Who Murdered the Rising Palestinian Leader Who Stood Up for His East Jerusalem Slum?

Baha Nababta fought to improve life in the Shoafat refugee camp, not hesitating to work with Israeli authorities; hope for change in the squalid neighborhood died with him

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The Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem.
The Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem. Credit: Tali Mayer
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Despair comes easily in the Shoafat refugee camp. The camp is a neighborhood in eternally unified Jerusalem, but is locked out of the city behind the separation wall. Its streets are a mélange of narrow, half-paved alleys with no sidewalks, flanked by heaps of burnt or smoking garbage; the residential sections possess the density of a slum in the undeveloped world, devoid of any public facilities, playgrounds or open areas. The camp’s inhabitants are the poorest and most fate-stricken of Jerusalem’s population. Since it was closed off by the separation barrier a decade ago, its situation has only worsened. The Jerusalem Municipality, and with it the other authorities, have all but abandoned Shoafat. Garbage collection is sporadic at best, the infrastructures have collapsed, illegal construction is rampant, armed gangs have taken control and the camp has sunk into violent, ugly anarchy.

It was here that a young local leader sprang up a few years ago. Baha Nababta, who was born in 1985, fought in the public, media and judicial realms to improve the quality of life in this wretched place. He and his associates scored successes. The water-system infrastructure was upgraded, the High Court of Justice addressed the issue of garbage collection in the camp, a local emergency-response team was set up, new roads were paved and activities for youth were initiated.

Fifteen months ago, Nababta’s wife, Hiba, informed him that she was pregnant. The couple already had two little daughters. “He said he knew it would be a boy,” Hiba relates. A few days afterward, late at night, as Nababta was occupied with the building of another road in the camp, a motorbike pulled up next to him, and its driver drew a pistol and fired 10 rounds at him, seven of which struck him. To save time, his friends, knowing that an ambulance would be delayed in arriving, as always, placed him on the back of a vehicle and drove him to the closest checkpoint. There, according to the family, Nababta waited for the ambulance for some time, bleeding to death. He was fully conscious, his friends say, and asked about his daughter Afif. Shortly afterward he was pronounced dead, apparently from loss of blood. His son, born seven months after his father’s murder, is named Baha, in his memory.

Baha Nababta’s killer has not been apprehended. His family is certain that they know who he is and who sent him, and the fact that no one has been arrested in the case is unhinging their lives. They are fearful of their neighbors and are furious at the Jerusalem police for not investigating the crime properly, in their view. The botched investigation is another manifestation of the governmental neglect of the refugee camp.

I knew Baha from tours, meetings and articles I wrote about the camp. A hefty individual who projected a powerful presence, he was also a walking contradiction: an activist leader who was involved in multiple projects and initiatives, an articulate spokesperson for local residents’ woes, but at the same time shy, soft-spoken, his gaze introverted, constantly smiling, easily embarrassed. His death was a serious blow to everyone on both sides of the separation barrier who sought the good of the Shoafat camp’s inhabitants.

More than a year after Nababta’s death, there is still no one to take his place, and the murder continues to haunt the camp and make his family miserable. The story of his life and, no less, of his death, is the story of Shoafat refugee camp.

Garbage collection is sporadic at best, the infrastructures have collapsed, illegal construction is rampant, armed gangs have taken control and the camp has sunk into violent, ugly anarchy.

Clean, safe surroundings

“Once, I asked a young man why he was so angry. He told me, ‘For you everything is white, for us everything is black,’” Nababta said in March 2015, about a year before his death, during an evening organized by the Facebook page “0202: A View from East Jerusalem.” From his perspective, improving life in the refugee camp was of critical importance, and to achieve that it was necessary to shatter conventions, to link arms with everyone who was willing to help and to talk to everyone who was ready to listen.

Nababta advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, but maintained that as long as Israel was in control of the refugee camp, it was responsible for providing all of its municipal services, as it would any other neighborhood in the city, and that the camp’s residents, for their part, should demand those services unapologetically.

