'An Israeli Sniper Shot Me'

A 13-year-old boy from a refugee camp next to Bethlehem was killed by an IDF soldier for no apparent reason. The army's response: 'It was a mistake.'

A Palestinian mother walks with her children past a section of the separation barrier as they make their way to their school in Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem August 24, 2015.
A Palestinian mother walks with her children past a section of the separation barrier as they make their way to their school in Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem August 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters

“My name is Aboud Shadi, a 13 year old refugee. I was standing just right here hanging with my friends, when an Israeli sniper shot me dead. My soul will remain here, chasing the killer and motivating my classmates. I wonder whether the international community will bring justice to Palestinian children.”

For the past few days, that harrowing poster, in Arabic and English, has greeted visitors to the Al-Aida refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. A photo of Aboud – the nickname of 13-year-old Abed al-Rahman Shadi Obeidallah – appears at the bottom of the plywood signs, which leans on an Israeli-made concrete cube.

It was exactly here that Aboud was standing on October 5, with some friends, fewer than 10 children, when a soldier shot him in the heart, killing him. The floral wreath next to the poster was already wilting when we visited this week; an olive sapling is blooming next to it. Above is the entry gate to the camp and an outsize rendering of the mythological key to the homes that the Palestinians had to leave in 1948.

Next to the gate is a distribution station for UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency. On the wall opposite is a handwritten list of 258 names, in white against a black background, of the children the Israel Defense Forces killed in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge.

Abed al-Rahman Shadi Obeidallah’s memorial poster. 'I didn't lose one child,' says his father, 'I lost five: They've all been psychologically damaged.'Credit: Alex Levac

The street that runs east from here is the camp’s “death row”; it ends at the separation barrier, which is punctuated by a fortified watchtower and the iron gates that protect Rachel’s Tomb. The distance from wall, tower and troops to the entry gate is 200-300 meters. That’s the range at which an Israeli soldier shot and killed the boy.

We enter the camp, walking through its narrow alleys. Other children have been killed here in recent years on this street, along which are a community center, a small playground, the camp’s school and also its cemetery, where Aboud’s fresh grave was dug, too. The road is sooty and empty, strewn with remnants of burned tires and stones. Few dare to traverse it.

Children’s voices are heard emanating from the crowded, densely built houses here, offsetting the tense quiet in the street. As is the custom, the victim’s home is draped with long Palestinian flags. A jumble of construction that was never completed (and never will be), neglect and poverty, with some cracked or shattered windows – this is the home of the Obeidallah family, now enveloped in mourning. The bereaved father, Shadi, and the grandfather, Halil, take us up to the second floor. Both have mustaches and now also new dark stubble that has sprouted in their grief. The grandfather’s keffiyeh is on his head, the father’s lies on his shoulders. Shadi works in the Bethlehem stone quarries. He had five children. Some of the windows in the house are cracked or shattered.

Aboud, who actually had not yet turned 13, was in the ninth grade. He went to school last Monday, returned at midday and said he wanted to eat lunch. His mother sent him to the grocery store. When he got back, he said he was going out for a few minutes. Less than 10 minutes later he lay dying. He never got to eat that lunch; his father says that no one in the house ate that meal.

Aboud had walked down to the street of death, where he met up with a few of his friends, next to the community center. A photograph, which the family says was taken a few minutes before the shooting, shows the semblance of a peaceful street. Aboud, a lean boy in a blue T-shirt, is standing there with another six children, all of them his age, apart from one who’s a bit older; he is leaning on the concrete cube, his arms crossed. An image of calm. Not one child has a stone in his hand, the street is empty, the soldiers are far away, most of the children still have their schoolbags on their back. No fire, no columns of smoke; a study in midday tranquillity.

According to the testimonies collected by Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the human rights organization B’Tselem, stones were thrown on the street earlier, the soldiers had fired smoke grenades and the children scattered. A few returned afterward, Aboud among them. He was shot to death almost immediately afterward. No firebombs were thrown that day, according to B’Tselem. All stones can do here is smash into the concrete wall, the iron door or the armored tower, without causing real damage.

Less than five minutes after Aboud came back, an IDF soldier apparently opened the window in the iron gate, and from few hundred meters away fired three bullets from a Ruger rifle that probably had a silencer attached. Shadi, the boy’s father, did not hear the shots in the house, even though it’s not far away. One bullet struck Aboud in the chest, felling him. Blood spurted from his nose and mouth. His father has the photo taken before the shooting in his cell phone, and also a photo of an IDF soldier in red paratroopers' boots aiming his sniper’s rifle at the street. That picture, taken by a local journalist, shows the soldier who shot Aboud, a moment before it happened.

A passerby drove Aboud to Al-Hussein Hospital in the town of Beit Jalla, a few minutes away, but he was pronounced dead on arrival. It was 1:40 P.M. His parents arrived immediately afterward but nothing was to be done other than to give them the horrible news. Aboud was buried the next day, a few steps from where he was killed. Disturbances broke out in the camp yet again.

IDF Spokesperson’s Unit’s response: “The IDF relates to such incidents with utmost seriousness and regrets the death of the youth. During the event, there was a violent disruption of order with the goal of harming IDF soldiers and Rachel’s Tomb, as part of the continuing violent disruptions that began a day earlier. The soldiers acted by using crowd-control means directed at the main inciter, who was not far from the young man. The Military Police has opened an investigation of the incident.”

The IDF, then, in an indirect and forced manner, is acknowledging its mistake: The fire wasn’t directed at the child, but, rather, at the “main inciter, who was not far” from him. Henceforth, take notice: IDF soldiers also aim to kill “inciters,” not just stone-throwers.

“The army says it was a mistake? So what? How does that help me? My son is dead. It was an execution,” Shadi says. “If my son had been caught with a knife in his hand, I would justify the shooting. Can someone who plays with a stone against a tank be called a fighter? It is the killing of innocent children. I am not talking slogans. My heart is on fire. I see that you are sad, too, because you understand that my boy was innocent.

“The day before he was killed, I told him: Stay home, don’t go anywhere. But he said he couldn’t stay in the house. Go look at his room. It’s a prison. He wanted to leave it. Please, convey the message: We want peace, our hand is outstretched in peace. I didn't lose one child, I lost five: They've all been psychologically damaged. Netanyahu killed my boy, but what does he gain from it? In the end, God will settle the score.”

To which the grandfather, Khalil, adds, “There is a decision by the government to kill. These children are not terrorists, and they don’t understand anything about politics. They are playing.”

Aboud’s room is tiny, hardly able to contain the bunk bed he shared with his eldest brother, Mohammed. Prison cells in Israel are more spacious.

God is great, the muezzin declares, calling the faithful to prayers. Exactly a week ago at this time, Aboud was killed.

Shadi’s phone rings. His brother tells him that his son, Umar, who’s about the same age as Aboud, has gone to the cemetery again and is standing by the grave, crying. Shadi sends Mohammed to try to calm Umar, who is weeping on his cousin’s grave. In nearby Jerusalem, the stabbings, shootings and bloodshed surge.

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