Gideon Levy |

Israeli Troops Shot a Palestinian Holding a Firebomb - and Then His Friends, Too

Jassem Nakhle is the second fatality in an incident where soldiers fired at a car of Palestinian teens after one of them tried to throw a firebomb at a settlement

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Jassem Nakhle at the Jalazun refugee camp in the West Bank.
Jassem Nakhle at the Jalazun refugee camp in the West Bank.

Now Jassem is dead, too. Jassem Nakhle died two days after his 16th birthday and two-and-a-half weeks after being seriously wounded by Israeli army gunfire. He was buried next to his friend Muhammad al-Hattab, a victim of the same incident, who had once dreamed of becoming a pilot. Ahmed Zayad is still recovering in a Ramallah hospital and will soon be transferred to a rehabilitative institution in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Moussa Nakhle remains in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv; his condition is improving. And Munir al-Hattab, the fifth teen in the car that evening, who suffered the lightest wounds, is in Palestinian Authority detention.

All five were from the Jalazun refugee camp adjacent to Ramallah, all were in the full flush of youth. On the evening of March 23, they were driving in a Peugeot 206 that had been stolen in Israel. The car stopped next to a locked gate to the Beit El settlement. One of the occupants got out and prepared to throw a Molotov cocktail at the settlement’s fence. A group of soldiers immediately charged at them and sprayed the car with bursts of gunfire. At least 10 bullets slammed into the vehicle – whose charred hulk we saw in the nearby village of Jifna – and struck the passengers. None emerged unscathed.

New eyewitness evidence provided by Selim Nakhle, a Jalazun resident who was driving on the road that evening, now confirms that one of the youths did in fact get out of the car holding a firebomb. But he was shot by the troops and the incendiary device slipped out of his hand before he could throw it. And then the soldiers let loose a hail of bullets at all the car’s occupants.

They apparently hadn’t heard about the ruling handed down just a few days before the incident by Judge Moshe Drori, deputy president of the Jerusalem District Court. Judge Drori exonerated a youth of 15 – about the same age as two of the youngsters in the Peugeot – who had stoned passing cars and also thrown a firebomb. The youth could not be convicted because he was suffering from trauma, Drori ruled. It’s not by chance that the judge’s compassionate verdict referred to a Jewish teen. The judge knows, as do Israelis in general, that traumas are something only Jewish teens have. When those throwing the stones are Palestinians, the soldiers kill them on the spot, as happened on the night of March 23 outside Beit El.

On March 31, 2017, this column described the circumstances in which Muhammad al-Hattab was killed and the four others in the car wounded . We went back to Jalazun this week, after learning about the death of Jassem, who was critically wounded in the incident. In the family home, on the third floor of an apartment building in this restive refugee camp, the bereaved parents, Hiba and Muhammad Nakhle, mourn in deep but dry-eyed pain.

Jassem was one of five children. He spent his last birthday in Assouta Medical Center in Tel Aviv, on a ventilator, in an induced coma.

His father, Muhammad, a 45-year-old handyman, is wearing jeans and a black Hugo Boss top today. Until recently, he worked in Israel and in settlements. On top of his grief, he will now lose his permit to work in Israel: As standard procedure, when Israeli forces kill a Palestinian, the authorities revoke the work permits of all of the victim’s relatives.

Jassem, who was in 10th grade, liked to raise pigeons. His father says he’s convinced that older friends talked him into going along for the death ride. When Muhammad Nakhle returned home that day from his work in the settlement of Kiryat Sefer, just across the Green Line from Modi’in, he saw Jassem next to the camp’s internet café. They exchanged a few words. The father then showered, ate and relaxed at home. A few hours later, he got a call from his eldest son, Anas, 18, reporting that a cousin, Moussa Nakhle, 18, had been wounded in an incident with soldiers. Then Anas added another heart-stopping detail: Jassem might have been with Moussa, it wasn’t clear.

In the meantime, rumors were flying through the camp about a particularly serious incident, possibly a massacre. Four people killed, five, or maybe only three. Muhammad Nakhle went into shock. Paralyzed with fear, he could not bring himself to make phone calls to find out about his son. Now, too, words fail him as he tries to recount the horror of that evening. He recalls that his two sisters-in-law arrived and almost collapsed in the doorway. “What are you doing at home? Don’t you know what happened?” they demanded of him.

