Twilight Zone / Drive-by Shooting

Jalal Al-Masri was fatally shot by soldiers while driving to collect his family for a weekend vacation in Eilat. Six months after the incident, his bereaved family are still looking for answers.

What happened in January this year? During that month, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, using live ammunition, killed three Palestinians in incidents at checkpoints and another, aged 66, as he slept in his bed. In the six months since, not one Palestinian has been killed in the West Bank. Last week, however, the fifth casualty from January died. The circumstances of his death are especially puzzling and infuriating.

Jalal Al-Masri was a 28-year-old truck driver from Jerusalem’s mixed Arab-Jewish Abu Tor neighborhood, married and the father of two children. He carried cargo between Ashdod and Sde Uziyahu, a village near the port. He had a blue ‏(Israeli‏) ID card and yellow ‏(Israeli‏) license plates on his private Peugeot 205. Before becoming a truck driver, he worked as a domestic in the Eldan Hotel in Jerusalem. His brother, Jamil, a taxi driver in Jerusalem, says Jalal loved his work; he once suggested that he switch to the public transport sphere, like him, but Jalal declined.

Jamil Al-Masri

He had no security or criminal background, was never arrested or interrogated, never “belonged,” and was never “active.” He liked to vacation in Eilat, with his wife, Safaa, who is from the southern West Bank town of Idna, and their two small children, Khalil, four, and Razal, two and a half. They had been married for five years. Last January they planned to spend a weekend in Eilat at their favorite hotel. It was cold in Jerusalem, and the family wanted to bask in southern sunshine for a couple of days.

Late in the evening of Thursday, January 20, Jalal left his home for Idna, to pick up his wife and children ‏(who were there for a short family visit‏), ahead of the trip to Eilat early the next morning. Jalal was in good spirits, say his two brothers, Jamil and Hakham. He had supper with his parents and left Abu Tor for Idna around 10 P.M. in his Peugeot. The details of what happened on the way are few and very unclear. What’s known is that around noon the next day, the police called Hakham and told him Jalal had been injured in a road accident and was in Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem.

Jalal had driven south on Highway 60. He was shot with live ammunition by soldiers who were standing on the roadside outside the town of Halhul, near Hebron. Three bullets tore through the rear window of the Peugeot; no bullet struck the wheels or other parts of the vehicle. One bullet hit Jalal in the back of the head and exited through the front, doing lethal damage to his brain. The only eyewitness we could locate this week is a Palestinian ambulance driver, Iyad Madiya, who was taking a patient from Halhul to a hospital in Hebron in his ambulance at the time of the incident. Soldiers standing on the left side of the road, next to an army jeep and a civilian Peugeot, signaled the ambulance to stop. The soldiers told Madiya that there had been an accident and that there was an injured man in the Peugeot. The paramedic says he saw no sign of a roadblock, only a jeep and soldiers standing on the road in the dark of the night, as Jalal lay bleeding in his car. Madiya pulled him out and gave him oxygen − there was nothing more he could do. Another Palestinian ambulance passed by, but it too did not have the equipment needed to treat Jalal. Finally, an Israeli ambulance arrived and rushed the badly wounded, unconscious Jalal to Hadassah. It was around 11 P.M. at this point. The next day, Madiya learned that Jalal had been shot in the head by the soldiers.

When the Kiryat Arba police called the stunned family the next day around noon to say that Jalal had been injured in a road accident, no one thought his condition was critical, still less that he had been shot. His parents and brothers hurried to the hospital from Jerusalem, his wife from Idna. Until then, they had not been worried about him. Safaa thought he hadn’t come to Idna because he had decided to sleep at home in Abu Tor; his parents and brothers thought he had spent the night in Idna. The possibility that he had been shot by soldiers never occurred to them. It was only when they saw the medical report in the hospital that they discovered he had been shot in the head.

Jamil says now: “We know Jalal. We didn’t think he had been badly injured in an accident, because we know what kind of a driver he was, and we didn’t imagine he had been shot by soldiers, because we knew Jalal. Why should they shoot him? What did they shoot him for? They told us later that he ran a roadblock and a soldier shot him. But we know who Jalal was. He would stop for every roadblock. Why wouldn’t he stop? He was on the way to his wife and children. He always obeyed the law, maybe even too much. We always knew there was no reason to worry about him, because he always obeyed the law. There are many questions for which we don’t have answers. We are shocked.” The family reached the hospital around 1 P.M.; Jalal had already undergone surgery for the head wound and was unconscious and breathing artificially. He would remain comatose for the next six months. During all those months, his family never left his bedside. After two and a half months in Hadassah, they were told that his condition was stable but desperate, and there was nothing more to be done for him. He was transferred to Hod Adumim, a nursing home in the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim, where he spent the last months of his life.

They talked to him all along, reassuring him that everything was all right. “We always had hope,” says Jamil. “The professor in Hadassah said we needed a miracle, that there was not even one percent of a chance that he would come back. We talked to him all the time, but he didn’t hear us or couldn’t respond. We told him not to worry, that everything was fine, he could get up already. We thought that maybe he was afraid, maybe he was in shock from the bullet, so we told him: ‘Everything is fine, the children are fine, just wake up.’”

In June Jalal developed infections as a result of bedsores and was rushed to Hadassah University Hospital, Mt. Scopus three times due to a high fever − and each time was taken back to the nursing home. On June 30, his temperature rose again, he was taken to Hadassah and then sent back to the home. The next day, July 1, Jalal Al-Masri died in Hod Adumim. His father was by his side. During all this time, no one in the IDF had bothered to explain to the family what happened. They have now hired a lawyer and are demanding an investigation.

“If it had been a settler, would they have opened fire?” asks Jamil, at the entrance to the taxi rank he works at in Beit Safafa. “If it had been a Jew, would they have put a bullet in his head? And if they had opened fire, would it have gone by quietly like that? 10:30 P.M. at night − what kind of sniper aims and shoots a driver on the road in the head? What do you say?”

The Israeli media has barely reported on the shooting. This week, Jalal’s name had yet to appear on the B’Tselem-compiled list of residents of the territories who are killed. In reply to a query by Haaretz, the IDF Spokesman stated this week: “An inquiry into the subject has been opened by the Military Police investigations unit, and upon its conclusion the findings will be transmitted to the Military Advocate General’s Office.”

Jalal’s Peugeot was returned to the family by the police after some time; it is still standing in front of their house, like a useless object, unrepaired, perhaps as their private memorial.

The traditional commemoration poster was printed this week, carrying Jalal’s portrait. “We want to know what happened,” Jamil reiterates, adding, “What did Jalal do? He went to pick up his family for a vacation, and look how it ended. Why, why did he have to be shot? Why did the soldier shoot him? My brother wasn’t suspected of anything, there is nothing against him. Who has an answer? To shoot for no good reason? Jalal had a home, a job, a wife, children − there is no reason, not even a small one, to shoot him, not even half a percent. Maybe Jalal will be the last; we only hope this will be the end. A widow and two orphans. He was such a sweet guy.”