The School Year That Never Started

One of his nephews served in the IDF, and two others serve in the Border Police. But that didn't help 11-year old Mahmoud al-Qarinawi, who was killed by undercover officers of the same force

They sit in the living room in Rahat, grieving over the dead child. His Palestinian mother, five of whose children from a previous marriage are in Israeli prisons, and some of whom are Islamic Jihad activists; his Israeli father, a pensioner who worked in the Arad sanitation department; and the boy's older nephew, who served in the Israel Defense Forces. Two other nephews are currently serving in the Border Police, the unit whose undercover agents killed their young uncle - an Israeli 11-year-old named Mahmoud al-Qarinawi. Sounds crazy, no?

Mahmoud had climbed the fig tree in the yard to pick some figs for lunch, when his stepbrother, Sadiq Awdi, 22, a wanted Islamic Jihad member, came to the house armed and accompanied by a friend, also a wanted man, to see his mother and brothers who live in Israel. According to witnesses, undercover officers (mist'arvim) suddenly entered the house and began firing indiscriminately, killing the boy in the tree, seriously wounding his stepbrother and killing the friend. In addition to her two sons and one daughter, who were already imprisoned, bereaved mother Najah al-Qarinawi now has two more in jail: Sadiq, who was seriously wounded and subsequently arrested, and his brother Wafiq, who accompanied the body of his stepbrother to the dead boy's home in Israel and was arrested for being in the country illegally. A stepbrother escorting a sibling's body to burial in Israel, after the boy was killed by Israel, is also considered an illegal who must be thrown in jail.

With one child dead and four sons and a daughter in Israeli prisons, one of them seriously wounded - Najah sits in her home in the Bedouin town of Rahat, crying over Mahmoud and displaying the new clothes and book bag she had bought for him for the new school year that he didn't live to see. New Nike shoes, designer jeans and fashionable T-shirts, with the price tags still attached. Mahmoud didn't want to put on the Nikes until the first day of school. He was an excellent student. Last year, in fifth grade, he had an overall average grade of 98, except for in Hebrew, his poorest subject, in which he received 75.

By the time he turned 11, Mahmoud was already a homeowner. His father, who is over 80, built his youngest child a home in the family compound in Rahat. The construction is nearly complete. The walls are plastered and the windows are barred; little Mahmoud also wanted a Jacuzzi, but it was not yet installed. It was in this empty house that they laid out his small body last Saturday.

On his father's side, he had just one brother: aged 60. The brother's children - his father's grandchildren - served in the IDF and the Border Police. One of them is still serving in the regular army. On his mother's side Mahmoud has the five step-siblings in prison, plus two stepsisters, 16 and 18, who remained behind in the village of Saida, between Tul Karm and Jenin, at the house where the boy was killed. The saga of this complicated family ended badly. Very badly.

In 1995, Najah, a 46-year-old widow and mother of seven from Saida, married the elderly widower Ibrahim from Rahat, who had one child, and they started a new family. Mahmoud, their only child together, was born in 1996. Najah came to live in Rahat illegally. Her son Mahmoud was an Israeli citizen, who spoke Hebrew and went to an Israeli school, the Salah a-Din school in Rahat. On his last report card, the teacher wrote that he was an outstanding pupil, though his academic performance had slipped a little in the last semester.

Najah weeps. She keeps all of her son's report cards and other certificates in a plastic bag. Here's his class picture; Mahmoud is standing in the left corner. Najah works in agriculture in the Arad area and sends money to her fatherless daughters in Saida, Rushda and Ruqiya. They have also become bereaved stepsisters, who witnessed with their own eyes, along with their mother, the killing of young Mahmoud and the wounding of their brother Sadiq.

Mahmoud loved to go to his mother's family home in Saida and spent all his school vacations there. This summer vacation, too, Mahmoud went to be with his stepbrothers and sisters. His mother tried to dissuade him, saying it was dangerous there, but he insisted on going. In mid-August, Najah brought Mahmoud to the Jabara checkpoint, where his stepbrother (who is not a wanted man) waited for him. Holding an Israeli passport, Mahmoud passed through easily. His mother went back to work in vegetable gardens owned by Jews near Arad.