“He loved the people and loved the place, and he wanted it to be a better place, especially for the children. He wanted his children to grow up in clean, safe surroundings,” says his widow, Hiba.

Baha Nababta, who was 31 at the time of his death, was born to a refugee family in the camp that originally came from the village of Al-Qubab, near Ramle in central Israel. The refugee camp at Shoafat was established by the Jordanian government in 1965, and two years later was annexed by Israel as part of unified Jerusalem. (The camp takes its name from the adjacent Jerusalem middle-class neighborhood of Shoafat, which remains within the barrier.)

Over the years, the camp became one of the poorest and most neglected areas in the Israeli sovereign region, but conditions deteriorated significantly after the separation barrier was built, and both state and local authorities effectively abandoned it. With its cheap housing, tens of thousands of new residents flocked to the already overcrowded neighborhood, which was considered part of Jerusalem (a fact of major importance in terms of the rights that accrue to Palestinian residents of the city).

At the same time, there was an influx of criminals, drug addicts and traffickers and arms dealers. The camp became more overpopulated (today, its population is estimated at roughly 70,000, though there are no precise numbers available), the garbage piled up, the rates of crime and violence soared, the streets crumbled, the water and sewage infrastructures were on the verge of collapse.

Shoafat refugee camp became a byword for crime, terror and drugs. “Whoever has problems in the south, in the territories, in the north – the State of Israel brought them here. People arrived with their weapons,” says Nababta’s father, Muhammad.

Lately, it should be noted, the authorities have begun to wake up to the problems of the neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier. The police opened a station at the checkpoint, the water infrastructure was upgraded and City Hall has issued a new tender for garbage collection. But these developments are not yet visible in everyday life here.

Hovering above all this is a new government plan to detach the neighborhoods across the fence from Jerusalem and transfer them to a new, as-yet-nonexistent municipal authority. This initiative is being enthusiastically promoted by Zeev Elkin (Likud), the minister for Jerusalem affairs, and has the intention of propping up the Jewish majority in Jerusalem – if not in reality then at least statistically.

Source of pride

About 12 years ago, Baha and his older brother Ala launched their first social projects in the camp. They began by renovating an old youth center. “We collected a group of young people and told them, ‘Let’s do something for the children, so they’ll engage in positive activity and not just play in the street and throw stones,’” Ala says.

One day, after the youth club had been fixed up and was operating, the Nababta brothers chanced on a visit of Italian human rights activists in the camp. “We started to talk to them,” Ala recalls. “I told Baha, ‘This is an opportunity – let’s show them the community center.’ That’s how we started working with them.” The cooperation between the refugee camp and the Italian group, Vento di Terra, continued for some time. For five consecutive years, children from the refugee camp attended summer camps in Italy.

“It was amazing, incredible,” says Ala. “You take a little boy who only knows the camp to Italy, including 10 days in Tuscany. It’s unbelievable what that does for them.”

Subsequently, Baha started to work for and with Israeli organizations. He was a field researcher for the NGO Bimkom: Planners for Human Rights. He then worked with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on a number of cases, most importantly involving the struggle to improve the camp’s water supply. Four years ago, Nababta began organizing a local squad to deal with emergencies such as fires and accidents requiring medical evacuation. He gathered a group of young people, who underwent firefighting and first-aid training, raised funds to set up an equipment depot, planned evacuation routes and ensured that there would be hookup points for water to fight fires.

A high point of the team’s work came during the snowstorm that struck Jerusalem in 2013. The city was paralyzed for almost a week because of a highly unusual climatic event, in which dozens of centimeters of snow fell over two consecutive nights. Surprisingly, Shoafat refugee camp was one of the first neighborhoods to recover and resume normal functioning. Knowing they could not rely on the authorities, Nababta and his group took matters in hand. They towed vehicles, cleared snow, assisted those in need and distributed food. As a result, the camp resumed routine life days before some neighborhoods in Jewish West Jerusalem. That success was a source of pride for the people of Shoafat.

