Three Kids Were Shot in the Head in East Jerusalem in 10 Weeks, and No One Knows Why

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Father Mohammed Karain and grandfather Mohammed Abu Ghali in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, August 10, 2020. Rafif Kerain was killed by a stray bullet.
Father Mohammed Karain and grandfather Mohammed Abu Ghali in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, August 10, 2020. Rafif Kerain was killed by a stray bullet. Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On the first Thursday in August, Hosni Zaloum was taking care of his niece, 4-year-old Haneen, at the family’s home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. It was near the end of Muslim evening prayer when he heard gunfire near the house. When he turned around, he saw his niece lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

“She managed to say ‘ay,’ and that was it. I thought that she had fallen, but I saw blood everywhere,” he recounted. He picked up Haneen and ran with her to the nearby HMO health clinic. An ambulance was called, but the girl was transferred on the way to an intensive care ambulance. She was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. She had been shot in the head by a stray bullet, although where it was fired from and why it was fired remain unknown.

Two and a half months earlier, another 4-year-old, Rafif Mohammad Karain, from another Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood, Isawiyah, was killed by a stray bullet fired by an unidentified shooter. During the period between those two shootings, a 9-year-old boy, Jihad Jaber of East Jerusalem’s Ras al-Amud neighborhood, was shot in the head. Fortunately for him, doctors at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem were able to remove the bullet without further damage. He was then transferred to the Alyn pediatric rehabilitation hospital in Jerusalem to recover.

Haneen Zaloum, East Jerusalem, August 11, 2020. She managed to say ‘oy,’ before she fell to the ground. Credit: Courtesy of the family

No one in East Jerusalem can explain the shocking coincidence of three children being shot in the head by stray bullets within 10 weeks. The incidents have sparked allegations of powerlessness on the part of the police in East Jerusalem, but also on the part of Palestinians in Jerusalem regarding the possession and use of firearms. Israel Police sources have said they believe that the bullets in at least two of the three incidents came from the other side of the security barrier, perhaps from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The barrier separates Jerusalem from the West Bank, but it runs along a route that has placed some East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods on the West Bank side of the barrier. Israel Police sources say that Palestinian security forces have been lax in controlling the use of firearms.

A bullet from above

On May 21, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Karain family of Isawiyah gathered on their balcony in the evening. Rafif was sitting between her grandmother and grandfather, who were joined by about 10 other relatives. None of them heard gunfire. The grandfather, Mohammed Abu Ghali, heard a small knock, “like a stone,” as he described it later. Rafif fell to the floor. Her father, Mohammed Karain, rushed her to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.

“She was crying, but it was a weak cry,” he recounted. “I thought she had been hit by a stone. At the hospital, they took her for X-rays. I remember meeting a friend of mine there who told me maybe it was a bullet. I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but then the doctor appeared. I asked what happened and he didn’t say anything. I grabbed him by the arm and asked if it was a bullet, and he said yes.”

Rafif was in the hospital for 15 days in critical condition until she died of her wounds. Based on all indications, the bullet that hit her in the head had been fired into the air from a considerable distance and penetrated her head from above. Abu Ghali, her grandfather, now understands what he had heard. “I heard ‘tick.” It was the fracturing of her skull. Her grandmother and I both heard it.” He described his granddaughter as being “like a flower.”

Jihad Jaber, East Jerusalem, August 8, 2020. The bullet caused a 12cm cut in his skull, but did not penetrate his brain.Credit: Emil Salman

While the police had no suspect, the shooting sparked rumors in Isawiyah that Rafif had been shot over a family dispute, which had erupted seven years earlier between two factions of the Karain family in Silwan over a staircase at the family home.

“My dad said that we would remove the staircase to keep the quiet, even though my brothers and I objected. We agreed that it would be removed within 10 days,” recalled Mohammed Karain, Rafif’s father. “Seven days later, Dad was stabbed to death in the heart.”

