With an Israeli Soldier's Knee on His Neck, This 61-year-old Palestinian Remembered George Floyd

'You want to breathe and you can’t. For a few seconds I couldn’t breathe at all,' says Khairi Hanoun, a veteran anti-occupation protester who was beaten and choked by an Israeli soldier at a demonstration

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Khairi Hanoun reenacts the violent incident, at his home this week.
Khairi Hanoun reenacts the violent incident, at his home this week.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

You need to see both clips. They leave no room for doubt: An Israel Defense Forces officer brutally assaults an elderly demonstrator who is walking with a cane and carrying a Palestine flag. The officer hurls the man to the ground and hits him. The demonstrator’s keffiyeh falls off, his head is exposed – and then the officer pushes his knee down on the man’s neck and begins to suffocate him, in what appears like a replay of the image of the suffocation of George Floyd.

The officer then cuffs the man’s hands behind his back and then he and some other soldiers pick him up, shackled, and try to take him away. They jostle the elderly man this way and that, as other protesters try to free him and explain to them that he’s old, until the soldiers relent and let go.

The demonstrators free him and hustle him into a Palestinian Authority vehicle, to extricate him from the scene. But then an enraged IDF officer attacks the vehicle, smashes the front window with his rifle butt and pulls out the driver and the elderly man, all the while shouting at them.

These repulsive images, captured on September 1 in the West Bank village of Shufa, were disseminated far and wide, largely because of their resemblance to the killing of George Floyd by police in a botched arrest operation in Minneapolis this past May. In the more recent case, the suffocation did not cause death, fortunately. And naturally, no public storm ensued in Israel, where no “Palestinian lives matter” organization has ever been formed.

An IDF soldier pins Khairi Hanoun to the ground with his knee on his neck, in Shufa.
An IDF soldier pins Khairi Hanoun to the ground with his knee on his neck, in Shufa.Credit: AFP

The victim of the violence was Khairi Hanoun, a colorful, unconventional figure in the Palestinian movement of resistance to the occupation. He greets us in the yard of his home in the West Bank town of Anabta, amid pomegranate and olive trees – not far from the village of Shufa, where the demonstration in which he was assaulted occurred. He is attired in in the traditional dress he always wears at demonstrations. Something he inherited from his father, it’s called a dimaya, or qumbaz; it has a wide leather belt or sash and it evokes the Palestinian fighters of 1948. A Palestinian flag stands in the corner of the large yard, which also contains a dovecote and a tabun, a clay oven.

We’ve arrived in the company of Hanoun’s old friend Abdulkarim Sadi, field researcher of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem in the Tulkarm area. Hanoun is an odd bird in the Palestinian resistance not only because of his age – he’s 61 – but mainly because of his political affiliation: He’s a member of al-Saiqa, the Palestinian arm of the Syrian Ba’ath Party, which numbers only a handful of activists and supporters in the territories.

In the evenings Hanoun, who has one son and four daughters, generally works at his falafel stand in Anabta, but his days are spent on the struggle against the occupation, by participation in nonviolent protests and other activities. He spent eight-and-a-half years of his life in prison in Israel, on various charges, including planting a bomb (which did not explode) on a train in Netanya in 1979. For that, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he was released early in the so-called “Jibril deal” in 1985. Following that were several other arrests leading to Hanoun’s being placed in administrative detention (without any trial), each time for several months. The last time he was incarcerated was in 2010, for two months of administrative detention.

He attends almost every demonstration in the Tulkarm area, in the northwestern part of the West Bank, as well as elsewhere in the territories, including the Jordan Valley, always in the traditional garb, always holding a Palestine flag, calling out while leaning on his cane.

Khairi Hanoun's arrest.

Last month, he mobilized for the struggle of Shufa. In 1986, Israel expropriated 800 dunams (200 acres) of the village’s land. There are olive trees on part of it, but most of it was not being worked. Last month, earthwork began in advance of the construction of an industrial zone for settlers there – on land that was originally commandeered for “security purposes,” of course. The village launched protests and other acts of resistance against the project, which is now being built on its land. Hanoun had already taken part in three demonstrations there.

The last time he came to Shufa for a demonstration was on September 1. In the morning he took part in the regular weekly vigil held by the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, opposite the offices of the International Red Cross in Tulkarm, and from there he went to Shufa. Upon arriving, he was surprised to see a larger-than-usual force of soldiers – he estimates now that there were 50 of them – deployed at the site. The bulldozers had begun to work, which probably accounted for the relatively hefty contingent of troops. Opposite them were about 200 demonstrators, he says.