In contrast to many other East Jerusalem Palestinians, Nababta had no hesitation about working with the Israeli authorities, which in general are considered part of the occupation apparatus. He went to meetings at City Hall, appeared in court and took courses in firefighting and in first aid – the latter given by the Magen David Adom emergency ambulance service.

Nababa was also a member of an independent action committee representing the refugee camp and the surrounding neighborhoods. The group has carried out several large-scale projects to improve life in the area, such as raising hundreds of thousands of shekels from local residents to pave roads and install sewage pipes by themselves. The work was carried out by contractors from the camp.

Garbage collection is one of the most grievous ills facing the camp. More than a decade after the separation barrier cut off camp, the Jerusalem Municipality has still not made adequate arrangements to have a private company take the place of municipal garbage trucks and pick up the waste. A petition to Israel’s High Court, submitted by the organization Adam Teva v’Din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), included a medical report showing a rise in respiratory and digestive ailments and in eye and skin infections among the camp’s residents, linking it to their polluted environment.

'He wanted it to be a better place, especially for the children. He wanted his children to grow up in clean, safe surroundings.'

Nababta devoted himself to this issue. On one occasion he shared a video of employees of the garbage-removal contractor setting fire to refuse. The explanation for this phenomenon is found in the court petition: “The contractor has an in-built economic interest in reducing the amount of waste that he transports in practice, and burning it allows him to increase his profits at the expense of the neighborhoods’ residents.” Recently, in the wake of the petition, a new tender for garbage collection was issued, though even when a contract is signed, it is not expected to satisfy local needs.

But even this extensive activity was secondary to Nababta’s primary mission: working with the camp’s young generation. He established youth groups, worked with young people in distress, ran clubs for people with different interests and managed a youth center. The American writer Rachel Kushner accompanied Nababta just days before his murder and wrote about him in her essay included in “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and published earlier this year.

“He was a natural leader of boys,” Kushner writes. “Every kid we passed knew him and either waved or stopped to speak to him. [...] Littler kids tapped me on the arms and wanted to show me the mural they’d painted with Baha. The road they had helped pave with Baha, who had supervised its completion. The plants they’d planted with Baha along a narrow strip. Baha, Baha, Baha. It was like that with the adults too. They all wanted his attention.”

Nababta was also a key liaison between the camp and both Israeli left-wing organizations and the media. His fluent Hebrew was invaluable in this regard. According to the Jerusalem activist Uri Agnon, of the group Free Jerusalem, who was in close touch with Nababta, “Baha projected a message that the occupation is terrible but that we are strong. It was clear that he was industrious and honest, and that only the good of the camp interested him.”

Siege and frustration

Since the murder, everyone who was in contact with Nababta, and his family above all, has been recollecting his activity and his connections, in an attempt to understand who was behind the deed. Many people thought initially that his ties with Israelis and with Israeli authorities angered extremists, who decided to assassinate him. But no organization has claimed responsibility for the murder, and few now believe that this was the motive. Another possibility is that his activity harmed powerful figures in the refugee camp, including businessmen, political groups, large families or criminal organizations. According to one theory, the assassin was sent by the Palestinian sanitation contractor who feared losing its contract because of Nababta’s activity and because of the video clip of the torching of the garbage; another possibility is that drug and arms traffickers in the camp were displeased by his work.

“In the week before he was murdered, we were up on the roof, smoking a narghile,” Ala Nababta relates. “I told him, ‘Baha, don’t start thinking you’re in Sweden, you’re in the ugliest place in the world.’ He said, ‘But I do only good.’ I replied, ‘Yes, but the good you do bothers them; from your point of view it’s good, from their point of view it’s not good. You’re ruining their business, their organization.”