He and others in Silwan allege that the killing was the work of a cousin, who was arrested but released 18 days later for lack of evidence. “After they released him, they told him to leave the neighborhood,” Mohammed Karain said. “He wouldn’t agree to it. Ultimately my brother bought a weapon and shot him with 21 bullets. He stood on the street and said that it was revenge for my dad. He got life in prison.”

“We are not a crime family,” Mohammed Karain insisted. “We never had anything like that, not even a brawl. If the police had done their job and the killer was in jail, this would have been over.”

Following the killing of the grandfather and the cousin, the family moved in with the maternal grandfather in Isawiyah. Despite the bloody past, Karain said he was convinced that there was no connection between the old family dispute and Rafif’s death.

The angle from which the bullet struck, the fact that the family dispute was about to be resolved and the family setting in which Rafif was killed buttress the view that the girl’s death was unrelated to the family feud. “No one can shoot a bullet from the sky without it being heard even, and they also wouldn’t shoot a bullet when you’re sitting like that with the family,” Mohammed Karain asserted.

Rafif Mohammad Karain, East Jerusalem. Her grandfather, Mohammed Abu Ghali, heard a small knock, 'like a stone'Credit: באדיבות המשפחה

The police also believe that it was a stray bullet. They think it was fired into the air with an M-16 rifle from the other side of the security barrier, from the vicinity of the Shoafat refugee camp – despite the fact that barrier is about 1,200 meters (three-quarters of a mile) from the family’s home. That none of the members of the family heard gunfire also supports the argument that it was fired in the air from a considerable distance and, in a horrible stroke of bad luck, hit Rafif on its way to the ground.

A ballistics expert agreed that there was a reasonable prospect that it had been fired from the other side of the barrier, but said it was more likely that it was fired from closer range.

“What makes me crazy is that several years ago, there was weapons fire here all the time, but over the past year there has been exceptional control over Isawiyah. The police know everything that happens, and no one would dare pull out a weapon,” Karain said.

Recently, after the death of 4-year-old Haneen Zaloum, police investigators returned to the balcony of the Karain’s home, this time equipped with a drone, in another attempt to determine where the bullet that killed Rafif was fired from. But the family no longer believes there is a chance that the gunman will be caught.

“If it had happened in Ramat Eshkol or another [Jewish Jerusalem] neighborhood, would they have caught whoever did this?” Karain remarked. “They would have turned everything upside down to catch him,” the grandfather, Mohammed Abu Ghali, added.

A shooting recorded

Nine-year-old Jihad Jaber, the boy who survived being shot in the head, had been playing with his cousins in the yard of his home at the end of July during the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday. Jihad can be seen, in security camera footage of the incident, bending down for a moment and then falling on the ground. In this incident as well, no gunshots were heard, and the bullet was fired from an M-16 rifle, hitting the child in the head. The boy’s grandfather, who shares the same name, took him to a community clinic, from where he was then sent to the hospital.

“I thought he had fallen and hit his head, but at the hospital, they X-rayed him right away,” the grandfather said, recounting that he had told hospital staff that the boy may have fainted due to the sun and not having eaten. The grandfather said he was shown the X-ray, where he could see that his grandson had a bullet in his head. “I said it couldn’t be, and maybe it was someone else’s head,” he said.

Jihad Jaber, East Jerusalem, August 8, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

As the boy was about to be operated on, the grandfather said he was told that his grandson may not survive surgery or could lose his sight or the use of his arms or legs. “But when the doctor came out of the operating room, he said you can breathe [more easily] and thank God,” he said. The surgeon informed him that this was the first time that he had performed this kind of surgery but everything went well and there was no further damage to the grandson’s brain.

Due to possible long-term effects of brain injuries, the boy was transferred to the Alyn hospital to assess what follow-up treatment he might need. “But he was discharged fully conscious and in good physical condition and walking on his own,” said Dr. Guy Elor, the neurologist who operated on Jihad Jaber.

