Israeli Troops Ambushed the Protesters. They Didn't Stop Firing Even After Shooting a Teen in the Head

Even before the demonstration in solidarity with Gaza began, IDF troops fired at the protesters. Islam Burnat, 16, stood up, and was shot and killed

Janat Burnat, the bereaved mother, and her brother Rani Burnat, at home in Bil’in, this week. When her son Islam’s distraught friends tried to evacuate him, the soldiers went on shooting.
Janat Burnat, the bereaved mother, and her brother Rani Burnat, at home in Bil’in, this week. When her son Islam’s distraught friends tried to evacuate him, the soldiers went on shooting.Credit: Alex Levac

The marker in memory of Bassem Abu Rahma – a metal plaque with text in English – stands along the path that descends to the separation barrier, mute testimony to a local hero who was killed here in 2009 in the struggle for his village’s lands and for his freedom. Bassem’s sister, Jawahar, was also killed not far from here, in demonstrations mounted by this West Bank resistance village of Bil’in, choked off by Israel.

The way down the path is strewn with remains of burned tires; alongside are scorched fields and a grove of oaks, with a large, torn Palestinian flag flying at half mast. These lands in the western part of Bil’in were returned to the village a few years ago by order of Israel’s High Court of Justice. The villagers turned the area into playgrounds and recreational spots, but the place looks more like a battlefield than a picnic area.

The houses of the huge ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Ilit, which was built on Bil’in’s property, abut the concrete wall of separation. A white-shirted Haredi settler is standing on the other side of the wall here, casting suspicious glances at us. Three weeks ago, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, standing not far from there, killed 16-year-old Islam Burnat with a bullet to the head. The strains of Haredi music playing a distance away encroach on the awful silence here. A makeshift circle of stones marks the spot where Islam fell. Fading bloodstains are still visible in the center of the circle, next to an empty bag of Bamba snack food.

Bil’in displayed solidarity with the Gaza Strip from the first day of last month’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, against Hamas. The IDF, for its part, apparently decided that under cover of war, its forces could abort any political demonstration by Palestinians using all means – including live fire. With all eyes turned to Ashkelon and the Strip during the fighting, no one took an interest in the killing of demonstrators in the West Bank. That was especially blatant on the May 14, a black Friday, when soldiers killed 12 protesters in different places in the West Bank, and on May 18 in Bil’in.

A mourning poster with Islam Burnat's photo.Credit: Alex Levac

That day saw the third demonstration in Bil’in, northwest of Ramallah, since the war had erupted a week earlier. The Palestinians knew by then that the troops had changed the rules and were firing live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators who posed no danger to anyone, from the other side of the barrier – which has graffiti on it in support of BDS.

“Use of live fire became a trend,” says Iyad Hadad, the experienced field researcher of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. “They didn’t want to give the demonstrations a chance and used live ammunition even before they started [the protest].” When Hadad visited the site where we’re now standing, five days after Islam was killed, in order to investigate the circumstances of that appalling death – soldiers fired live ammunition at him, too. He wasn’t hurt.

On May 18, a general strike was called in the West Bank – a karama (dignity) strike – in a show of solidarity with bomb-battered Gaza. The village of Bil’in turned out to demonstrate. In the afternoon, as the heat abated, a vanguard force of 15 to 20 children and teenagers set out on the path leading down to the wall, in order to scout the area. Veterans of earlier demonstrations, they checked to see whether there were troops lurking in ambush. They saw nothing other than two soldiers standing on a dirt mound to the north of them, on the other side of the separation barrier, and an IDF jeep about 150 meters away from there. The small tent adjacent to the wall, also on the other side, which the soldiers had used in previous demonstrations to take refuge from the sun, was closed and looked deserted. The young Palestinian scouting party threw a few stones in the direction of the tent, to ensure there were no soldiers in it, and got no response.

The group of young people taunted the two soldiers on the mound, chanting and throwing stones, which fell short. In response the soldiers hurled tear-gas canisters at them, and fired a few rubber-tipped metal bullets. The area was still relatively quiet; the main group of demonstrators from the village hadn’t yet arrived. Four of the youths approached the wall, the others kept their distance. Concentrating on the two soldiers standing to the north, the advance party didn’t notice a few soldiers suddenly emerging from the tent nearby.

The family's home in Bil'in.Credit: Alex Levac

“Kamin! Kamin!” – “Ambush! Ambush!” – one of the teenagers screamed. About 40 meters separated the soldiers laying in the ambush from the four youths who were approaching the barrier. The soldiers started to rain live fire on them. The youths lay on the ground to protect themselves, and then the shooting stopped. Islam, who was lying on the ground and covering his head with his hands, couldn’t have known where the shooting was coming from, because from where he was it was impossible to see the tent, which was located on a slope on the other side of the wall.

When the shooting stopped, Islam stood up. It was the last mistake he would ever make. He was shot in the head by a soldier standing to his right. Islam collapsed into an expanding pool of his blood. But things didn’t end there. When his distraught friends tried to evacuate him, the soldiers went on shooting at them for another five minutes, preventing his removal, according to testimonies taken by Hadad, the field researcher.