Looking back, it has to be admitted that the murder did not come as a surprise. In 2005, the community center that Nababta managed was set ablaze, in 2010 masked individuals shot at Ala’s house, and in 2015 their younger brother was shot and wounded. The torching of the community center was attributed to religious elements, who were upset by rumors that activities in the center were infringing on the modesty of the girls who took part in them. Underworld figures were said to have shot the younger brother. As for the gunfire at Ala’s house, he doesn’t know or doesn’t want to suggest who was behind it.

The family is not convinced that all these events are connected to one another and to Baha’s murder. In some cases, they are perceived as part of the daily random violence that dominates the camp. “Yesterday there was a soccer game. I hear gunfire and go out, thinking that maybe someone is shooting at someone,” Ala says. “I go down and see somebody with a Carlo [a homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun]. I ask him what happened. He tells me, ‘Nothing. One of the teams scored a goal.’”

Baha was not afraid, according to his widow, Hiba. “He only did good things, why should he be afraid?” she says. But Nababta himself was aware of the risks he was taking. Rachel Kushner writes of their meeting, days before he was killed: “I also insisted, to myself and everyone else, that Baha never expressed any fears for his own safety. In looking at my notes, I see now that my insistence on this point was sheer will. A fiction. It’s right there in the notes. He said he was nervous. He said he’d been threatened.”

In regard to the murder, the family suggests a different direction, which is also related to the intolerable level of violence in the camp. A month and a half before the killing, a shocking event occurred. A person we will call “M.A.” brought his 3-month-old son to the camp’s clinic. The physician treated the baby and sent him home with the father. Two days later, the baby was brought to the clinic again, but this time showing no signs of life. Resuscitation efforts failed, and the infant was pronounced dead. Two hours later, M.A. returned to the clinic with a bottle containing inflammatory liquid. He poured the liquid on one of the physicians and torched him. The physician sustained moderate injuries. M.A. was apprehended and charged.

Nababta, who had nothing to do with the incident, saw the physician who had been set on fire and came to his aid. M.A.’s family accused him of providing his name to the police. According to the Nababta family, that is the reason for Baha’s murder. As proof, they point out that at the time of the shooting a friend of Nababta’s who was standing next to him pushed the killer and almost knocked him off the motorbike. Nevertheless, the assassin did not shoot the other man. The reason, according to Muhammad, Nababta’s father, is that the friend is from M.A.’s family. The Nababta family describes a web of interests and connections involving the Shin Bet security service and the police, political activists and criminal organizations. All of these, family members believe, incited M.A. to kill Baha in order to get him out of the way.

The family made its theory known in the camp, following which the elders of the accused family came to a meeting. At the end of the meeting the Nababta family was given 40 days to present proof for its allegations. No proof was forthcoming, and since then the two families have not been in touch. According to the Nababta family, the murderer is walking about freely in the camp and everyone knows who he is.

The murder did not come as a surprise. In 2005, the community center was set ablaze, in 2010 masked individuals shot at Ala’s house, and in 2015 their younger brother was shot and wounded

Ala: “One time I was sitting with a few people and he came over to shake my hand. I told him, ‘My hand hurts.’ What can I tell you? How can we bear it?” Ala himself feels threatened. “We are under surveillance – where that one went, where this one came from,” he says. “Sometimes I go through a different checkpoint. It’s no secret, everyone sees them chasing us.”

Since the murder, Muhammad, Baha’s father, doesn’t venture outside, whether from grief or from rage and frustration. He also refused to carry out the funeral and mourning customs in protest of the fact that the murderer was still free. “Baha is in paradise, but my father needs treatment,” says Ala. “He is a broken man. We have not received assistance from anyone, not from National Insurance, not from social welfare, not from anyone.”

The family accuses the police of failing to make even basic efforts to track down the killer. A forensic unit was not sent to the camp on the night of the murder, the many security cameras in the area were not checked, and the family was barely questioned. Hiba was summoned to the police for a brief round of questions two months after the incident.