Muhammad’s world fell apart. He called a relative, who was already at the Government Hospital in Ramallah. Jassem was wounded, the relative told him. Now it was clear: The father had to rush to the hospital.

Outside, Muhammad and his wife discovered that Jalazun had become a ghost camp. Almost everyone, it seemed, had hurried off to the Ramallah hospital; it was impossible to find a taxi or a private car to drive them there. Finally, someone agreed to take them. The whole way, Muhammad prayed silently that the reports would turn out to be false, that Jassem was alive and well. At the hospital, he was dumbfounded by the scene: A crowd of hundreds of people was surging around the entrance, everyone trying to get information about who had been injured. In the meantime, a video of the shooting at the car had been uploaded to YouTube.

Muhammad al-Hattab was already dead. His four friends were wounded to various degrees, with Jassem, who had been in the back seat of the Peugeot, most seriously hurt. A physician told the family that his condition was critical, and that the best thing they could do was pray for his recovery. Jassem was hit by four bullets, the deadliest of which entered his brain and his chest. He was also wounded in both legs. His brain surgery ended at 2 A.M. after which the teen was taken to intensive care, put in an induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator. He would never wake up.

Five days later, he was transferred to Ichilov Hospital. Dr. Liat Lerman, of the pediatric intensive care unit, assumed he was from the Gaza Strip. She also thought he was “injured by gunfire and in a road accident,” according to her report. But there was no road accident that evening next to Beit El. Lerman concluded: “Multidisciplinary consultation: No place for further intervention at this stage, therefore transferred back to the hospital he came from.”

Jassem was peremptorily sent back to Ramallah. His parents, who had not managed to obtain a permit to accompany their son to Ichilov, were in despair.

But a few days later a spark of hope appeared: Jassem started to move some of his limbs. Again he was taken to Israel, this time to Assouta Medical Center, where the staff tried to save him for six days, but in vain: He died from an infection in his lungs at 2 P.M. on April 10, with his parents at his side. He was 16 years and two days old.

Jassem’s father still doesn’t know exactly what happened. There are different versions of events, he says. Contrary to the father of the dead Muhammad al-Hattab, who told us at the time that the car stopped because of a mechanical breakdown – Nakhle says that he heard from eyewitness Selim al-Hattab that whoever got out of the car was in fact holding a Molotov cocktail. But neither father can understand why it was necessary to fire so many rounds into the car and kill or wound all its occupants.

One of the survivors told his father that some of the shots were fired from extremely close range, at almost zero distance. He added that one of the soldiers even struck him with his rifle butt.

Muhammad Nakhle is certain that this was a planned Israeli ambush although he admits he did not have all the facts. He’s worked in Beit El in the past, and insists that there in general there are no soldiers near that fence after 5 P.M. Why were forces there this time at 8:30 P.M., when the incident occurred? According to Muhammad, either the soldiers had advance information, possibly from a collaborator, about the youths’ intention to throw a firebomb, or they followed the car, which could have aroused their suspicion by driving back and forth along the stretch of road before stopping. In any event, it’s clear to him that the soldiers were waiting for the boys. He just doesn’t understand why they had to use such massive firepower against all the passengers. Why didn’t they shoot in the air, or arrest the car’s occupants, he asks. The closest house in Beit El is almost a kilometer from the road at this point, and is in any case protected by a fence. So even if the bottle had detonated, what danger could it have posed, Muhammad wants to know.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit stated at the time that a Military Police investigation of the incident was under way. This week, we asked innocently what the investigation had uncovered. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit responded that the investigation had not concluded yet, and that when it is complete, “its findings will be transferred to the military advocate general for consideration.”

Still perched high on a hill at the far end of the village of Jifna, near Jalazun and Beit El, is the burnt-out shell of the car the boys were driving, in which at least 10 large bullet holes are visible. Muhammad Nakhle, the bereaved father, still hasn’t dared to venture out to the site, to see with his own eyes the remnants of the vehicle in which his son was killed.

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