For a Month, a Palestinian Family Watched Over Their Mentally Ill Son. He Escaped and Hit a Soldier With His Car

A young father has been in a psychotic state for weeks, his doctor and relatives say. Since he ran away and hit a soldier with his car, he's been in detention without access to medication. The Shin Bet isn't involved in the investigation, yet he's already been labeled a 'terrorist'

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The man's car at the crash scene at the settlement of Halamish.
The man's car at the crash scene at the settlement of Halamish. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Three young children run around the living room in a house in the Palestinian village of Bil’in in the West Bank. Their grandmother sits there silently, her face frozen. Her husband says she has been like that for days.

Their 30-year-old son, the children’s father, is in Israeli custody. According to family members and a psychiatrist who treated him, he has been in a manic state with symptoms of psychosis for weeks. Early last week he ran away from his family, which then called the Israeli police and Palestinian security forces, alerting them and making one request: don't shoot him.

For a month, they had been protecting him from himself while he was on medication, waiting for his condition to stabilize. A day after he ran off for the first time, he drove his car through the house’s garage door. He drove off and crashed into the car of another Bil’in resident, before taking off.

He later hit a soldier with the car, moderately injuring him. The Israel Defense Forces announced that a “terrorist” had committed a car-ramming attack at the settlement of Halamish before being arrested. He wasn't shot.

Bil’in, where the man grew up, is a politicized place. The man’s cousin is an organizer of anti-occupation activism in the village, where protests were once held weekly. However, the father says his son has never been interested in politics; he has worked as a laborer in Israel and never taken an interest in the demonstrations.

“We really tried to protect him," he says. "When he was a kid, we didn’t even let him go to the calmest demonstrations. The occupation and politics were never on his mind." He adds that in recent weeks, his son repeatedly spoke about his desire to return to work when he felt better.

A month ago, the man’s wife told his parents that she was concerned. Her husband had stopped sleeping and eating.

This was untypical behavior for a person with a very long daily routine. For seven years, he had been a construction worker in Israel. He usually left for work at 4 A.M. and returned at 6 P.M., but during coronavirus lockdowns he would sleep in Israel for weeks, based on the country’s regulations.

His father says that his son planned to buy a house and that he and his wife are expecting another child. When he started behaving strangely, his family turned to a psychiatrist.

“He was behaving abnormally. He would sing and recite verses from the Koran; he didn’t want his son or his mother to come near him. He would curse us and the children, not recognizing them,” the father says. The family says the psychiatrist didn’t think the son had suicidal tendencies and did not treat him as though he did.

The man's son and father, showing his son's medication, at the family home in Bil'in in the West Bank. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The medication didn’t help. According to the family, he didn’t sleep for four days and hardly ate anything. They called a more senior psychiatrist, who came to their home and changed the prescription, but the patient would not cooperate.

“We brought in 15 people to hold him down so he would take his medicine but he spit it out,” his father says. In the end, they succeeded. They moved him to a room outside of the house. His cousins took turns watching him.

“We didn’t leave him for a minute. I was there 24 hours a day to make sure he didn’t do anything. He wasn’t violent, but we didn’t know what he might do,” a cousin says.

Another cousin says that in retrospect, it's possible the pressure cooker that village residents were living in prompted the symptoms. “You have to realize that with us, people don’t go to a psychiatrist; it’s perceived as something negative,” he says.

“But recently, because of the coronavirus and the hopelessness of the political situation, people are under increasing pressure. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was outright harassment of laborers who worked in Israel. They were accused of bringing in the virus into the West Bank, but if they didn’t work, they would have no food to bring home.”

He also notes the sense of diminishing space in the West Bank. “A settler at an outpost here shot somebody,” the cousin says, referring to the killing of 34-year-old Khaled Nofal, who was unarmed. “There are people who blow up over such feelings, while others manage to deal with it.”

Not armed and dangerous

A few days after the man started taking medication in a different dosage, his condition began to improve. Then he reduced the dose, followed by a deterioration immediately noticed by his family. At midnight into Monday, he wanted to go for a walk.

The metal gate at the family home after the man drove through it. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We said okay, let him go out for a bit. We walked behind him with three other guys and a car following us,” his father says. After 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), they asked him to get in the car. He got in but insisted to see his grandfather 4 kilometers away. When they refused, he jumped out of the car and ran off.

“We called the Palestinian police and preventive security forces, the Palestinian coordinators [with Israel] and the Israeli police,” his father says. “We were afraid he’d go to the Dolev settlement nearby where they’d be suspicious and shoot him.”

The cousin says in fluent Hebrew that he told the police his cousin was unarmed and not dangerous. The police didn’t respond to the family’s call, and relatives searched for him in nearby villages until 3 A.M., when he was found outside his grandfather’s house.

“He didn’t even go in,” his father says with a smile. “When I found him, he laughed and said that after he saw us looking for him, he went hiding.”

