As a Child, One Tel Aviv Shooter Watched the Israeli Army Destroy His Home

News of the lethal attack in Sarona last week caught relatives of Khaled Mahamra and his cousin Mohammed, by surprise.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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An IDF checkpoint in Yatta, set up after the June 8 terror attack in Tel Aviv by two of the West Bank town's residents, June 10, 2016.
An IDF checkpoint in Yatta, set up after the June 8 terror attack in Tel Aviv by two of the West Bank town's residents, June 10, 2016.Credit: Hazem Bader, AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Khaled Mahamra, one of the two cousins who shot four persons to death last Wednesday in Tel Aviv's Sarona quarter, was in third grade when the Israel Defense Forces blew up his family’s house in 2003, in the West Bank town of Yatta.

The house had been the residence of his extended family, including parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Mahamra's uncle, Taleb, had been arrested a year earlier and sentenced to seven life terms in prison.

“They accused him of killing Israelis in July 2002 at the Zif junction,” Taleb’s wife, Najah, told Haaretz on Monday, referring to the intersection adjacent to Yatta.

In October 2002, the Israel Defense Forces trapped Taleb Mahamra in the huge three-and-a-half story house using bulldozers, and fired a missile at it.

Mohammad Ahmad Mahamra, left, and Khaled Mahamra, the two perpetrators of the shooting attack in Tel Aviv's Sarona marketplace on Wednesday night.

Khaled’s cousin Mohammed Mahamra, the other perpetrator of the lethal attack at the upscale Sarona dining and retail complex – who lived elsewhere with his parents – was witness to the siege of the house along with other young relatives. An officer from Shin Bet security service, remembered by Yatta residents as Captain Amiran, offered Mohammed and other children chocolate and cookies if they disclosed where their uncle was hiding, said Najah.

That was the first phase in the destruction of the house, which was completed on September 1, 2003. Najah Mahamra talked about it as if it had just occurred.

“They arrived at about 1 A.M.," she recalled, "and surrounded the house with tanks. The soldiers shattered the windows of the house with rifles and then – without advance notice – ordered us to remove only the gas canisters. They didn’t let us take out anything else.”

The entire structure was destroyed in the explosion, including the expensive building materials that the grandfather, Musa, had kept in a storage area, as well as documents, furniture, clothing and schoolbooks. Musa later built a new home nearby, and his widow, Wadha, still lives on the ground floor. Khaled Mahamra and his parents and siblings live one floor up.

They are all now awaiting demolition of their home, in retaliation for the Sarona shooting spree during which, in addition to the fatalities, six persons were wounded.

“We hadn’t expected such a thing from either Mohammed or Khaled,” said Najah. “We didn’t think anyone from the family would do anything after they arrested Taleb and Khaled." The latter is another uncle of the Tel Aviv attacker, with the same name, who was convicted of murdering a collaborator with Israel. Released during the prisoner exchange in which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was freed, the elder Khaled was later rearrested for the same offense.

“We’re fed up," Nahah Mahamra continued. "The army won’t leave us alone. Over the past year, it burst into the house. Two years ago, it burst in, looking for three teenagers [the reference is to the Israeli teens who were kidnapped and later murdered]. They burst in with stun grenades. The children are fed up, the children are afraid, and they know they have no way out."

Asked if she was angry at Khaled for what he did last week, Amal, the mother – who was wearing a niqab over her head, with only her eyes showing – immediately said emphatically: “No.”

Aunt Najah replied: “We are angry about the situation.”

Aunt Hannan, the wife of the elder Khaled, who is still imprisoned, said she had not expected such an act from her nephew Khaled, particularly since his father is ill and needs assistance.

For her part, Wadha, the grandmother, added: “I am angry that he didn’t complete his studies in Jordan." This week he was supposed to have returned there after he reconsidered plans to study at the Polytechnic University in Hebron.

Khaled's mother and aunts, including the mother of fellow attacker Mohammed, denied media reports that the two had disappeared from home two days before the shooting in Tel Aviv. They left home at 8:30 A.M. on Wednesday, the relatives said, and were not wearing suits, as they apparently were at the time of the attack.

The attack occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during the day and break the fast after sundown. When the two cousins didn’t return home to break the fast, their parents became concerned.

“It’s the rule with us during Ramadan," a family member explained. "Either we’re invited to someone’s house and then the other members of the family have to know or we eat at home.”

Then reports began coming in of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv.

'It makes no sense'

Since the attack and until Monday afternoon this week, IDF troops had raided and searched 12 homes in Yatta. One house, owned by the brother of the head of Yatta's civil liaison committee, was empty as the family had gone on vacation in Bethlehem.

No arrests were carried out overnight on Sunday. Just the usual trauma: Soldiers breaking down doors, confining women and children to one room, pointing rifles at them and depriving them of drinking water and refusing to give babies milk. In their wake the troops left behind stunned and frightened children, along with damaged televisions, toilets, washing machines and furniture, and piles of overturned mattresses and empty drawers.

At the fourth home that was raided on Monday afternoon, soldiers arrested 51-year-old Azem Mahamra on suspicion of trading in weapons, but it would be hard to imagine such dealings being carried out from the simple house. One girl in the family noted that she had never heard of the army raiding a house during the day.

The IDF raided Mohammed Mahamra’s house twice: last Wednesday night after the attack and then on Friday morning, when they arrested his father, Ahmed.

“They didn’t tell us why,“ said Fatma, Mohammed’s mother, who was also wearing a niqab. She added that she was in shock for two days after the Sarona attack and still finds it difficult to believe the news. When her home was raided Wednesday, a Shin Bet officer asked about her son. She said he was calm, didn’t make trouble and didn't leave the house a lot.

When his siblings were asked what they thought of the lethal attack, one replied: “It makes no sense. After what our uncles did, we know that nothing comes from that kind of activity." But a relative named Azmi said: “Every raid on a house, every demolition, every arrest, sows the seeds of hate in the little children.”

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