The Most Devastating Phone Call a Palestinian Father Can Get: 'Your Son Is a Martyr, Come Home'

Suspecting a 15-year-old Palestinian boy of stone-throwing, Israeli soldiers pursued him in their jeep. A soldier fired one bullet into the boy's back, killing him.

Khaled Bahar’s photo hangs at his high school in Beit Ummar.
Alex Levac

Location A: A small apricot grove at the northeastern end of the town of Beit Ummar, between Bethlehem and Hebron. Black stains on the straw and soil remain from the clotted blood of the teen who was killed. Stones placed here have made this a memorial; at its center is a soft-drink bottle filled with water. It’s a local tradition: Instead of flowers, water is placed at the death site.

This is where Israel Defense Forces soldiers sped in their armored jeep last Thursday, pursuing an unarmed youth whom they suspected of throwing a stone at them. Here is where they stopped, got out of their vehicle and gave chase on foot, as the teen ran for his life between the apricot trees along the path.

A farmer who was working in a plum grove opposite shouted to a soldier, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” But the soldier paid no heed. He was seemingly determined to teach the boy a lesson, once and for all. He knew, of course, that no harm would befall him if he killed the kid, so why not? He fired one live round from a distance of 20 meters (65 feet) into the teen’s back, killing him. The bullet exited from the chest; a burst of blood splattered his face. He lay dead on the ground here until a Palestinian paramedic covered the body with a blue sheet and the soldiers took it away. Their booty.

Location B: The boys’ high school in Beit Ummar. Second floor, room 1207, 10th grade. The classroom is empty, forlorn. The desks are covered with colorful petals, and white plastic rosettes hang on the walls and the iron door. A deathly silence hangs over the room. The students decided, at their own initiative, not to attend school for three days, in an act of mourning for their dead classmate. Last row, next to the window, fourth desk from the front: the regular seat of the dead youth – also last Thursday, just hours before the soldier killed him. A photograph of the teen is perched on the desk, surrounded by artificial floral wreaths. The flag in the schoolyard flies at half-mast.

Location C: The dead boy’s home. After he was killed, the local council quickly paved the narrow path that descends to the house, whose roof is now adorned with flags of Palestine. A large mourners’ tent, erected next to the family’s meager home, is also covered with images of the dead youth and awaits the thousands who will come to pay their condolences.

For now, the tent is empty; only a few men are reciting midday prayers. The women, among them the bereaved mother, are sitting in the yard, grieving. On Monday, the Simhat Torah holiday, locals waited for the Jews’ celebrations to end so that hopefully they would return the body to the family for burial in the town’s cemetery.

Khaled Bahar’s photo at his high school in Beit Ummar.
Alex Levac

The bereaved father, a construction worker in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood, relates that his son had taken part in a Jewish-Arab soccer project. He was the family’s firstborn.

Khaled Bahar was 15 at the time of his death.

On October 20, Khaled came home from school, ate lunch and asked his father for pocket money. He was given 5 shekels ($1.30). Father and son parted; the father, Bahar al-Bahar, went to pay a condolence call in town and the boy went off, too. Bahar’s wife, Ilham, called to remind him that their other son had a doctor’s appointment. Little Ahmed, who’s 9 (the couple also has two daughters), is disabled due to an injury at birth. Lean and pale, with one dysfunctional arm and slurred speech, he kisses us on both cheeks, as he does every guest. On Thursday, Ahmed got to the clinic on his own, and was met there by his father. The doctor said the boy’s condition was improving.

Growing anxiety

Back out on the street, there were people milling about. There was news that a boy had been wounded in town; people said he was from the Bahar family. Bahar was worried. In the meantime, a rumor spread that the wounded boy’s name was Ahmed Moussa al-Bahar, a relative of theirs, and that he wasn’t wounded but had been killed. Afterward, it was said that the dead youth was the nephew of Yusuf al-Bahar; Khaled Bahar had an uncle by that name.

Anxiety mounted. Finally, a young resident showed the father a photo of the dead youth on his cellphone. The image was already being circulated on Beit Ummar’s social networks. Bahar immediately identified the bleeding teen laying on the ground by the apricot grove, with soldiers standing around him. It was his eldest child. He called his wife: “Your son is a shahid [martyr]. Come home.”

At the apricot grove, the killing site, Abu Hazem – a farmer who was an eyewitness to the incident – told B’Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash that he tried to stop the soldiers from shooting the fleeing boy. Three soldiers got out of the jeep, he says; one ran after the boy and shot him. “He’s dead,” he heard the soldier tell his commander. Hazem’s impression was that the officer was disconcerted by the shooting. The local imam, Muhammad Awad, a B’Tselem volunteer, arrived at the scene quickly and photographed the bleeding body on the ground, with the soldiers standing around it. They tried to chase him off, but he went on taking pictures until the body was covered. The images do not make for easy viewing.

The boys’ high school in Beit Ummar: Khaled’s homeroom teacher, Louei al-Savarana, accompanies us to the empty classroom. Even though Khaled came from a simple, poor home, he was one of the top students, Savarana says. The teacher seems to be in a state of shock. The principal says that Khaled is the fifth student at the school to be killed by IDF soldiers. In 1993, troops killed a youth in the schoolyard.

The house of mourning: Osama Abu Bahar, a relative, sat next to Khaled in school this year. He spends most of his time here now. A piercing sadness hangs over the house; there is nothing militant or threatening. This is a family of peace, one relative says. They have kept as a souvenir the entry permit to Israel that Khaled received on May 19, a one-day permit, in the incomprehensible language of the occupation. It’s a precious item in the family’s reality, and they safeguard it the way one would treasure a certificate of excellence or a gem. Imagine: a one-day permit to enter Israel.

The family calls the organizer of that mythic one-day trip. He tells us, in Hebrew, that it was part of the “Know Your Neighbor” project organized by an Israeli nongovernmental organization called Mifalot Education and Society Enterprises. As part of it, Khaled went to play soccer in one of the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip – the organizer doesn’t know which – together with other Jewish and Palestinian children in mixed teams.

“We are a family of peace,” they mutter again, here in this house of bereavement. Someone says the Israeli media termed Khaled a “terrorist,” and bitter, sad laughter erupts amid the mourning.

Israel Radio reported this week that, according to an army investigation, the soldiers were not in mortal danger when they shot the boy.

In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated, “On October 20, an incident occurred during which a stone thrower was killed near Beit Ummar. The event is under investigation by the Military Police, and upon its conclusion the findings will be transmitted for the examination of the military advocate general. In parallel, a debriefing was conducted in which operational lessons were drawn.”

It’s comforting to know that the IDF draws operational conclusions.