When the firing died down, Islam’s friends carried him about 150 meters, until a Palestinian ambulance arrived on the scene. But in the absence of equipment for administering intensive care, there was little the volunteer paramedic could do, other than to try to staunch the blood spurting from the teenager’s head. About half an hour went by from the moment Islam was hit until he arrived at the Government Hospital in Ramallah. The medical report states that he sustained a direct shot to the head and that he had arrived in a state of brain death. About two hours later, at around 7:30 P.M., he was pronounced dead.

Only the soldiers’ four chairs remained this week at the place from which the shots were fired at Islam; the tent has been removed.

Islam Burnat's grandparents.Credit: Alex Levac

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit again made do with its generic, automatic response to questions, this time about why Islam was shot in the head with live fire and why the soldiers went on shooting after he was hit and thus prevented his evacuation: “In the wake of the incident, a Military Police investigation has been launched, at the conclusion of which the findings will be conveyed to the military advocate general’s office for examination.”

A new one-story house, whitewashed, stands at the edge of Bil’in. This is the home of Islam’s family. The house is enveloped with memorial posters and Palestinian flags. The family moved to its new home just two-and-a-half months ago. Islam’s bereaved mother, Janat, 37, is staying in her parents’ home, not far away. She is grief-stricken, her face cloaked in a kerchief. She cries constantly, a pent-up, quiet sobbing. Islam was her and her husband Wahal’s firstborn; they have three other children.

On the day of his death, Islam got up after 10 – there had been a strike at school, too. At midday his younger sister, 7-year-old Fatma, asked him to make her French fries, and he did. Islam liked to cook. He then asked his mother whether she wanted to go to the demonstration: The Burnats are a fighting family; they usually go together to all the demonstrations. Janat replied that it was too early to go – she would join them later. Islam left home together with his uncle Mahmoud, who is his age. It was around 4 P.M. His mother says she had a bad feeling – her heart sunk, she recalls now, describing what she felt.

A makeshift circle of stones marks the spot where Islam Burnat fell. In its center are faded bloodstains. Credit: Alex Levac

At 5:15, Janat’s sister told her that she had heard live fire from the direction of the demonstration. With much foreboding, she asked whether anything had happened to Islam. Leaving behind an electrician who was working in the house, Janat rushed out into the street. Her brother Mahmoud ran toward her, weeping. Who was hurt, she asked. He said he didn’t know, maybe someone from the neighboring village. Her little daughter Fatma now leans mutely on the armrest of her chair. Janat’s brother, Rani, is sitting next to her; she curls up next to him from time to time, weeping.

Rani Burnat, 40, a charming, good-looking man, was wounded on the second day of the second intifada by a bullet aimed at his head. It struck him in the neck, he tells us, when he turned his head at the last second. It happened during a demonstration in Ramallah, immediately after his last driving lesson, ahead of the test that was scheduled for the next day. After a year in hospitals in Jordan and the West Bank, his lower body and one arm are paralyzed and he is wheelchair-ridden for life. In that wheelchair he takes part in all the village’s demonstrations. He was also at the demonstration where his nephew, Islam, was killed.

Frightened, Janat decided to go to the hospital in Ramallah. She was certain her son had been wounded, even though no one had told her so explicitly. When she arrived there with her husband, Islam was being operated on, in a desperate attempt to staunch the massive bleeding from his head. Rani also arrived at the hospital, in his specially outfitted car. He told us that he had been at the demonstration and had heard the shooting but hadn’t been able to see who was hit. Rani is a volunteer with B’Tselem who documents incidents with his video camera, but he did not manage to video the killing of his nephew. A friend who next to him had told him even before the shooting started that one of the soldiers looked like someone who “had come to kill.”

Islam’s grandfather, Wajiah Burnat, a familiar figure in the Palestinian struggle, bearded, impressive, Hebrew-speaking, says he has frequently heard soldiers saying to one another, “Put a bullet in his head.” Never has he heard, “Put a bullet in his leg.”

On that day, IDF soldiers rather than Border Police were deployed at the demonstration, the latter having been sent to impose order in Israel’s so-called mixed cities, which were on fire. Wajiah, 65, asks what other countries send soldiers to break up demonstrations.

When we visited the home of Islam’s grandparents, on Monday of this week, Shai Carmeli-Pollak, the Israeli director of the marvelous 2006 documentary film “Bil’in My Love,” was also there. Four years ago, while preparing to direct a new feature, he shot a short promo to present to the film foundations – a scene with children from Bil’in in which Islam was the central character. On the day after the killing, Carmeli-Pollak edited segments of the clip, showing Islam with his friends, and with Roger Waters’ “Song for Palestine” playing in the background. It’s a harrowing sight. A boy who loved to swim, and dreamed of becoming a lifeguard, laughing and acting in a film.

Carmeli-Pollak wrote on his Facebook page: “I have known Islam since he was a little boy. He’s the grandson of Wajiah Burnat, my good friend from Bil’in. A few years ago I filmed him for a scene from a film I am developing. He was a brave boy, who always went ahead in demonstrations, and it turned out that he was also a very talented actor. I had so much fun with him and his friends. On May 18, 2021 an Israeli occupation soldier murdered him in cold blood near the wall in Bil’in. He was 16 years old. I am looking for the right words to say and can’t find them. I am very sad.”