There's No Room for Doubt: This Was the Execution of a Helpless 60-year-old Palestinian Woman

The pandemic drove Fehmiye Hrub to put herself in harm's way. She approached an IDF checkpoint, knife in hand, confused and frightened. Soldiers shot her in the stomach, later saying she was hit in the legs. Then the army took her body away

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Fehmiye Hrub.
Fehmiye Hrub.Credit: Courtesy of the family

It’s an appalling video that leaves no room for doubt: This was an execution. The victim was a helpless, older woman who wanted to end her life. The soldiers who executed her were either craven cowards of the sort who take fright at the sight of a sick, elderly woman with a knife, or they were cruel and inhuman and had no sense of judgment. One of them did shout to the others “Stop!” – but it was too late. Soldiers of the Nahal Brigade apparently know only one surefire way stop a mentally unstable woman, who could be their grandmother. A woman holding a kitchen knife in her limp hand – her husband later confirmed that it had been taken from their home – who did not endanger them for a second. And that way is: Shoot to kill.

They roared at her and then backed away as if she were a bold, young terrorist and not a heavyset woman who barely moved forward. The Israel Defense Forces thought these soldiers had acted properly, perhaps even in an outstanding way. The army doesn’t always release video footage of incidents like this one, but this time it made the video of the execution available – proof, ostensibly, that the troops had acted correctly. But this clip actually leaves no room for doubt: This was the execution of a helpless, 60-year-old woman. There is no other way to describe what happened this past Sunday morning at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank, near Bethlehem.

The incident was barely reported in most of the Israeli media. And in the few items covering the story, the woman was called a “terrorist,” the incident was called a case of “terror,” and some even referred to “those who dispatched the terrorist” on her ostensible mission.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism) averred that the military rules of engagement need revision: From his viewpoint, the soldiers waited too long before carrying out the killing (although the entire incident apparently lasted about one minute). A few hours later, Palestinians shot at yeshiva students from the settlement of Itamar at the Tapuah Junction in the West Bank, wounding two seriously, one of whom later died of his injuries. The two incidents were referred to in the same breath as possibly heralding a new intifada.

The day after their tragedy, five of Fehmiye Hrub’s 10 siblings waited in a small, cramped room in a house in Husan, a Palestinian village west of Bethlehem, for their sister’s body, so they could hold a funeral and lay her to rest. But in vain. Israeli authorities confiscated Fehmiye’s body for its own reasons, as it does with the remains of terrorists, and refused to return it. They also prevented family members from parting from her in her final hours, as she lay dying in Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. There was even an attempt to prevent a hospital physician from calling the family to inform them of the death of their loved one.

On Monday, the siblings talked about their late sister. Her husband, Hamed al-Hrub, a retired housepainter of 65, mourned her in their home in the nearby village of Wadi Fukin.

Fehmiye had helped to raise some of her younger brothers, among them Ibrahim Zaoul, 45, and 50-year-old Muamen, after the death of their mother. The woman who went to the checkpoint with a knife was married in Wadi Fukin at the age of 20 and then went to live for some years with her husband in Jordan, where she studied women’s literature. After they returned she opened three beauty salons, each time in a different place – first in Wadi Fukin, then Husan and in the end, in the town of Al-Khader. Her specialty was hairdos for brides; her salons were called The World of Beauty.

The couple tried unsuccessfully to have children for years, even undergoing in-vitro fertilization. Fehmiye persuaded Hamed to marry a second woman so he could become a father; she even tried to find him a suitable partner. In 2001, he married a Bethlehem woman, Hawala, who’s now 45. After a few years she bore him a son, Mohammed, who’s 15 today. They lived in the same apartment building in Wadi Fukin: Fehmiye resided on the first floor, and Hamed and his new family lived on the third floor. They were one family: Mohammed even called Fehmiye “mother.” The relations between the husband and his two wives were also good, the family says.

The past year, the year of the coronavirus pandemic, was hard on Fehmiye. The salon she opened 10 years ago in Al-Khader shut down and she was out of work; she then entered into a partnership with a Hebron man, Jalal Abadin, and opened a children’s clothing store at the same venue and with the same name. But that venture also failed. In the past few months her mental state deteriorated and her ability to grasp reality became diminished. She was constantly fearful that her business partner was stealing her money – her siblings say these fears were groundless and that he was straight with her – and she became anxious about her economic situation, which in fact was not too bad.

Fehmiye’s siblings tried to persuade her to close the business, sell the store and go on enjoying her life with the money that would remain, but she was convinced she was destitute. Although she had recovered fully from breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed three years ago, now it was her mental condition that was worsening. She became compulsive, she cried a great deal and she spent most of her time in the homes of her siblings, going from one to the other and returning home only to sleep. She kept asking them for money, even though she had plenty of cash in her purse.

