most precious to us, they took Haitham,” the boy whispered to us. “He was like a brother to us. We loved him more than our souls. He was the smartest boy and the best boy at school.”

We are in a handsome new banquet hall in the town of Halhul, north of Hebron, its walls plastered with large, seemingly numberless memorial posters. These are the days of mourning for Haitham. It’s been a long time since we saw such a sea of commemorative posters.

In dozens of stores at the entrance to the town, Israel’s junk is on display for sale: old sinks, washing machines and furniture thrown out by Israelis.

As has become customary for us, in the houses of the dead in recent months, the mourners receive us with a mixture of hostility, suspicion, loathing and some glimmers of respect. The faces of the young people are afire with rage – most have never encountered an unarmed Israeli before – but the older people, especially those who in the past worked in Israel, are respectful to the uninvited guests.

Haitham was not yet 15 when he died. His average grade in school this year was 87. In the memorial photos he wears a dark kaffiyeh on his head. He was the firstborn child and only son of his parents; there are three younger sisters. His father, Ismail, 43, a construction worker in Kiryat Gat, looks as though he has not yet absorbed what happened. A crooked smile occasionally crosses his lips as he recounts the events of his Black Friday.

On that day, exactly a week ago, father and son attended the afternoon prayers at the mosque. Hundreds of people packed the building. Ismail, fingering a chain of amber beads as he speaks to us, had arranged to meet with Haitham after the service, but couldn’t find him and went home. Not long afterward, he heard on television that someone had been killed on Highway 60, not far from the entrance to the town. The thought that it might be his only beloved son did even not cross his mind. Haitham, he says now, would never have become mixed up in “things like that.”

The afternoon droned, on but Haitham did not return home. His father started to call the local clinics and hospitals. Finally he drove to Al-Ahli, the central hospital in Hebron. “It was only when I saw the body with my own eyes that I understood that Haitham had been killed. It was a terrible shock,” says Ismail, who recalls seeing the bullet wounds.

Israeli security forces in a military ambulance stand next to a stretcher carrying the body of Haitham al-Baw, as they hand over the body to members of the Palestinian Red Crescent in the village of Halhul north of Hebron, February 5, 2016.
AFP

Mutaz Elbu, a tall young, male nurse at the hospital, who is paying a mourner’s visit, saw the body and read the medical report. Two bullets had struck Haitham, he says. One struck the back of his elbow; the other penetrated his back, sliced through his chest and lungs, continued to his throat and temple, and wreaked destruction in his mouth. The boy apparently died instantly.

The soldiers who were present took his body to an army base and then handed it over to the Palestinians, following intervention by the mayor of Halhul. Other than Haitham’s younger cousin, Wajdi, who was also in his class and was with him when he died, and the soldiers, of course, there are no eyewitnesses who can relate what happened and why Haitham was shot and killed. Wajdi was arrested on the spot and is still incarcerated in Ofer Camp, near Ramallah. He has not been allowed visitors.

The event occurred along Highway 60, the major thoroughfare of the West Bank, a few hundred meters north of the main entrance to Halhul, about two kilometers from the mosque in which Haitham recited his last prayers. The two cousins, Haitham and Wajdi, had apparently walked along the side of the road, behind a safety railing. The soldiers were probably lying in ambush in the undergrowth.

Was Haitham really about to throw a Molotov cocktail at the road, as the Israel Defense Forces said in the immediate aftermath of the incident? Did he actually manage to throw it? Is it enough for a boy to intend to throw a firebomb to shoot at him with an intent to kill?

Ismail is in agony because no one has told him what happened to his son; he would at least like to know the details but probably, to his last day, he never will. There are many other Palestinian families these days who don’t always know the circumstances of their loved one’s death. Was he really shot for no reason? Says Ismail, “I do not know anything. No one spoke to me. I am certain he did not endanger anyone. He was a boy and he had no training to attack people.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz this week that the army has opened an investigation into the incident.

Back at the banquet hall, another school friend of Haitham’s has taken the stage to read a flowery eulogy that he wrote. “Allahu akbar. Ya shahid. Allahu akbar. Ya shahid.” (God is great, O martyr). “We shall receive our victory in blood,” he went on. “This is our land and we shall never relinquish it.”

A kaffiyeh is draped over the speaker’s shoulders and he is visibly distraught. Maybe the next assailant has just been born. Now dozens of Haitham’s schoolmates, possibly everyone from his grade, stream into the hall after their day at school.

M., the other friend, continues his whispered comments to us: “Islam is not terror. We are the true Islam and we are not looking to kill people. We are not a nation of terrorists. We are not ISIS. We are only trying to defend our country. We have lived in it for hundreds of years and we will not abandon it. We will stay here – we, our children and our grandchildren.

“Haitham died for his country,” he continues. “He was a boy and they killed him because they wanted to kill. There was no other reason to kill him. They have already killed 180 people in the last few months. Why? Why? And almost two years ago in Gaza they killed more than 2,000 people and hundreds of children, only because they were Palestinians.

“Palestine will be liberated. It was free in the past and it will be free in the future. Haitham’s life did not end for nothing. It ended because of his love for his country. I know him very well; he is not someone who would throw a firebomb. Once I hurt him by accident and he cried. I apologized and that was the end of it. He was one of the most gentle children I ever met in my life. He was the best of them all. And I am sure they shot him for no reason.

“Last Friday afternoon I read on Facebook that he was killed and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I lay down on my bed and started to cry. I was in shock. At the funeral, I kissed his face. It was more beautiful than the moon. He went up to Paradise. Only write, please, the real story about Haitham.”

The words of M., not yet 15, the same age as Haitham Saada.