“There were 50 people on the street, but not one of them was detained and maybe two or three were questioned,” Ala says, adding, “The [security] cameras from the stores were not collected. A quarter of an hour after the murder someone showed up with an M-16 rifle and took all the discs. Why didn’t you ask the storekeepers who took the discs?” Two camp residents were arrested on suspicion of having been involved in the slaying but were released shortly afterward. Since then, there have been no signs of progress in the investigation.

In contrast to the bumbling murder investigation, the Israeli authorities displayed considerable industriousness and determination in arresting and trying Ihad, Baha’s younger brother. He is now serving a seven-month sentence for inciting on Facebook. He was convicted on the basis of 12 posts that were construed as expressing support for terrorism. In his favor was the fact that the most popular posts drew only 12 Likes; on the other hand, he has 900 Facebook friends. Ihab’s imprisonment has intensified the Nababta’s family’s feelings of distress and siege. They are convinced that their foes in the camp conspired with the police and the Shin Bet to incriminate Ihab.

“Ihab’s arrest is meant to keep us away, so we won’t deal with Baha’s murder,” the father, Muhammad, says.

Baha’s ambulance

“It was one of the most depressing days of my life,” Uri Agnon, the activist, relates. “It makes you despair, both because he was so optimistic and so filled with vitality, and because murder is a terrible thing and we are not used to people around us being murdered. We have no mechanisms to cope with that. I felt that the cooperation with him was very meaningful. That he was succeeding in transmitting the voice of the camp in a way that encourages you to take action and not bury your head.”

Aliza Arens, a Jerusalem architect and activist, also remembers that Baha was in a period of blossoming. “Toward the end he was very optimistic,” she says. “There was something discreet about him, but that came from his survivalist nature. And he had pride.” Lately, Arens has been engaged in fulfilling one of Nababta’s last dreams: stationing an ambulance in the refugee camp to serve the inhabitants. An anonymous foreign donor recently purchased the ambulance, which is now waiting to be outfitted with equipment, and for the authorizations to be issued. It will be named for Baha, whose life could have been saved if an ambulance had been available immediately after the shooting.

“I never imagined a time moment in which Baha would be murdered,” Ala says, recalling the night of the event. “I entered the room in the hospital and I saw two policeman and I saw Baha in a bag. I opened the bag and looked at him. I can’t get that image out of my head. Every day I see his little girls and his infant son – who can bear something like that? I was at the year-end party in his daughter’s preschool. You don’t know how much it pained me to see that every girl had her father there, and went to hug him. Everyone cried.”

“Afif [age 6] is very smart, she understands that he is dead; Salin [4] is still waiting for him to come back,” Hiba relates. “A few days ago, she said she wants to go to Daddy and pointed upward. Another time she saw someone returning from Mecca and asked when Daddy would be back from his plane trip.”

In January 2015, TV Channel 10 News correspondent Hezi Simantov met with Nababta while working on a report about Shoafat refugee camp. Nababta proudly introduced him to his daughters and, with the two of them sitting on his lap said, “Inshallah, the situation will change, in another few years things, will not be like this. First of all, there will be no war, there will be no violence. Inshallah, there will be a Palestinian state, there will be peace.”

Police response

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Israel Police provided the following statement: “Since Baha Nababta’s death, the Israel Police have been conducting an intensive investigation concerning suspicion of murder. Immediately upon receipt of the report about the event, the police deployed to enter Shoafat refugee camp with the aim of trying to get to the scene in order to collect forensic findings needed to open the investigation. In the wake of violent disturbances against the forces, the investigators were compelled to arrive only at a later stage, after those involved in the disturbances were dispersed. This naturally degrades the quality of the findings and is significantly affecting the investigation.

“Within the framework of the police investigation, which is still ongoing, a variety of overt and covert investigative actions have been conducted, including: taking of testimony, arrest of a number of suspects, collection and analysis of forensic findings and more, all with the use of advanced methods. The Israel Police will continue to investigate the case professionally, with the aim of solving it and striving to get to the truth. The family will be notified in accordance with the progress made in the investigation.”

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