A week later, the mother came to Saida to visit her sons and daughters and to take Mahmoud back home, in time for the new school year. Before their departure, everyone wanted to have a festive meal together. This was on Friday, two weeks ago. They slaughtered a lamb (Mahmoud gave instructions how to do it and everyone was amused by their "Bedouin" relative). They had always teased one another: Sadiq called his stepbrother a "Bedouin" and Mahmoud called him "fellah."

Sadiq wanted to come to the house, but other family members sent him a text message, warning him that an unmanned surveillance plane was in the area. The desire to see his mother, whom he hadn't seen since April, won out and Sadiq decided to come anyway. About noon, armed with a machine gun, he entered the house, accompanied by his good friend Tariq. He told his mother that he would turn himself in this week, that he was tired of life on the run, of living in caves crawling with snakes.

After they finished slaughtering the lamb and giving some of the meat to the neighbors, the men traveled together to the village of Ra'i near Jenin, to take some of the meat to Tariq's family, too. They returned home at around four in the afternoon. Mahmoud climbed the fig tree, filled a bucket with fruit and asked his mother to bring him a plastic bag for more figs to take back home to Rahat. At this point, Sadiq and Tariq went to pray, each in a separate room - perhaps as a precaution. They took off their protective vests and put their weapons down. Now the family shows us pictures of the two comrades-in-arms, Tariq and Sadiq, embracing in an old photograph.

All at once they heard a taxi stopping on the street. Out of the yellow car, which bore Palestinian license plates, the undercover officers emerged and burst into the house, dressed in civilian clothes, their faces covered by black masks. There were about 10 of them, and according to those who were in the house - testimony was taken from Najah in Rahat and from her two daughters by the B'Tselem human rights organization - the soldiers started firing in every direction. The witnesses say that the intruders fired first, without any warning or pretext, that they just burst into the house and fired away.

Mahmoud fell from the tree, bleeding profusely. He was struck by three bullets, including one in the head. Tariq and Sadiq quickly grabbed their weapons and began to return fire. It was only then that they began to shoot, according to the witnesses. Najah rushed to her dying son, but one of the officers ordered her to let go of him and shot her in the shoulder; she was lightly injured. She says that Mahmoud was still breathing. She shouted to the soldiers that this was an Israeli child, but they were unmoved: "Let him go - or I'll shoot again," one said. Another soldier said to Najah in Arabic: "The boy is dead, may Allah have mercy."

Tariq was killed right afterward and Sadiq sustained numerous injuries.

The undercover forces did not evacuate the boy to Israel, even though he was Israeli. Mahmoud was taken to the Thabet Thabet government hospital (named after a doctor who was assassinated by Israel) in Tul Karm, where the youngster was pronounced dead. It took 12 hours before an Israeli ambulance was found that would transport the body to Rahat, since ambulance drivers were reluctant to enter the Bedouin town. The family was also asked to sign a declaration saying it would file no legal complaints; they refused, of course. So the body was taken to the forensic institute at Abu Kabir. On Saturday afternoon they buried Mahmoud in the Rahat cemetery. His stepbrother Wafiq, who escorted the body, was arrested. This week, he was still in detention at the Rahat police station.

No response from the IDF Spokesman's Office had been received by press time.

Mahmoud's Israeli family is upset. "I'm against terror attacks and in favor of the state. But to shoot a child?" says one of the nephews, who asked to remain anonymous. "I served in the IDF and I don't remember ever being told to shoot at children. It should never have happened. I don't believe that Jewish soldiers did this. Jewish soldiers don't shoot children. Maybe Druze."

In the yard of the house in Rahat there is a small chicken coop that Mahmoud looked after. In the video shot by a B'Tselem researcher, the fig tree in Saida is seen: Plump green figs still hang on the tree where Mahmoud died. His mother shows us his collection of hundreds of colorful glass marbles.

A neighbor, Suleiman al-Qarinawi, who accompanied us here and is a social activist in the Senegor Kehilati (Community Advocate) volunteer organization for promoting the rights of the Bedouin, is worried about Mahmoud's bereaved elderly father. He hasn't eaten since Mahmoud was killed. Earlier this week, when we visited, he hardly said a word, and looked despondent. In the new and empty house that he built for his son, they've hung a picture of Mahmoud and a picture of his stepbrother Sadiq. A pair of pictures on walls painted light blue, in a house that will never be inhabited by its intended owner.