It was a pleasant evening in the home of the Dalu family in the small village of Abu Nujaym, perched on the edge of the Judean Desert, adjacent to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. A grandmother, Rahma Dalu, was watching television with her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, along with a neighbor, before going to bed a little before midnight. At 1:15 A.M., the members of the household were jolted awake by noises. The children went on sleeping, but Ali Dalu, Rahma’s son, sat bolt upright in bed, gripped by fear. His mother, who was asleep in the next room, also woke up because of the goings-on outside her window. She too must have been very frightened.
About 20 soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were in the house’s yard, accompanied by a dog or two. The troops made their way up to the second story of the building’s four floors, in search of Ali’s cousin, Mohammed Abu Aahur, a divorced man of 30 who works at his father’s studio in Bethlehem.
Ali, 45, still sitting up in bed, heard increasingly loud coughing from his mother’s bedroom, which faces the yard where the soldiers were milling about. He rushed into the room; it’s very colorful, with birdcages hanging on the walls and an iron bed covered with a purple blanket. Rahma was sitting up in her bed. She complained that she felt chest pains and was having a hard time breathing. Ali didn’t know that these would be among the last breaths his 69-year-old mother would take.
Abu Nujaym, home to some 1,500 souls, is being increasingly suffocated on all sides by the huge burgeoning settlements of the Etzion Bloc surrounding it. The largest of these, Efrat – bolstered by various offshoots, satellites and outposts – is advancing eastward with giant steps toward the small village, boasting tall apartment buildings such as exist in few West Bank settlements. Only a few hundred meters now separate the sprawling settlement from Abu Nujaym. Soon Efrat will in effect be part of the Jerusalem metropolis, when it achieves territorial contiguity with the city’s Har Homa neighborhood. Thus, the Bethlehem District will become yet another Palestinian enclave, with no exit. For Israelis, Efrat, of course, is in the “settlement-lite” category: wholly “within the consensus,” with residents considered to be politically “moderate.”
Ali Dalu is a gardener who works for the municipality of Beit Sahur, east of Bethlehem. He’s has four daughters and a son, and earns 2,400 shekels ($720) a month. He has never been to Tel Aviv, has never seen the sea. His extended family – his brother, three sisters and parents – lived in Jordan for years. Three years ago, his father, Ahmed, 68, took a second wife, after which Ali’s mother, Rahma, returned to the family home in Abu Nujaym. Since then she had lived with her son and his family in their apartment.
Every few months, Rahma would travel to Jordan to visit her daughters and grandchildren there but since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic she hasn’t been able to visit Jordan. For his part, Ahmed has been unable to visit his family in the West Bank since submitting a request for family unification, in 1995, which Israel turned down. Indeed, Ali hasn’t seen his father since his last visit to Jordan, in 2015.
On February 17, 2021, the IDF raided the Dalu house. Rahma had not complained about feeling unwell that evening, her son tells us now; she’d given herself her nightly insulin injection for her diabetes and gone to bed. She had suffered a minor stroke three months earlier – but was released from Al-Hussein Hospital in nearby Beit Jala without palpable damage and had felt well ever since.
The cousin, Mohammed Abu Aahur, a wedding photographer, lives upstairs. Last year, soldiers arrested him: According to Ali, they treated the other members of the household respectfully. Abu Aahur was charged with being in possession of firecrackers and other fireworks, and also accused of shooting in the air at weddings. He was sentenced to four months in prison for being in possession of weapons and was slapped with a fine of 25,000 shekels ($7,775). He’d never been arrested before and, according to his family, is not active in any political organization.
Then, on February 17, troops came to arrest him again. They woke up his father, Ibrahim Abu Aahur, who lives on the floor above him, and ordered him to open his son’s apartment. Mohammed wasn’t home – he was sleeping at a friend’s place. The soldiers carried out a thorough search, leaving mattresses and other items strewn all over the floor. Ali relates that Mohammed’s father told the soldiers he could call his son and ask him to come home, but the soldiers said there was no need. There were still posters on the walls congratulating Abu Aahur on his release from prison a few weeks earlier; the soldiers took them down and tore them up. While all this was going on, for about an hour, Ali recalls, he was afraid to leave his apartment, but his mother’s condition was deteriorating.
Ali woke his wife, Rana, 32, who had slept through the ruckus, and told her that he had to take his mother to the hospital. Rahma tried to dress herself but was unable to stand up. Ali and Rana were afraid to ask other family members in the building for help, because the soldiers were still there, but somehow he managed to take Rahma to their car. The soldiers didn’t keep them from leaving the house or from driving off, nor did they offer to help. Rahma lay on the back seat, her head in Rana’s lap as Ali drove to Al-Hussein Hospital, about 10 kilometers away. But just before they arrived, when they were about 200 meters away, Rahma stopped breathing. Efforts to resuscitate her failed. The physicians pronounced her dead. Cause of death: myocardial infarction. Rahma was laid to rest on the one day it snowed last month in a family plot near Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following response to Haaretz’s query about the reason for the raid on the house in Abu Nujaym: “During the night of February 17, 2021, IDF forces carried out a hunt for weapons in a house in Abu Nujaym village, which is in the jurisdiction of the Etzion territorial brigade. In the wake of a report following the operation regarding the death of a family member of a resident of the house, the event will be investigated.”
Ali tells us now that he doesn’t blame anyone for his mother’s death. He denies outright any rumors to the effect that she was beaten by soldiers before she died. The troops didn’t even enter their apartment, he says. Was she overcome by fear when hearing troops outside her window in the night, and did that cause her heart to fail? There is no way to assess that. But the disturbing question is why the soldiers showed up in the first place, as they do at so many Palestinian houses every night. Moreover, Mohammed Abu Aahur has been living at home without any problems since the incident a few weeks ago, and is not in hiding; as far as is known, he is not wanted by the Israeli authorities. The army has not returned to the house since. Why, then, did they raid it?
His cousin Ali is convinced that the troops were involved in an exercise intended to train them in carrying out arrests. This would not be the first time soldiers have done such a thing – rousing women, men, the elderly and children whilse they are fast asleep in their beds. It’s also not the first time people have died during such frightening nocturnal activities.
The Israel human rights organization B’Tselem has documented some similar episodes. On November 26, 2008, Hikmat Shukari al-Sheikh died of a heart attack when soldiers arrived to arrest her son in the Qalandiyah refugee camp. On September 18, 2018, Mohammed Khatib, from Beit Rima, died a few hours after being arrested in his home. Mussa Abu Miala, 67, from the Shoafat camp, was injured on the night of June 1, 2019, when he was pushed by Border Police personnel, disguised as Arabs, who arrived to arrest his grandson; he died 18 days later from complications resulting from his injury.
In a sense, even more distressing than the deaths is the appalling number of nighttime raids and arrest operations, some of which are intended solely to sow fear, demonstrate control and power, or as part of training the forces undergo so they will maintain their vigilance. Naturally, the fact that most of these operations are in blatant contradiction of the Oslo Accords no longer stirs any interest within Israel.
According to data of B’Tselem, in 2020, a relatively quiet year, Israeli security forces carried out at least 3,000 nocturnal raids on Palestinian towns and villages. They invaded at least 2,480 homes and roughly woke up their occupants. According to data from the Palestinian coordination and liaison headquarters, from the beginning of 2021 until this past Monday, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service had carried out 692 patrols and 627 home invasions in Palestinian towns and villages, arresting 731 Palestinians, 63 of them minors. Virtually no night goes by without a raid, without an arrest. And it’s always frightening. You can even die from it.