Fehmiye’s condition took a turn for the worse. One night she disappeared. The next day her relatives in the town of Doha, outside Bethlehem, found her, sleeping or perhaps passed out, lying next to a horse in a stable. That was on April 5. Her siblings took her to the Al-Hussein Hospital nearby, in Beit Jala, where she told the physicians that she had swallowed 40 pills of an anti-diabetes medication that she takes. Her stomach was pumped and she had to undergo dialysis – her kidneys were damaged by the pills. She was released from the hospital a week later.

But Fehmiye’s mental state did not improve. The siblings say she talked about wanting to go back to the age of 25, to the fine times when she did brides’ hair. Her siblings took her to the Palestinian Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center in Bethlehem. She didn’t take the pills she was given there during her first visit, on April 15, so she was brought back to the center two weeks later, on May 1, the day before she went to the checkpoint to die. Psychiatrist Dr. Tawfiq Salman, who examined her at the center, reported suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, and also that she was refusing medicative treatment. He prescribed Zyprexa and Seroxat (an anti-psychotic and an anti-depressant), and asked her family to keep an eye on her and to try to persuade her to take the drugs. The siblings told her that if she refused to take the medication, they would be forced to commit her to a psychiatric hospital.

Fehmiye Hrub’s bereaved family, with her brother Ibrahim Zaoul in the foreground.Credit: Alex Levac

When they returned from the psychiatrist last Saturday, Fehmiye went to Muamen’s house, where she ate the meal breaking the Ramadan fast. Muamen drove her home to Wadi Fukin around 11:30 that night. He also asked her husband, Hamed, to keep close watch on her. Muamen called his sister at 8 o’clock the next morning, but there was no answer. He tried again and again, around 10 times. He became increasingly concerned and finally called Hamed. He didn’t know where she was, either; she wasn’t answering his calls. He went out to look for her near the house but to no avail.

Later it emerged that she was shot at about 8:25 Sunday morning, but was only admitted an hour later to Shaare Zedek, which was about 20 minutes’ drive from the checkpoint. That means that Fehmiya probably lay wounded on the ground for about a half hour, when she could have been receiving emergency life-saving medical treatment.

At about 8:30 A.M., the Israeli Shin Bet security service called Hamed and told him to come quickly to the Gush Etzion Junction: “Your wife carried out a terrorist attack.” When Hamed arrived, he was interrogated at length and sent on his way, without being allowed to see his wife, who was still lying on the sidewalk, covered up except for her head. At 9 o’clock her brothers saw the video that had been uploaded to the web, but they still believed that the army’s account – that she had only been shot in the legs – was not the lie it turned out to be.

Throughout the entire day the family didn’t know what Fehmiye’s condition was or even where she was: Naturally, no one had bothered to inform them. They sent a friend from East Jerusalem to look for her in the local hospitals, but he didn’t find her in any of them, including Shaare Zedek.

That afternoon, the Jerusalem-based human rights organization Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual received a report to the effect that a Palestinian woman had been seriously wounded and was in the intensive care unit at Shaare Zedek, sedated and on a ventilator. From the report, the NGO’s staff understood that her family was unaware of her condition. Hamoked contacted the Physicians for Human Rights NGO, which discovered that the woman was in critical condition. The Shaare Zedek physician who spoke to PHR also said that a hospital social worker had asked the army to allow the woman’s family to come to the hospital in order to see her before her death, but that her request had been denied.

Naji Abbas of PHR called the family to update them; the organization considered petitioning the High Court of Justice to permit the family to see Fehmiye. A Shaare Zedek physician also called the family, in defiance of a request from army representatives not to do so. “I work for the hospital and not the army,” he said afterward. Fehmiye died shortly after PHR started to set the High Court process in motion. She was pronounced dead at 7:14 P.M. on Sunday.

The knife Fehmiye Hrub was holding.Credit: IDF Spokesperson

Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit the following questions: Why didn’t the soldiers try to stop Fehmiye Hrub? Why didn’t they shoot only at her legs? Does the fact that the army released the video mean that the Nahal Brigade soldiers acted properly? Why was the family not permitted to part from her as she lay dying in the hospital?

The unit offered the following response: “On Sunday morning, a Palestinian woman armed with a knife arrived at the Gush Etzion Junction in the area of the Etzion Territorial Brigade and threatened to stab civilians and IDF fighters who were there. The fighters tried to stop her by means of warning shouts, shooting in the air, and finally also by shooting at her. Afterward, she was administered first aid by an army medical team and was evacuated for continued treatment to the hospital. The incident is being investigated.”

The family are still awaiting the return of the body. This week Meretz MK Mossi Raz wrote Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan): “This is a harrowing story of a normal woman who encountered mental difficulties.” He requested that Fehmiye’s body be returned to her family; no reply has been received yet.

One of Fehmiye’s brothers, Ibrahim Zaoul, asked us this week when we visited the family, “How can it be that a soldier, who is trained for war, for planes and tanks, couldn’t stop an elderly woman?”

The Shaare Zedek report on Fehmiye Hrub, detailing all the medical intervention, signed by Dr. Carmi Ben Hur, states: “60 years old, no known medical background, admitted to trauma room with gunshot wounds in stomach, right leg and hand… The patient died, we informed the bereaved family.”

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