Death at a Roadblock, on the Way to Work

Mohammed Bader recounts how his father was shot to death by Border Police while trying to reach his job in Israel.

It was late at night on Tisha B'Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, on Sunday, July 29. On that night, as every night, thousands of Palestinian laborers were sneaking into Israel. By sneaking in, they essentially proved wrong the ridiculous mantra that says the separation barrier is "preventing terror." All the illegal sojourners (as Israel calls them ) want to do is work in Israel. And one of these workers, not the first, was "neutralized" on the night of Tisha B'Av by Border Police. The policemen did not bother to approach the van he was traveling in, or even arrest its passengers; first they fired scores of bullets at it.

Hassan Bader was killed before his son's eyes. Together they had squeezed into the middle bench of a Ford Transit Connect, a small van, with Israeli plates, whose driver had promised to bring them and their fellow workers into Israel for NIS 250 each. Hassan, 47, was the only child of his elderly parents, who since 1967 have been living in Jordan, as he did as well for a time; when he died, they were permitted to return to their hometown for their son's funeral.

Mohammed, Hassan's bereaved son, sat with us this week on the porch of the family home in the village of Bitilu, not far from Ramallah, and reconstructed the events of that night for us and Iyad Hadad, an investigator from the B'Tselem human rights organization.

On that fateful night, the Bader family sat down for a meal to break the fast, as is their custom every night during the month of Ramadan. Three days earlier, Hassan had returned from a visit to his parents in Jordan after hearing that his mother had fallen ill. That evening, after the meal, he phoned his parents and asked them to pray for his well-being and safety because that night he intended to set out for work in Israel again. Today, Aziza, his mother, says that her heart had foreseen disaster because of this unusual phone call: Hassan had only just returned from Jordan and he was already phoning again? She did as bidden and prayed for his well-being.

Hassan had returned alone to the village of his birth in 1998, leaving his parents behind in Jordan. He married in the village and had two sons: Mohammed, who is now 20, and Ala, 17. Up until last month Hassan had a permit to work in Israel. He painted houses in the Kiryat Sefer neighborhood of Modi'in Ilit, in the West Bank, and at various building sites in Israel. About a month ago he started working for a new construction company but, according to Mohammed, he had not yet received a new work permit.

For the past two years Hassan had taken his elder son with him to work in Israel although he had no chance of receiving a work permit because of his age. In recent months father and son worked at a Danya Cebus construction company building site in Ramat Gan, sneaking in at the beginning of the week and sleeping in the skeleton of the building until the end of the work week.

On Tisha B'Av at around 9 P.M., a yellow van came to pick up Hassan and Mohammed. Its Palestinian driver made his way through the villages in the area, picking up more and more workers on their nocturnal way to Israel. Five passengers boarded in Bitilu, four at Deir 'Ammar, two at the Deir 'Ammar refugee camp, two at Qibya and two at Jamila.

Usually they would drive to the gas station on Highway 443, where they would transfer to a vehicle with an Israeli license plate, in which they would sneak into the country. This time, however, the route was different: They drove to a gas station behind the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, where the smuggler-driver, an Israeli Arab or someone from East Jerusalem, was already waiting; the Bader family has no idea who he was.

The Bitilu muezzin interrupts Mohammed's reconstruction of events of the night two weeks ago, calling upon local residents to go to Ramallah in the evening for a prayer of solidarity with Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Afterward, the young man resumes his account.

Fifteen Palestinian laborers crowded into the Ford Connect van - way beyond its permitted capacity. The windows were blocked and a curtain separated the driver from the compartment behind him, to prevent the passengers from being seen. The accompanying car - the one that always drives in front of the smuggling vehicle to check out the situation - was also ready and waiting. The entire enterprise of smuggling laborers into Israel is well organized and planned.

Hassan and Mohammed Bader sat together in the middle section, with another laborer, named Khaled, sitting on their laps. Behind them another six workers squeezed in, in addition to yet another six, one of whom sat beside the driver in front.

The driver of the accompanying car was in constant cell-phone contact with the driver of the van behind him, reporting on what he saw ahead. The vehicles drove in the direction of the Al-Za'im roadblock, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There are two infiltration routes from there, depending on the situation: via the roadblock or by crossing the separation barrier on foot to get to yet another vehicle on the other side.

In the laborers' van, they were sure they were going to cross via the barrier. The driver of the accompanying car thought otherwise: He said over the phone to the Ford driver that the police at the roadblock were busy and so they could probably get through it easily. It was nearly midnight.

