What Drives Palestinian Women Shot at Israeli Checkpoints to Their Deaths?

The Palestinians fear that talking about personal motives will free Israel from responsibility for killing women who approach checkpoints armed with knives.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The figure of a woman wrapped in a black robe with her face covered by a veil attracted drivers’ attention. Her dress looked even blacker against the background of the olive trees gray with dust from nearby quarries.

She walked west on Thursday, June 2, toward the Einav checkpoint in on a section of the road where pedestrians are hardly seen (except for residents of nearby villages heading to their groves) – certainly not at the height of the day’s heat.

This checkpoint, which separates the Tul Karm enclave to the east from the settlements in the area, does not allow pedestrian traffic, only cars.

At least one driver, who was transporting cooking-gas cylinders, stopped and asked the woman if she needed help. She said she was waiting for someone to arrive and pick her up. This was about 200 meters from the checkpoint.

Another person was on the western side and watched in fear as the woman reached the concrete slabs surrounding the pillbox. He quickly drove toward her, he told Haaretz. He stopped and warned her that something would happen to her, that the soldiers would kill her, if she remained there.

“She didn’t answer me,” he said. Soldiers couldn’t be seen between the concrete slabs or alongside the lane for cars. He heard one of them yell from the heights of the pillbox that he should continue driving, and if not, they would shoot him.

Israeli security forces inspect the scene of a stabbing attack at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarem on June 2, 2016. Credit: Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

“I drove, I didn’t want to die,” he said. He’s convinced that the drivers who drove past her concluded, as he did, that she had decided to die. The accepted view is that Israeli soldiers today shoot to kill.

A third person also saw her and was reminded of Maram Hassouna, who on December 1 appeared at the same checkpoint with a knife and was shot dead by soldiers. This time, the soldiers let him come close on foot and talk to the woman.

“The soldiers will kill you, come with me,” the third person said he told her. “Allahu Akhbar,” she replied, and took a large knife out of her bag and pointed the blade at him in a threatening way. He got scared and ran away.

The first driver, the one with the gas canisters, returned. He told how when he stopped in front of the checkpoint, he noticed the woman coming out from between the concrete slabs and standing facing two soldiers.

They were two or three meters from her, maybe a little more. She raised her arms, he told B’Tselem field researcher Abed al-Karim Saadi, who located the other witnesses too and spoke with them. And then the shots were fired.

The words “wanted to die” weren’t spoken out loud in Qaffin, the village where 25-year-old Ansar Hirsha, the woman whom the soldiers killed, had come from. Her family and the municipality have been preoccupied with the question of when the Israeli authorities would transfer her body so they could bury her. As of Saturday, her body still had not been transferred, so it’s not known how many bullets hit her and where.

A son and a daughter

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office did not answer Haaretz’s question, which is also the family’s question: Why wasn’t it possible to arrest Hirsha or even just wound her? After all, she had already spent a few minutes at the checkpoint and her presence there didn’t surprise the soldiers, who saw her from the pillbox and then came down from it.

Shadi, Ansar Hirsha's husband, with his son, Yaman and his father Mohammed, in Qaffin. Credit: Amira Hass

The IDF spokesman also didn’t answer how three or four soldiers were unable to subdue one woman without killing her. The day after the shooting, the website Sikha Mekomit (+972 Magazine) published four pictures from the security-camera footage showing that the soldiers kept their distance from Hirsha so they could not be wounded.

Thus, another question that went unanswered is whether the army intends to release the footage in order to prove its version of events that the soldiers were in danger.

The IDF spokesman only said that “from the preliminary examination conducted last Thursday, June 2, 2016, the IDF force at the Einav checkpoint identified a suspicious figure nearing the checkpoint and began the procedure for arresting a suspect. The terrorist was armed with a knife and tried to stab the soldiers. The force responded with shots to prevent the threat, from which the terrorist was killed.”

Ansar Hirsha left her husband Shadi and two children behind. In the first two days after her death, 4-year-old Yaman constantly asked where his mother was and did not believe she was in Tul Karm, as the adults told him.

When the grandfather’s house and yard filled with visitors, he asked angrily who they were and what they were doing there. He then said: “Mother is dead, right?”

