Twilight Zone / Killed in the Line of Duty

Policeman Mohammed Salah was shot to death by a unit of undercover Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem. A deliberate act? Mistaken identity? The army claims he fired first.

This is a story about the pathetic attempt of the Palestinians to govern in what remains of their territories. A story about Israeli arrogance and a terrifyingly quick trigger finger. A story about our disdain for Palestinian lives. And a tragic story about Mohammed Salah, who because of his back pains stopped laying floors in construction projects in Ma'aleh Adumim and went to work for the Palestinian police force.

This is a story that should not have happened. No excuse in the world can justify the brutal behavior of a dozen masked, undercover Israel Defense Forces soldiers, speeding in their commercial van through the streets of Bethlehem as though it were their city, disobeying instructions to stop. When they finally did stop, they shot an innocent policeman to death who had dared to open the door of their vehicle, not endangering anyone, only looking for stolen or other illegal merchandise.

"We thought it was a Palestinian car," says Wahl Anati sorrowfully. Anati is the commander of the law-enforcement unit of the tax department in Bethlehem, whose men tried to stop the car for inspection.

"Mohammed thought that he was going to work in a safe job, where everything is coordinated with the Israelis," said his bereaved brother Ibrahim, whose family was destroyed with a pull of the trigger. He is sitting in the huge mourners' tent in the remote and peaceful village of Dar Salah, which is east of Bethlehem, on the way to the Judean Desert. "He just opened the door of the car and they immediately starting shooting at him, even after he fell onto the road," says Raami Abu-Kweider, a barber from Bethlehem who was an eyewitness to the killing.

"The Palestinian policeman opened fire," says the IDF spokesman.

The bloodstain on the road has not yet been erased. The dental clinic of Prof. Ahmed Rahal and the carpet store Al-Maha are on one side of the street, Salon Raami and Cocktail Arnush on the other. Between the rugs and soft drinks the policeman was killed. The young man who prepares the juices, Mohammed Hamad, was released two month ago after seven years' imprisonment in an Israeli jail. He was sitting in his shop last Wednesday waiting for customers.

At about 4 P.M. he noticed a Palestinian policeman stopping a commercial van that was going up the street. He saw the officer chasing the car. Suddenly he heard several shots - eight or nine, he estimates - and then he rushed to hide in the back of his shop. When the shooting ended he went outside and saw the van disappearing up the street, leaving the Palestinian policeman on the road.

The barber Abu-Kweider was standing in the street at the time, at the entrance to his barber shop. He saw the policeman approach the car that had stopped on the street that emerges from Derech Hebron, the main street of Bethlehem, and open its side door. The policeman was carrying his rifle in his hand, he says, but it was aimed at the floor. The moment he opened the door, says the barber, shots rang out from inside the vehicle and the policeman fell on his face. "They continued firing at him even after he was lying in the road," the barber added.

Seconds later the car disappeared up the street. Officer Salah was still breathing. Abu-Kweider pulled up his coat and saw the wound in his chest. They stopped a private car that was passing in the street, and rushed him to the Hussein hospital in nearby Beit Jala. The policeman died there.

The owner of the grocery store at the end of the street, Taysir Khalif, who was standing next to the cash register at the time, heard the shots from a distance and went outside. This is a quiet residential and commercial area, and one hears everything here. From the van a masked man armed with a submachine gun jumped out, and waved his weapon around threateningly. He ordered Khalif and his employees to enter the store immediately. About 12 armed masked men emerged from the van and entered a nearby stairwell. They stayed there for about 40 minutes, not allowing anyone to enter or leave, until a large IDF force arrived and helped them out of the place where they had found shelter, firing tear gas and stun grenades.

Bethlehem is dying. It's days before Christmas and the Church of the Nativity is deserted. In a miserable and neglected apartment on the top of a ramshackle residential building in one of the city's suburbs, not far from the Deheisheh refugee camp, are the offices of the city's tax and customs department. In the corridor are a few uniformed men. Their commander, Captain Wahal Anati, sits in a room with an iron bed in the corner.