Then when they had already reached Al-Za'im, the driver in the first vehicle phoned again: He had changed his mind, the situation at the roadblock was dangerous. The driver of the van quickly shifted into reverse but his motor sputtered out for some reason. By the time he managed to restart the vehicle there was already another car in line behind him and he was unable to turn around and flee.

The accompanying car had gone on its way and the Border Police manning the roadblock were waiting for the Ford to advance. The accompanying driver also phoned and shouted at him that the police were on their way.

The van's driver panicked: He was afraid to be caught with 15 illegal workers in his vehicle. He turned on his blinking hazard lights, as if to indicate that he had a mechanical problem, as three Border Policemen approached the van. One of them banged on the hood of the Ford and ordered the driver to open the door, but the driver restarted the car, and tried to escape quickly into the road leading to the adjacent village of Al-Za'im, without passing through the checkpoint.

Mohammed relates that the Border Police immediately threw a stun grenade, or something like that, and within seconds they began to spray the car with bullets from every direction. He says he did not hear a warning to stop. The laborers shouted to the driver to stop at once but he continued driving. After going past a turn in the road, about 100 meters from the roadblock, one of the laborers, who had been wounded in his leg, forcefully pulled on the handbrake and the vehicle jerked to a stop on the spot. The passengers quickly opened the door and started running in all directions. The Border Police were not seen approaching or running after them at the time.

Meanwhile, Mohammed says he realized that his father hadn't left the car, and that he didn't respond when Mohammed called to him. When he looked in, he saw blood streaming from the back of his father's neck. Khaled, the passenger who had been sitting on them, was also wounded but the driver had already managed to get him out of the Ford through the window.

As Mohammed began to shout for help, the driver jumped back into the vehicle and drove off, with the wounded Hassan inside.

Hassan's mother Aziza sits listening to her grandson's account. The Israeli authorities allowed her to return to her village for the funeral and a limited period of three months, but now her sole desire is that she be permitted to remain in Bitilu to spend her remaining years with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren.

Back to the story: Four wounded men were taken out of the vehicle by people from Al-Za'im and brought to the hospital in Ramallah. One of them was later transferred to Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Karem because of the severity of his injuries. The van with Hassan dying inside it was nowhere in sight.

Only after about 40 minutes, as Mohammed tried to enlist the help of locals to search for the van that had driven off with his wounded father, was Hassan found bleeding, thrown by the side of one of the roads in the village. He was still breathing.

A little while later the villagers also found the van, burned, by the side of the road. The driver had disappeared. An Israeli ambulance had arrived at the roadblock in the meantime to take the dying Hassan to Hadassah, but by then Mohammed had already gone to the hospital in Ramallah thinking his father would be brought there like the other wounded men. Some time later relatives phoned and told him his father was in very grave condition, and had been admitted to Hadassah. The family tried to call to find out about his condition and finally one relative who lives in East Jerusalem went to the hospital. But he was too late.

The family subsequently gave permission for an autopsy of Hassan, in the presence of a doctor from the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights-Israel organization, who was brought in at the behest of B'Tselem.

The Border Police spokesman has provided this response: "An initial inquiry indicates that a vehicle seen in suspicious circumstances did not respond to the policemen's calls to stop on the uphill slope in the direction of the Al-Za'im roadblock and continued to drive wildly in the direction of the roadblock. The police at the barrier signaled repeatedly to the driver to stop and he continued driving while attempting to hit policemen, endangering the lives of others, both civilians and police. A number of bullets were fired in the direction of the vehicle but it did not stop and continued driving into the village of Al-Za'im. The driver of the vehicle left the wounded by the side of the road and fled."

Haaretz was also informed that Border Police fighters at the roadblocks "constitute the final obstacle before entrance into [Israel's] cities" and that "the fighters' sensitivity and their reactions are a result of alarms and lessons learned from incidents that have occurred in situations of this sort."

This week the bereaved son Mohammed was summoned to testify before the Justice Ministry's department for the investigation of police officers, together with other laborers who were in the vehicle. Prior to that B'Tselem's Iyad Hadad took testimony from most of the eyewitnesses; the organization will prepare a report on the incident.

Hassan Bader's body was returned to the village two days later and was buried in the local cemetery shortly after the afternoon prayers marking the end of the Ramadan fast. His bereaved parents had managed to arrive from Jordan in time to attend the funeral of their only son.