You see your son’s body floating in a puddle of water that’s colored red with his blood, his arms spread to the sides. The puddle is at the bottom of an elevator shaft for vehicles, in an underground parking lot of a new building in south Tel Aviv that father and son were helping to build.
The image of his dead son floating in the red, stagnant water on floor minus-3 will haunt Musa Dib, a plasterer, for all time. Whenever he recalls it – the picture surfaces in his mind relentlessly – tears well up in his eyes, which are already bloodshot from sleeplessness.
No one has yet bothered to tell him exactly what happened to his son, Mohammed, who was working on the ground floor, while Musa himself was working on the fifth floor of the seven-story structure. Five floors separated father and son last Wednesday, that blackest of days. By the time the father rushed down, after hearing shouts, his son was already floating in the elevator shaft.
What actually happened? The Border Police say the young man jumped to his death when the officers entered the construction site to hunt for Palestinians who are in Israel without a permit. But Musa has raised a series of disturbing questions, which at the moment have no answer.
He shows us a photograph of his son’s body: There is a very deep gash in his head, a few scratches on his face. The rest of the body was unscathed, says Musa. For him, that raises the suspicion that Mohammed, 21, didn’t fall from a great height, because that would have left fractures and bruises all over his body. He thinks that something caused his son’s death before the fall. The autopsy that was supposed to be performed, with Musa’s consent, was ultimately not carried out – it’s not completely clear why.
The small village of Shabtin, west of Ramallah. Overhead, planes make their descent into Ben-Gurion International Airport. Musa Dib grew up here, along with his wife, Maryam, and their five daughters and five sons. Mohammed was the youngest. We’re sitting in the yard of the family’s home. Adjacent to it is an unfinished house that Mohammed was building for himself and hopefully a bride, in advance of a future wedding. The plastered walls are his handiwork; his father was teaching him the trade.
In their last conversation, during a breakfast break on that Wednesday morning, Mohammed spoke only about the house he was building. Musa recalls that his son was exuberant and laughed a lot. He was happy. Now the skeleton of the structure next door stands orphaned.
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At 57, Musa has worked as a plasterer in Israel for 40 years. He gets up at 4:30 each morning, gets to work around 6:30 and returns at dusk, regardless of the weather. For the past 12 weeks, he’s been working in a building that’s going up at 110 Herzl Street. Mohammed had worked in construction in Ramallah in the past, and also in the settlement of Alei Zahav. He was denied a permit to work in Israel because of his age and the fact that he is not married.
Musa points out that Mohammed had a “white file” in Israel – he was never arrested or interrogated. He started to work four weeks ago with his father on the street that bears the name of the visionary of the Jewish state. Musa says he wanted to finish training his son as a plasterer and then retire.
During the past month, they would set out for Tel Aviv on Sunday, Musa passing through a checkpoint – and Mohammed entering Israel through one of the many breaches in the separation barrier – and then they would board the No. 111 bus from Modi’in to Tel Aviv. It was the first time they had worked together at the same site. At the end of each day, Musa returned to Shabtin while Mohammed spent the night at the site together with a few other Palestinian workers who also lacked entry permits. While Israelis of his age were out enjoying themselves nearby – this is a bustling and trendy area at night – Mohammed hid in the cold, dark building, not daring to leave. On Thursdays he returned home with his father.
That was his routine in the last weeks of his life. Last week the two only started to work on Monday, because of a minor dispute with their employer. That day, Border Police raided the building and nabbed two workers. Musa says he didn’t know them and has no idea what happened to them. Mohammed managed to hide. After the officers left, Musa decided that the two of them would go home: The Israeli election was being held the next day, and he was apprehensive that the police would come back.
Musa collected his tools and he and Mohammed went home, returning to work on Wednesday, the day after the election. After having coffee, they set to work, Musa on the fifth floor, Mohammed operating a plaster-cement machine, a type of mixer, on the ground floor. About 11 A.M., they met to eat together and had the lively conversation mentioned by Musa. Then, about half an hour later, Musa suddenly heard cries of “Shurta, shurta!” – “Police, police!” in Arabic. Fear gripped him.
“The first thing I thought about was my boy,” he tells us. “I took the phone and called Mohammed. He didn’t answer. I was frightened, I felt my body go weak. I laid down the pipe I was holding and ran downstairs fast. I got to the place where Mohammed’s machine was – and he wasn’t there.”
By then the site was teeming with police officers and an ambulance had arrived on the scene. Everyone hurried down to the parking area below, to floor minus-3, the lowest level in the building. Musa rushed down with all the others. On the way he asked what happened and was told that a worker had fallen into the shaft. He kept running, somehow, even though his legs were almost buckling beneath him. “I said to myself: ‘Inshallah, Mohammed got away.’”
