Twilight Zone / 'We Saw Death a Thousand Times'

For four hours one night last month an elderly couple huddled in fright in their tiny room in Nablus. There was shooting outside, and they were ordered to come out. Abed al-Wazir, 71, was shot and killed instantly.

Think of your elderly parents. Imagine them sitting on the sofa, cringing with fear, for a whole night, in their tiny apartment, unprotected. Outside a fierce firefight is raging. The night is a cacophony of gunfire and explosions. Dozens of soldiers are moving through the adjacent alley. Then an order is given to come out. Think of your father opening the door, frightened and helpless, in his pajamas, then calling to his wife to go back inside and bring their ID cards. One glance into the courtyard - and he is hit instantly. Five bullets in the stomach and legs, fired by three soldiers sitting on the steps of the house across the way. He falls, writhing in his blood, as his wife looks on, horrified.

Think of your aged mother, trying with all her strength to pull her husband inside and the soldiers prohibiting his evacuation for long, fateful minutes, until the ambulance arrives. Imagine her pangs of terror, impotence, rage and frustration. "Now I am sorry that I did not pick up a big stone and throw it at the soldiers," says the widow, Subhiya al-Wazir, whose husband, Abed al-Wazir was killed at the threshold of their home in the Ras al-Ayyin neighborhood in the western part of Nablus.

Al-Wazir was a retired accountant who had worked for the Nablus Municipality. He was also the cousin of Khalil al-Wazir, a.k.a. Abu Jihad, the legendary deputy of Yasser Arafat, who was assassinated by Israel on April 16, 1988, in his seaside home in Tunis. A few days ago, his widow, Umm Jihad, a former Palestinian welfare minister, paid a condolence visit in the small home in Nablus. The manner of Abed's death made him one of the oldest of the shaheeds (martyrs for the cause), but his widow's nights of horror have not ended. The Israel Defense Forces continues to enter the neighborhood almost every night, plunging fear into the hearts of Subhiya and her neighbors.

The Wazirs' small house is perched on the steep slope of Mount Grizim.

Abu Jihad and Abed and Subhiya al-Wazir are all from the same family - all cousins, from Ramle (Abu Jihad), Jaffa (Subhiya) and Haifa (Abed).

The couple has six children and 20 grandchildren.

On the night of October 16, the two went to bed early, as always. Shortly before 1 A.M., Abed al-Wazir was awakened by noises from the alley. In a low voice, Subhiya says, he roused her. "There are a lot of soldiers outside. We have to be careful," he whispered.

They hurried to the sofa. Through the window they saw the shadows of soldiers moving quickly. The noise outside intensified. The bursts of gunfire became more frequent and were punctuated by explosions of stun grenades. War was raging outside. Occasionally they heard the noise of glass shattering in their neighbors' homes. It is not hard to imagine how frightened they must have been, sitting pressed up against each other, mute with dread.

At about 2:15 A.M. their eldest son, Shaqer, called. He lives in a neighborhood on the side of Mount Ebal, across the way. Shaqer asked his parents how they were doing and if they were aware of what was going on in their neighborhood.

Occasionally the couple heard unclear orders issued through a megaphone by the soldiers who were on the street above the house. It was hard to understand what was being said. At a quarter to five, their son called again. He said he saw soldiers entering the home of attorney Hakem Sabiah, a neighbor up the road, and searching it. Shortly afterward the Wazirs heard Sabiah's voice through the megaphone, transmitting the soldiers' orders. The soldiers had appointed him to evacuate the neighborhood, as he knew all the residents well. First light rose on the Ras al-Ayyin neighborhood, the dawn of a new day.

They weren't sure they had heard their names via the megaphone, but their son told them he had heard it. This was after the four nightmarish hours of waiting on the sofa. "In those four hours we saw death a thousand times," the widow says.

The muezzin had already summoned the faithful to dawn prayers, but the couple did not budge. However, when their son called and said he had heard their names on the list of those being ordered to come out, they complied. It was a little after 5 A.M. Immediately afterward they heard Sabiah: "My uncle, Abu Shaqer, you are called on to come out with your wife, because the house is going to be blown up in five minutes. That is what the soldiers say."