Four-year-old Haneen Zaloum had no such luck on August 6 when she was shot on the balcony of her home. Following her death, a mourners’ tent was set up there. The following Sunday, a crowd of visitors offered their condolences. The girl’s father, Yassin, sat with them but had difficulty talking. When this reporter asked about his daughter, he simply couldn’t take the strain and walked away. “What can you say about a little girl?” asked her uncle Hosni, who had taken his injured niece to the nearby clinic following the shooting. In her case as well, no one knows where the shot was fired from.

“They’re shooting all the time here,” said Mustafa, a neighbor. “You hear a noise. You don’t know where it’s coming from, but there’s a police department in the country. They know.”

Haneen’s grandfather, Sufian Natsheh, stood before a crowd of people who had come to express their condolences. “Anyone who has a weapon has to take care of it,” he said, adding that the dignitaries in neighborhood should also address the issue. “Anyone who sees their child with a weapon should spank him. The one benefitting from this is the occupation,” he said referring to Israeli authorities. “A 4-year-old girl died for nothing.”

The comment reflects the sentiments of many Palestinians in East Jerusalem who pin the blame for the two girls’ deaths on Israel and the Israel Police but also on the ills of Palestinian society in the city.

“It’s powerlessness on the part of the police and of the dignitaries of the village,” said Daoud Siam, referring to the Silwan neighborhood, where the social activist lives. “You can’t complain that your neighbor has a weapon because he’ll say that you’re a collaborator. People don’t feel that they have the backing of the police. They want the police more involved. They want people to receive citations over weapons rather than masks.”

Anyone with 5,000 shekels ($1,470) “buys a weapon to show their power,” said Jihad Jaber, the grandfather of the 9-year-old. “Where are the police? Don’t they see what’s happening? I’ve asked the police to clean up the area many times.”

But Chief Superintendent Eli Cohen, who is an investigation and intelligence officer in the Kedem police precinct, which includes most of East Jerusalem, said there has actually been a decline in the use of illegal weapons in that part of the city in recent years. The shootings of the three children, he said, are a tragic coincidence.

“This issue gets much attention and many resources, and there has been a significant drop in shootings and shooting injuries,” he said. The police consider the situation distinct in each of three separate areas of East Jerusalem.

One is the area on the Israeli side of the security barrier, covering most of Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, where they say they have good intelligence and a good grasp of the situation on the ground, and the use of firearms has declined.

Then there is the Shoafat refugee camp, which is within Jerusalem city limits but on the West Bank side of the barrier. There have been a large number of cases there in recent years involving firearms, but the police say the situation has improved, noting that 12 arms dealers have been arrested and indicted recently. They have been ordered held until the end of the legal proceedings against them. Nevertheless, Shoafat residents say there are daily incidents involving the use of firearms.

The third and most problematic area for the police is Kafr Aqab, another neighborhood on the other side of the barrier, where the army and the police are in charge of security but have difficulty operating consistently.

Police sources said they believe that in at least two of the three children’s cases – that of Rafif Karain in Isawiyah and Jihad Jaber in Ras al-Amud – the shots were fired from beyond the security barrier, apparently from adjacent West Bank territory under PA control. Security officials say the situation there has deteriorated in recent months, due to what they describe as the weakness of Palestinian security forces and the improved capacity of workshops in PA territory to manufacture illegal weapons.

“We are conducting a public information campaign, and perhaps these three incidents will make it clear to residents that weapons are not a game, that their children could get hurt,” Cohen said. “When you shoot in the air, in the end, you will hit someone in the head. I promise that we will be able to protect every resident who helps us.”

“We are actually seeing an improvement when it comes to the residents helping the police,” he noted, even in connection with issues over which the police once thought it was obvious they would not receive the residents’ cooperation. “Residents want us to come in,” Cohen added.

Back at the Karain home, Rafif’s siblings are finding it difficult to cope with her absence. “The older one is always asking where Rafif is now. Is she a bird? Is she with God?” her father recounted. “Recently, I gave him part of a roll and he asked if Rafif was hungry. The little one, who is 3, pours water and says now Rafif can come and drink.”