At the minus-2 level Musa ran into the contractor, Rafi Shapira, who told him, he recalls, “Musa, it’s not your son. It’s not our worker.” Musa insisted on viewing the body. The police tried to stop him, but he forced his way through. “And then I shouted: ‘My son, my son!’”
One of the police officers – Musa thinks his name was Jawad – hugged him tight to his chest and led him up to the ground floor. In a daze, Musa called his brothers and his sons. “Mohammed fell and died,” he told them. “I saw Mohammed in the water, like this,” he relates now, demonstrating his son’s position, flat on his stomach, arms out to the sides.
“And all around was full of blood, and Mohammed like this ...” – now Musa can no longer contain his weeping.
The officers told him he needed to go to the police station in south Tel Aviv for questioning. Mohammed's body was placed next to the shaft; his brothers, who had by this time reached the site, were not allowed to see it. At the station, Musa was asked – apparently by personnel from the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers – about the work he was doing and about Mohammed. He was asked to sign a form to release the body to the National Center of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir in Tel Aviv, for a CT. A female police officer gave him Mohammed’s cellphone and ID card, which immediately made Musa deeply suspicious: How could it be that even though the body had been floating in the bloodied water, the phone and the ID card were dry and unstained?
He started to shout in the police station: “A phone with no blood? A phone with no blood? How can it be?” Finally, Musa’s brother, who is also named Mohammed, calmed him down. Musa suspected that perhaps his son had been arrested before his death, and the phone and the ID card had been taken from him – although this would have contradicted the account of the Border Police, according to which the officers who gave chase had had no contact with his son.
“You killed him,” he says now amid his sobs, speaking in the plural form.
Afterward the family went to Abu Kabir, and Musa was again summoned back to the police station, this time to sign a release for an autopsy. He says the female police officer told him that the CT had been “grave.” He had no strength left at that point. He was threatened, he says now, to the effect that he would not get his son's body back unless he signed the autopsy release. He was promised that it wouldn’t take more than two, three hours.
A few hours later Musa decided to go home to his village and return the next day. The contractor, Rafi Shapira, took him to a café for breakfast in the morning, and then he went back to Abu Kabir. Musa and the family were now allowed to go in to see the body, two at a time. He noticed the deep gash on the head, but Mohammed's body looked otherwise unhurt. That’s not what someone looks like after a fall of three floors, Musa thought.
“We were told he fell into the shaft. How did he fall all the way down if not even one finger was broken? He doesn’t have a scratch. Only on his face. I want to understand. Something is suspicious. Something doesn’t make sense here. We had someone in the village who fell off a ladder and had seven fractures, and my son has no fractures. I don’t understand it.”
No autopsy was performed; Musa requested his son’s body. Again he had to go to the police station, for the officers to authorize the forensic institute to release Mohammed’s body. At midday on Thursday, the body was brought to Shabtin and interred.
“All through the years, I wished all my friends in Israel a happy Passover: to Nati from [Kibbutz] Givat Brenner, to Ofir from Ashkelon, to Dudi from Aseret, to Ami and to Nissim and to Ilan and Yael from near Aseret – a happy holiday to them all. And this is what I was given on the holiday. My son went out to make a living [and died]. I want the whole people of Israel to help me find out the reason for his killing. I want everyone’s help. I have to know what happened to my son.”
The Israel Police issued the following statement on Wednesday, some hours after the incident, to Haaretz: “During activity by Border Police fighters of the Israel Police to locate persons illegally in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a force arrived earlier today at a construction site in the city. As the force arrived, one of the workers noticed them and began running, and in the course of the fighters’ pursuit of him at the site, he apparently jumped into a shaft dozens of meters deep in an attempt to escape.
“The fighters, who administered first aid, summoned the medical personnel, who pronounced [the man] dead.
“The illegal worker was from the Ramallah area, in his 20s.”
In reply to the question of why no post-mortem was performed on the body despite the family’s consent, the Justice Ministry unit that investigates the police told Haaretz correspondent Bar Peleg, who arrived on the scene shortly after the incident: “The [Justice Ministry] department that investigates officers arrived at the scene of the incident. A preliminary examination did not give rise to suspicion of a criminal offense by a police officer, and accordingly, the police have continued to deal with the event.”
At 110 Herzl Street, the skeleton of the intimidating building being erected by Shapira Properties, seven stories above ground and three more below, is draped in dark fabric. A note affixed to the fence informs passersby that a “safety order for the cessation of work” was issued by the Labor Ministry. The site foreman’s name has been erased mysteriously from the list of those in charge at the construction site. Entry is forbidden.
Behind the sealed-off fence is the descent to the underground parking area, the site of the shaft of death, which was apparently not properly closed off or safeguarded as required. With it is also concealed the truth about what happened here last Wednesday, when Border Police personnel showed up to hunt downtrodden construction workers in a special operation ahead of Passover – the festival of freedom.