The job of Anati and his 20 policemen-inspectors is to prevent the smuggling of stolen goods into the city, as well as those that have passed their expiration date and are liable to harm the health of the residents. Anati pulls out a sample from the iron cupboard: a pack of Plus 5 chocolate candies made in Poland that expired in February 2004, which his men confiscated the week before. These are the goods that they confiscate from merchants who buy Israel's garbage: sick poultry, rotten meat and candies whose expiration date has passed. Anati's men are deployed at checkpoints all over the city and examine suspicious cars. Quite often, he says, the Israeli soldiers who invade the city humiliate his people, ordering them to remove their uniforms or their berets in front of everyone and to leave the checkpoint immediately. When Israeli merchants trying to smuggle rotten merchandise into the city are detained, the Palestinian policemen are helpless and are forced to release them immediately, on IDF orders.

That was the case last Wednesday, when Anati's policemen were stationed at a checkpoint on Derech Hebron. Suddenly they saw a white commercial 410 Mercedes van with Palestinian license plates approaching. The van, whose windows were sealed, looked suspicious to the inspectors and they signaled it to stop. According to Anati the vehicle stopped, its driver cursed the inspectors at the checkpoint and immediately drove on. The inspectors, who are unarmed, were unable to do anything and reported the fleeing vehicle on their two-way radio to the Palestinian police.

Within a short time the policemen of the National Guard, who patrol the destroyed Muqata headquarters in Bethlehem, noticed a suspicious car. The policeman Salah ordered the driver to stop the vehicle. Captain Anati emphasized that officer Salah only wanted to inspect what was inside the van. "Had we known that it was the Israeli army, we wouldn't have stopped it. That's not our job. If the Israelis want to bring in forces, they should tell us and we'll remove our forces."

Now Anati's tax people are afraid to stop suspicious vehicles at the checkpoints.

The IDF spokesman's version of the incident: "During the course of IDF activity to detain wanted men in Bethlehem, a force was fired on by armed men. The force returned fire at them and after the fact, it turned out that they were Palestinian policemen. The commander of the [Israel Police's] Judea and Samaria Division, Brigadier General Noam Tivon, and the head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, contacted their colleagues in the Palestinian services and offered medical assistance to the injured."

Mordechai and Tivon, according to the IDF spokesman, "operated in full coordination with the Palestinian security services in order to learn about the incident, and even conducted a joint investigation that same evening, which was carried out in a positive atmosphere. During the investigation it was agreed that there will be a joint investigative team with the Etzion Brigade commander and his Palestinian counterpart, to investigate the circumstances of the incident."

Like an installation by the artist Christo, the home of policeman Salah's parents is wrapped in a huge Palestinian flag and a photograph of the dead man, which is also terrifyingly large. In the huge poster Salah appears with a mustache, wearing a steel helmet and sunglasses, with his rifle in hand - a photo from the graduation of the policemen's course that he passed eight months ago in Bethlehem, when he enlisted in the Palestinian National Guard. In the poster he looks like an Israeli paratrooper.

After evidence was gathered, we arrived in the village of Dar Salah, together with Suha Zeyd and Karim Jubran, investigators from B'Tselem - Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Territories. All the men of the village were gathered in the mourners' tent next to the home of the bereaved parents, but the parents themselves are away, and still unaware that their son fell in the line of duty.

A few days beforehand they had gone to observe the commandment of making the hajj to Mecca, and nobody had the courage to tell them about their son's death. Every day they called home and asked why Mohammed didn't answer his cell phone. His eldest brother, Ibrahim, would tell them that Mohammed was at work, that the battery of his phone was dead, that the phone was lost - everything but the bitter truth. Their mother is ill and at home they feared for her life: "She'll die in Mecca if she finds out," says Ibrahim.

Dozens of gloomy-looking men sit in the long, dimly lit tent. Salah's four fatherless children - Reshad, 17; Rasha, 14; Rana, 12; and Rashad, 7 - walk around in shock among the mourners. Inside the house the widow Suad sits alone in a black coat with a fake-fur collar, next to a picture of her husband, her face expressionless.

Mohammed Salah served in the National Guard for eight months. Previously he worked for years laying floors and building the homes of Ma'aleh Adumim and Beitar Illit. He was heavy, 110 kilograms, they say, and he suffered from back pains and was forced to stop working in construction, which was why he enlisted in the National Guard. Ibrahim emphasizes that his brother was never active in any other Palestinian organization.

Salah worked alternative weeks: one week in the Bethlehem police, one week at home in Dar Salah. He was home for the last time three weeks ago, and had planned to return this past week to travel to Hebron to buy presents for his parents in honor of their return from the hajj.

"What happens to you that you enter Bethlehem and kill for no reason?" asks a childhood friend, Ghassem Salah. His question remains hanging and oppressive inside the tent, among the cups of bitter coffee and the dates.