The Disabled Palestinian Slowly Walked Away. Then, Israeli Troops Shot Him in the Back of the Head

Mohammad Khabali started to retrace his steps. Security camera footage shows three soldiers moving ahead, to within 80 meters of him. Suddenly two shots are heard. The mentally disabled young man collapses, dead

Mohammed Khabali.
Alex Levac

Here’s the stick. The bereaved brother removes the black plastic that’s wrapped around it reverently, as if it’s a holy relic. It’s a broomstick, stained with his brother’s blood. It’s the stick he was carrying under his arm as he tried to move away from Israel Defense Forces soldiers approaching him on Jaffa Road in downtown Tul Karm, a street of restaurants and cafés. He was shot from a distance of about 80 meters; the bullet slammed into his head from behind.

How can it be claimed that he endangered anyone from that far away?

The street was relatively quiet. A small number of young people winding up the night at the coffee houses – and about 30 soldiers opposite them. The security camera at one of the restaurants shows 2:24 A.M. From the video provided by that camera and three others along the street, whose footage was obtained by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, we see no stone throwing, no large groups milling around. What is seen are three soldiers moving forward, ahead of the rest of their unit. One shot is heard from a distance, and another; two soldiers apparently fired simultaneously. The person seen carrying a stick and walking on the other side of the street, away from the approaching soldiers, falls to the ground, face down. For a second he tries to lift his head – before dying. Another young man is hit in the leg. The soldiers leave in a hurry.

The B'Tselem footage of the incident.

End of operation. End of the short life of Mohammad Khabali, whom everyone here called “Za’atar” affectionately (after the popular seasoning made of wild hyssop). Mentally challenged from birth, he never hurt a soul and helped local café owners clean up at night in return for a free smoke on the narghile; occasionally he would beg for a handout from a passerby. It’s doubtful that the soldier who shot him knew whom he was shooting; it’s even more doubtful that would have cared. He killed Za’atar for no apparent reason and inflicted another disaster on his already unfortunate family, which lives not far away from town in the Tul Karm refugee camp, one of the West Bank’s poorest.

An intimidating pile of garbage greets visitors at the gates of the refugee camp; workers wearing United Nations shirts are loading refuse onto a garbage truck. The Tul Karm camp is the larger of two refugee camps that abut the city on its eastern side. (The other is Nur a-Shams.) Graffiti of a prisoner in an Israel Prisons Service uniform is painted on a wall, a young man in a wheelchair sits in front of one of the houses, the narrow alleys are also littered with garbage.

Neglect is pervasive here. Garbage swirls even around the shattered monument commemorating the 157 inhabitants of the camp who were killed until between 1987 and 2003, during the two intifadas. The monument was erected at the site where at least 10 young people were killed in the second intifada by IDF snipers who positioned themselves on the roof of a high building nearby. A new, more up-to-date monument is planned, we’re told by the camp’s director of services, Faisal Salami. A cluttered store selling scraps, second-hand items and old trinkets is bursting at the seams. It seems like all of Israel’s schmattes have ended up here.

Entering one of the houses, we climb to the second floor: It is the home of the Khabali family and of the camp’s most recent martyr. Exposed electrical cables adorn the walls, on the sink is an old car mirror – the apartment’s only mirror. We will soon be joined by the bereaved father, Khossam Khabali, his legs incapacitated from a childhood disease; he ascends the stairs with great difficulty, leaning on a cane, both legs disfigured. He’s 54 years old and trying in every way possible to provide a living for his nine children, two of whom – the dead son and one of his brothers – have suffered from mental impairment. Khabali works as a guard in the Tul Karm Municipality, hauls fruits and vegetables to the market on a mule-drawn cart, and is an occasional undertaker in the local cemetery. No, he replies, he did not dig his son’s grave.

His face is a study in grief and suffering. Mona, his wife, a heavyset woman of 50, speaks about her dead son in a whisper. The shock is still palpable here.

Last Monday, they relate, Mohammad was at home and in good spirits. He helped his father fix the mule cart. For supper he had makluba, a chicken and rice dish that his mother prepared, and at about 7:30 he left for the cafes on Jaffa Road, as he did every evening. Before leaving, he asked his mother if she needed anything.

Mohammed Khabali's parents (center) at the Tul Karm refugee camp, December 11, 2018.
Alex Levac

He would usually get home around 1 A.M., after straightening and cleaning up the cafes. This time he didn’t return. At about 3 A.M., distraught young men arrived at the house and woke up the eldest son, Ala, who roused his parents: Mohammad had been killed. Khossam asked one of his daughters to check on the camp’s Facebook page whether it was a mistake, and discovered, to his horror, that the victim was indeed his Mohammad. In a daze, he hurried to the Thabet Thabet Hospital in the city, where he saw his son’s body, a hole in the back of his neck. Death had claimed him at age 22.

