Zain, just over 4 years old, stares into space in his small room with dead eyes, making not a sound. He’s sitting on his grandmother’s knees – although he thinks she’s his mother, because that’s what he has been told. Now he’s also been informed that his father has been killed, although it’s unlikely that he is able to grasp the enormity of the new catastrophe that has befallen him.
Three years ago, still a baby, he lost his mother. Last Friday he lost his father, too – a mentally disabled young man who was incapable of speech. In a senseless act, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, using live ammunition, shot him in the chest from a range of 20 meters, killing him.
Three days after Zain was orphaned, we saw him as he sat mutely in his grandmother’s lap. Because of the family’s dire economic situation, the boy will likely be placed in an orphanage, his grandmother says, promising that she will visit him regularly.
Words fail in this house of suffering; it is a time of anguish and tears. The home is a stone structure in Hebron’s Old City, above the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the settlers’ neighborhood, but in H1 – the area that is supposedly under Palestinian control. Dimness reigns in the house.
As one’s eyes grow used to the gloom, an incredible reality takes shape. In this house live a couple with their 12 children, four of whom are disabled, along with some young grandchildren, all squeezed into three small rooms. The disabled offspring suffer from a variety of problems, including mental illness and epilepsy.
Also in this house lived a young mother, who died at 18 from cancer, about a year after her only child was born. And in this house lived her husband, Mohammed Jabri, 24, who was raising their young son, Zain, alone. Now the father is dead, too. Killed by the Israel Defense Forces.
Amid the dinginess of the living room, the occupants of the house come and go, participants in scenes that beggar description. They include 21-year-old Iyad, who has epilepsy and is also mentally handicapped; and sisters Anwar, 20, and Isra, 17, both of them incapable of speech other than incomprehensible sounds, exactly like their dead brother.
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Everyone is now wrenched in grief over Mohammed, the son and brother, who was killed next to the fence of the girls' high school on King Faisal Street in Hebron. Three soldiers, who were hiding behind the trunk of an ancient olive tree, lurking in ambush for stone throwers in the schoolyard, suddenly darted from their hiding place and shot Mohammed, whose father says he could never grasp the meaning of approaching danger.
“Mohammed was very simple. He would not have noticed, for example, the danger of soldiers who were shooting,” Zain, the father, for whom the grandson is named, says. Nor did he know the difference between a 50-shekel note and a half-shekel coin in this poverty-stricken home. “For him everything was half a shekel,” adds Zain.
In Hebron, where everyone knew Mohammed because of his strange behavior, he was called “Akha, Akha” – an echo of the meaningless sounds he uttered. “Akha, Akha” was what he habitually shouted at the Israeli soldiers, some of whom also knew who he was. He often taunted them at the checkpoints situated between the two parts of the city, shouting guttural noises at them, sometimes also throwing stones.
Twice he was arrested but on both occasions was quickly transferred to the custody of the Palestinian Authority, which brought him back home to his parents, because of his condition. The last time that happened was half a year ago. He also shot and wounded in the legs three times while throwing stones, but the injuries weren’t serious.
So “Akha, Akha” went on provoking the soldiers, as he did last Friday, too, on what turned out to be the last day of his life. “The Israeli government and the army knew exactly who Mohammed was. After all, they arrested him and released him,” Zain tells us, during our visit this week.
Ablaa, his mother, weeps as her husband tells the story. They are both 51. Zain works in a garage in the village of Husan, most of whose clients are from the large ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit, nearby. Mohammed worked in occasional odd jobs such as road paving, as far as his disabilities allowed. After Duah, his wife and the mother of little Zain, died, he remarried, but his second wife, Amal, left him after a year. She probably found it difficult to live together with her disabled husband in this crowded and dismal house of tragedy.
Only Mohammed’s father and one of his sisters, Asma, were able to understand what was in his heart and to decipher his weird utterances. Mohammed also couldn’t read or write, and communicating with him was torturous.