The demonstrators walked toward the expropriated land, taking care to let the elderly folk lead – in order to demonstrate that they were not bent on a violent gathering, Hanoun tells us. The soldiers stopped the group and announced that they were in a closed area, and had no right to enter. The villagers protested that it was their land. According to Hanoun, in less than five minutes the soldiers began firing tear-gas and stun grenades at the demonstrators, and also fired warning shots in the air.

The troops then started to push back the first line of elderly demonstrators, Hanoun among them. The younger ones fled from the gas, and the older people also beat a retreat, with the soldiers on their heels. Hanoun says he suddenly noticed that a nearby officer was aiming his rifle at one of the young demonstrators, who was some distance away, about 150 meters. Hanoun is convinced that the officer intended to shoot the young man, and he shouted at him, “Don’t shoot, the young people are far away!” The officer nonetheless fired two rounds, which didn’t hit anyone.

The protest in Shufa, September 1, 2020.
The protest in Shufa, September 1, 2020.Credit: AFP

At this stage, Hanoun pushed away the arm of the officer with the rifle to prevent him from continuing to shoot, which was apparently what made the Israeli lash out at him.

The officer attacked him, grabbing the flag from his hand and throwing him to the ground forcefully, as he began to punch him. Hanoun’s bare head can be seen in the clip, as he peers out from between the officer’s legs and mumbles, “What do you want from me?” His face bespeaks shock and dread. The officer orders him to shut up.

His face was pressed against the ground, sand got in his eyes. Then the officer pushed his knee down hard on Hanoun’s neck and sat on him in order to handcuff him.

“I am an old man. How was he not ashamed to knock down an old man and attack him like that?” he asks now. “I felt like I was paralyzed. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. He tied my hands behind my back. At that moment I remembered the pictures of George Floyd. I realized that if I resisted, I could die. I was paralyzed with fear. Only a miracle saved me. The pressure on my neck was strong and painful. I remember the moment. You want to breathe and you can’t. For a few seconds I couldn’t breathe at all.”

Khairi Hanoun on the ground in Shufa.
Khairi Hanoun on the ground in Shufa.Credit: AFP

He began to lose consciousness, he says. The soldiers pulled him to his feet and pushed him this way and that, pulling on the sash around his waist, not really knowing what to do with him. The demonstrators pleaded with them to let Hanoun go, until the soldiers finally backed down and let his friends take him. Quickly they laid him in the back of a white van belonging to the Palestinian Authority’s ministry against the fence.

While he lay there in semi-shock, Hanoun heard shouts and the smashing of a window. Shards of glass landed on him. The officer who assaulted the van was consumed with rage, for no clear reason. He demanded that the driver leave the vehicle and remove Hanoun from it as well. Hanoun says he was exhausted and terrified. Again he was thrown to the ground by the soldiers, he says – an action not seen in the clip. A new group of soldiers arrived on the scene. One of them shouted obscenities and threatened Hanoun that if he dared approach the Shufa lands again, they would shoot him and arrest him.

“I am here on my soil,” he replied.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office stated after the incident: “A violent disturbance took place near Tulkarm, with the participation of about 200 people engaging in disorderly behavior. A preliminary investigation shows that the disturbance included stone throwing and attacks on IDF soldiers. This is a site where disturbances have taken place for a number of days in succession.” According to the army, “During the disturbance, an IDF force used crowd dispersal means.

Khairi Hanoun at his home.
Khairi Hanoun at his home.Credit: Alex Levac

The statement continues: “At a certain stage, a Palestinian who is known to be a central instigator and who participates in many disturbances throughout Judea and Samaria, pushed the force’s commander several times and tried to create a provocation. The commander displayed restraint, but after a number of such attacks, the force was compelled to arrest the suspect, because he continued to attack it and engaged in disorderly behavior. The suspect resisted arrest, so the force had to handcuff him. Following his arrest, the suspect was administered medical care at the site.”

Hanoun was taken from the scene of the incident in a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance. He refused to be hospitalized, so he was taken home, where he recovered from the ordeal.

“And here I am,” he said to us this week in his yard. His friends had collected his cane and flag and his keffiyeh where they were left at the site, and brought them to him.

Hanoun says he will be back demonstrating very soon, maybe already in the next demonstration in Shufa.

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