Mohammad attended school until sixth grade, but didn’t understand a thing, his parents say. Already at the age of 3 they noticed he wasn’t developing like the other children and was mentally disabled. He was their second son. Their next child, Ibrahim, who’s now 18, suffers from the same affliction. Ten days before Mohammad was killed, he and Khossam returned from Amman, where they paid condolences on the death of Khossam’s brother. It was Mohammad’s first – and last – trip out of the country.

According to his Aunt Latifa, who came to Tul Karm for the funeral, he was thrilled to be in Amman. Video clips show him dancing and singing at the home of relatives in the Jordanian capital, a day before returning to the refugee camp. There’s also a selfie that Mohammad took. He helped his uncles harvest and sort olives – that too was captured on video and in other photos.

In the last picture taken of him, Mohammad can be seen holding a small Koran and seemingly reading from it, though he didn’t know how to read or write. That shot was taken in one of the Jaffa Road coffee houses, about an hour and a half before soldiers killed him. Some clips show him speaking, but his speech is slurred, unclear. Allah have mercy, his aunt sighs.

Mohammed Khabali's funeral, Tul Karm refugee camp, December 4, 2018.
AFP

After father and son returned from Amman, discussions began about the wedding of the eldest, Ala. Mohammad told his parents that he’d like to be the next to get married. Mohammad was never stopped by soldiers, never got into a quarrel with anyone, and appears to have been much loved in the camp and in the city, partly because of his impairment. The narghile was his way of relaxing, his escape.

After leaving the family with a heavy heart, we drive to the scene of the killing. Tul Karm’s main street for entertainment begins at Kadoorie Technical University, at the city’s western edge, and ascends to the town center: stores, computer game arcades, restaurants, cafés – one of which is for women only, its windows blacked out. Some of the places are stylishly designed. There’s Café Bianco, Café Al-Shelal and opposite them a wall painting of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet.

On the night between Monday and Tuesday of this past week, some 200 soldiers invaded the city, according to residents’ estimates, and scattered to a number of sites. Routine. A group of about 30 soldiers raided two houses just off Jaffa Road and then proceeded to the main street. They didn’t detain anyone. The coffee houses were already mostly closed, the A-Sabah hummus restaurant was about to open to welcome workers who set out to their jobs in Israel in the middle of the night.

The soldiers gathered next to the Al-Fadilia boys school, the city’s veteran educational institution, at one end of the street. The young people who emerged from the cafés exchanged curses with the soldiers, some threw stones at them from a distance. According to Abd al-Karim Sa’adi, a field investigator for B’Tselem, who carefully collected evidence immediately after the killing as though he were from a police forensic unit, including footage from all the security cameras on the street, the stones landed halfway between the young people and the soldiers. No one was hit.

A memorial for those killed at the Tul Karm refugee camp.
Alex Levac

In Sa’adi’s estimation, no more than 15 or 20 young Palestinians confronted the soldiers, from some distance. One of them told Mohammad, “Za’atar, you should get out of here.” As the video from one camera shows, Za’atar turns around and starts to walk away from the soldiers. Not running but slowly walking. Then he’s shot in the head, from behind.

In a statement to Haaretz this week, the IDF Spokespersons Unit said, “Last week a Military Police investigation was launched. At this stage it can be noted that during operational activity of Israeli soldiers in Tul Karm, a violent riot erupted and dozens of Palestinians hurled rocks towards the fighters. In response, the soldiers used riot-dispersal means and live fire. It was reported that one Palestinian was killed and another injured [in this incident]. When the army finishes its investigation, the conclusions of the probe will be examined by the military prosecutor. The incident is also being probed at the command level.” 

B’Tselem has released the following statement: “Video footage from four security cameras installed on three separate buildings along the street shows that the area was perfectly quiet and that there were no clashes there with soldiers… The video footage and the eyewitness accounts collected by B’Tselem from people who were near Khabali show no absolutely no of sign of any ‘disturbance,’ stone-throwing or use of crowd control measures. Quite the contrary: the soldiers are seen walking unhurriedly, the Palestinians are seen talking amongst themselves, and then the soldiers fatally shoot Khabali in the head from a considerable distance. The lethal shooting was not preceded by a warning, was not justified and constitutes a violation of the law.”

A few faded bloodstains are still visible on the asphalt where Khabali’s body was dragged away after the shooting. He died on the spot, his head bleeding profusely, Sa’adi says.

Fine Italian espresso is served in the café opposite, and two colorful photographs are hanging on the wall. One is of a large drone with the Israel Air Force symbol on its tail, the other of an IAF Fouga early fighter plane in the skies above Israel. The proprietor says he erased the squadron numbers before hanging them. He bought the two pictures in Tul Karm’s flea market.

Mohammad Khabali, aka “Za’atar,” is now buried not far from here, in the martyrs section of the cemetery.