The next morning the man received a call from the Shin Bet. On the line was an officer presenting himself as Captain Dori. His family says they talked for an hour. The officer asked him to explain where he had gone that night and where he worked.

He then gave the phone to his cousin, who says the officer asked the family to look after him. But around noon, his wife took the children to visit relatives and the man became agitated.

The father says his son asked when his wife was returning, and when told that it would be in the evening, he got up and said he would bring his wife and children back immediately.

He broke a nargila water pipe, a pitcher, a small table and glasses, took the car keys and got in the car as his father closed the gate. He says that his son crashed into a post, showing the marks left on it by their car.

His father points to the marks the car left on the wall of their home.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“He backed up and I shut the garage door and faced him,” the father says. “He drove toward me and I thought he would run me over, his own father. I jumped to the side and he crashed into the gate, knocking it over.” The metal gate now lies beside the house, some of it bent.

“He drove really fast,” the father says. “I called everybody and we started chasing him.” It was too late. He hit another villager’s car and kept on driving.

It was the car of Ahmed Omar Mustafa, a member of the village council. He says he had just finished the afternoon prayer with a group of worshippers. He had just started driving when he was rammed from behind. “I blew my horn so he would stop but he kept driving at an insane speed,” Mustafa says.

He followed the man, worried that he would hit someone else. When Mustafa got to the wadi between Bil’in and the village of Kharbatha, he phoned residents there so they could join the chase. The man kept driving extremely fast.

When Mustafa turned around, he called the council and learned the name of the family that was looking for their son. He says he knew that the man had psychological problems. “If I had known it was him, I wouldn’t have chased him like that or done anything,” Mustafa says.

The man’s family believes that the crash into Mustafa’s car and the ensuing chase led him toward Kharbatha and then Halamish, instead of continuing in his original direction toward the village where his wife was. After days of trying to protect their son, they heard about the incident at Halamish where the soldier was hurt. When they saw photos, they realized the driver was their son.

"We thought he was dead," his father says. "His mother started to cry. No one hurts soldiers and comes out alive, whether he meant to or not." A few minutes later they felt relief: They saw a photo of him in custody.

‘The terrorist’

A few minutes after hearing news of the incident, his cousin received a call from the Shin Bet’s Captain Dori. “He reminded me that I promised to look after him,” the cousin says, adding that he tried to explain that everything happened too quickly.

Soon after, officials from the Halamish, the nearby settlement, demanded that the road be closed to Palestinian vehicles. Israeli TV later aired a story criticizing medical personnel for evacuating the “terrorist” in a helicopter along with the injured soldier.

The parents were worried that their son would be harshly interrogated by the Shin Bet because the incident was considered a terror attack; he would be labeled a terrorist. But they soon found out that he was being questioned by the police, not the Shin Bet.

Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

A military judge in the West Bank extended his detention by 15 days, with the court saying the man was living with serious psychological issues. It ordered the prison service to send him for a psychiatric assessment to establish whether he could remain in detention and whether he was able to have malicious intent when he hit the soldier.

The police investigator present at the court hearing said the suspect claimed he had lost control of the car. But he also said there was “considerable suspicion” that the man had a political motive for hitting the soldier intentionally.

Unlike most probes into such incidents, the Shin Bet isn’t taking part, suggesting that the agency does not consider it a terror attack. The man’s family also has not been questioned by the Shin Bet.

The family is now focusing on getting the medication their son needs so his condition can stabilize and he can be released. They tried to get him his medication though the police but were told he needed a psychiatric assessment first.

As of last week when this article was published in Hebrew, the man had not yet been transferred to a civilian prison; he has remained at the Etzion military detention center, which is considered a facility with harsher conditions. After Haaretz' report in Hebrew, the man was taken to psychiatric assessment and moved to the Ofer military prison.

The circumstances of the man’s life have not prevented the media from depicting the incident at Halamish as part of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. This includes Palestinian journalists, his cousin says.

“When they came here, they tried saying he was brave, a hero, and we told everyone: Don’t make this story into something it isn’t,” the cousin says. “If it’s an accident you have to say it; if someone is sick, you have to say it. Some people aren’t involved in the conflict. That’s his story.”

Responses

The police are still using the word “terrorist” to describe the incident. “The investigation into the attack that took place at Halamish Junction is still underway,” a police spokesman said. “As always, we cannot give details on ongoing investigations but will continue to investigate to arrive at the truth.”

The military is also still calling the incident a terror attack, and acknowledged in a statement to Haaretz that the suspect had not been examined by a psychiatrist. “He was arrested on suspicion of committing a car-ramming attack on January 11, 2021, as a result of which an IDF soldier was wounded," the statement said.

"His detention was extended by a military court so that the investigation could continue. As part of the investigation and in the hearing on his detention, claims were raised about the man’s mental state. The court ordered a psychiatric assessment,” which he said was scheduled to take place Thursday.

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