It was clear to them that they had to leave the house immediately. First they opened the front door. Abed al-Wazir walked through the small courtyard, Subhiya following. He advanced slowly to the iron gate and opened it. He then turned around to his wife and asked if she had taken their ID cards, the lifeblood of the residents of the territories. Subhiya turned around quickly, in order to get the documents. With her back to her husband, she heard him say suddenly, "Haja, I've been shot." Subhiya says she heard no gunshots and saw no blood.

She rushed to her husband. "Who shot you? Where?" she asked, embracing him. But Wazir fell to the floor at the entrance to the house. Only then did Subhiya see a pool of blood welling up from under her husband. The soldiers who were sitting on the staircase opposite, just a few meters from the Wazirs' front door, those who fired five bullets when Abed al-Wazir just glanced into the street, were now standing.

Subhiya screamed and a few neighbors came out. They wanted to carry her dying husband into the street, but the soldiers threatened to shoot them, she recalls. Her husband's mouth began foaming. The soldiers stood opposite her and she shouted at them, "Shoot me the way you shot my husband." At least 10 minutes went by, she says, maybe even a quarter of an hour, during which her husband lay bleeding on the ground, before the soldiers allowed him to be moved to the lower street.

Shaqer, the son, recently began working for a construction company in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. He was just getting ready to leave for work, not knowing that his father was hovering between life and death.

Three neighbors carried Wazir down to the street, followed closely by the distraught Subhiya. On the street was an IDF vehicle. The soldiers quickly bound the hands of the neighbors who had carried al-Wazir and ordered them to lie on the road. "Why don't you call an ambulance?" Subhiya shouted at the soldiers. Another quarter of an hour passed before a Palestinian ambulance was allowed to approach. "Why did you shoot him? He was an old man," Sabiah, the attorney, called to the soldiers. Subhiya says that the soldiers replied, "We are sorry, we had to."

In the ambulance, Wazir asked, "Where am I?" and then lost consciousness. In the hospital, Subhiya saw that her husband had been shot not only in the legs, but in the stomach as well. He died shortly afterward. In the evening, when Subhiya returned home, she discovered that the soldiers had entered the house, searched it and destroyed the bathroom. Her savings, she says, amounting to 2,000 Jordanian dinars (about NIS 12,000), were gone.

Following a report drawn up by Salah Haj Yihyeh, the mobile clinic director of Physicians for Human Rights - the organization's projects co-director, Miri Weingarten, sent a letter to the military advocate general, Brigadier General Avihai Mandelblit, requesting that he instruct the Military Police to investigate "the killing of an unarmed person in his home, failure to treat him, delay of lifesaving evacuation of the wounded man, and looting of the deceased's home."

The IDF Spokesman stated in response: "The IDF Spokesman regrets the injury done to the uninvolved Palestinian, who was killed in the course of IDF activity to arrest wanted terrorists in Nablus on October 16. The 70-year-old civilian, who was in an adjacent house, was killed during an exchange of fire between the IDF and terrorists. The IDF units that were operating at the scene summoned a Red Crescent medical team, who evacuated him to receive medical treatment. Later, the coordination and liaison office received a report that the man had died.

"The GOC Central Command, Major General Gadi Shamni, investigated the incident, and the investigation indicates that no hitches were found in the activity of the force. The IDF reiterates that the terrorist organizations are turning the population into a human shield and thereby endangering their lives.

"As for the money, no complaint has yet been received from the relatives of the Palestinian on this matter. Should such a complaint be received, the subject will be investigated and examined under army ordinances."

The members of the bereaved family are convinced that the soldiers had the wrong address. The soldiers were looking for two wanted brothers, Abdullah and Bahar Hawash, who were hiding in the house next to the Wazirs'. They were eventually arrested in a hiding place there, following a search that lasted all the next day. Shaqer is certain that the helicopter marked the wrong house for the soldiers, who then shot his father the moment he opened the gate. The work permit Shaqer was issued just a month ago was revoked, as is always done in the case of relatives of people killed by the IDF, for fear they will enter Israel to work and then take revenge.

Despite the grief, the killing, the suspicion of looting and the loss of a source of livelihood, the women of the family prepared lunch for their Israeli guests: mutton, chicken in lemon, maluhiya (cooked leaves in chicken broth), ful (Egyptian beans) and pickled condiments, which were heaped on our plates again and again.