His father relates that Mohammed was sad after Amal abandoned him, and tried sending emissaries to her family, to persuade her to return; he also asked Zain to bring her back, but it was no use. Ablaa recalls that on the last evening of his life, Mohammed was especially sad. He went to sleep earlier than usual, and rose later than usual the following day. She was so worried about him that she went to check on him a few times during the night to make sure he was still breathing, she says now, through tears.
It was already after 10 o’clock when Mohammed awoke on Friday. His father had long since gone to the garage for work; his mother sent Mohammed to the grocery store to buy chicken. Afterward he went to the mosque to pray, but he never returned. Ablaa remembers that she prepared maqluba, a traditional meat-and-rice dish; because he was late for lunch, she kept his portion for him on the counter.
“He was so sensitive,” she says now. “You could never know where he went.”
Mohammed still hadn’t returned when Zain came home from work, washed his hands and sat down to eat. A relative called Asma to say that Mohammed had been wounded in his legs. “May God have mercy on him,” his father intoned, upon hearing the news, adding now that he was filled with foreboding that the situation was more serious than that. He and Ablaa drove quickly to Alia Hospital in Hebron, all the while reciting under his breath the verse said in cases of death: “May God compensate us.” His wife tried to calm him down. Now she says, “May God punish the soldiers who killed Mohammed” – and begins to weep again.
Dozens of local residents were already crowding around the emergency room when they got to the hospital. Zain says he was the last to know the truth about his son’s condition.
He left the car in the middle of the street and ran inside. The physicians asked him who he was, and he identified himself. They were still trying to revive his son at that stage. Zain says he’d never seen a sight like it: His son’s whole body was covered with blood, as was his face. The floor was also drenched in blood. He could barely identity Mohammed, and demanded that the doctors tell him the truth. One of them said, “May God compensate you.”
Afterward, Zain recalls, IDF soldiers arrived at the hospital in order to arrest Mohammed. The family hurriedly smuggled the body out in a private car and took it to the city’s other hospital, Al-Ahli.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated, in response to a query from Haaretz: “On Friday, March 9, 2018, a violent disorder broke out, with dozens of Palestinians participating, in the city of Hebron, during which stones, boulders and Molotov cocktails were thrown at IDF forces.
“From an initial investigation, it seems that during the event, the [Israeli] force shot at one demonstrator who raised an ignited Molotov cocktail from close range with the intention of hurting them. The demonstrator was wounded from the gunfire, and later, at the hospital, was declared dead. The circumstances of the event continue to be under review.
“In contrast to what was claimed [in your article], at no point did IDF forces come to the hospital in connection with the body of the deceased.”
Mohammed’s bereaved and epileptic brother, Iyad, now enters the room. How old are you? “I am 16,” Iyad, who’s actually 21, replies. He looks distraught. “I lost Mohammed, I lost Mohammed,” he mumbles repeatedly, and sits down. A few minutes later he gets up, obviously agitated – deeply, if not threateningly – until his father manages to calm him down.
Says Zain: “When they want to kill someone, there is no difference for them between rich and poor, healthy and sick, normal and mentally ill. They could have arrested him, they could have shot him in the legs, but they decided to shoot that bullet into him.”
It emerges that Mohammed was hit by one live round that entered his chest on the right side and exited his back on the left side. Zain says he wants to file a complaint with the military authorities because of the killing of his son, but is afraid they will confiscate the Israeli work permits held by family members.
We then drove to the killing site. Girls were milling around on the basketball court in the schoolyard. It’s worth repeating that this is not an Israeli-controlled part of Hebron. The soldiers invaded the site, as usual, in pursuit of people who were throwing stones from the roof of a house abutting the nearby checkpoint.
The settlement of Tel Rumeida looms on the hill opposite. King Faisal Street, a main and noisy thoroughfare. According to Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who investigated the incident, only Mohammed and another three or four young people confronted the soldiers on that fateful day, no more.
A bullet hole is visible in the silver-gray iron gate of the girls’ high school. On the road is a bloodstain, now dry.