“He understands better than a 20-year-old what happened,” says his grandfather, Mohammed Hirsha. Mohammed and his son Shadi have been trying in vain to placate the boy – with ice cream, pizza, a toy all-terrain vehicle.

His 2-year-old sister Talia still doesn’t understand. When they hung posters in memory of her mother in the house, as well as around the village, Talia ran to the picture on the poster and called out “Mommy, Mommy” and tried to embrace her face with her hands.

Ansar Hirsha did not leave any letter or Facebook post, said Shadi Hirsha, 28, who works in construction in Israel. Both he and his father have now been banned from leaving the West Bank for work. His father has worked in Israel for decades, and now his permits have been revoked, as were the permits of a dozen of other relatives.

Shadi says Ansar began to cover her face about seven months ago. She told him it was her wish; he doesn’t know why. On the poster, her face is uncovered. The picture is from a year and a half ago at the graduation ceremony of Al-Quds Open University, where she studied business administration.

A memorial poster shows Ansar Hirsha on graduation day.Credit: Amira Hass

On the poster, which the young people’s movement in Qaffin had hurried to print, she’s called a shahida, a martyr. Verses from the Koran and poetry emphasize that a martyr’s death is a source of pride. But in conversations in the village, no one suggested that she left for the checkpoint as part of the battle against the occupation. She’s the only one from the village who has been killed in the latest wave of violence.

The number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem who have been killed by Israeli security forces (and civilians) since September is 171, according to rights group B’Tselem. Some committed fatal terrorist attacks, some caused injuries, others threatened people or were suspected of preparing to attack an Israeli.

Code words

Hirsha is one of 16 women who have been killed, mostly at checkpoints. The first was Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, who like Hirsha had her face covered and was wearing black. She arrived at a checkpoint in Hebron with a knife, and the IDF inquiry found that the soldiers could have simply arrested her.

One young woman, Samah Abdallah, was killed by gunfire from IDF soldiers when she was in her father’s car. Even the IDF doesn’t claim she tried to attack soldiers. As for another mother, Mahdia Hammad, it was claimed that she tried to run over soldiers. A B’Tselem inquiry casts doubt on this claim.

Moments before the killing of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun at the IDF checkpoint at the entrance to Hebron's old city, September 22, 2015.Credit: AP

Concerning women who tried to stab Israelis or brandished knives, there is a large gap between what people are thinking and saying privately, and how the Palestinian media and authorities present the phenomenon. Until the death of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, the common belief was that women who came to checkpoints and waved knives at soldiers wanted to be arrested – and in doing so escape whatever troubles they had at home: various forms of violence, an argument with their father or brother, untreated depression.

The code words were “social reasons,” as opposed to “nationalist reasons.” Officially and publicly, with the arrest, trial and release, the women were portrayed as people who went out to fight the occupation.

Over the past year, because of the growing number of incidents where Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians at the checkpoints, “the desire to be arrested for social reasons” has been replaced by “the intent to commit suicide.”

In a traditional and religious society that doesn’t view suicide positively, it’s possible that death at the hands of a soldier seems like a good way out. If death is a way out, it’s a sign that women don’t know how and who to turn to for help. The discussion of the danger of this growing phenomenon exists – mostly among feminist activists and at various civil society groups – but not openly.

When asked why, feminist activists gave Haaretz a number of answers. Especially at the beginning of the current privatized uprising, women were angry that people concluded that a young woman who joined the tide and tried to attack a soldier was suspected of being motivated by reasons not “nationalist.” They saw this as yet another sign of the belittling of women.

In addition, as a worker at a veteran feminist organization said, “Like the rest of the public, we reject the Israeli claims that every Palestinian, man or woman, who was killed at a checkpoint really did intend to attack a soldier or Israeli civilian. In any case, we’re convinced there was no need to kill. The soldiers today threaten us more than before – they’re more violent than ever.”

The Palestinians fear that the talk about personal motives will help exonerate Israel from responsibility for killing. But women activists in various organizations now want to distinguish between the two and focus on their social role, but far from the media spotlight.

“Not only women come to the checkpoints suspiciously and out of despair, but also young men,” said one activist.

“And no matter how much the despair may be for personal reasons, how is it possible to separate it from the younger generation’s general despair, which stems directly from the Israeli domination, not being able to make a living and effect change, the daily humiliation, the constant fear?”

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