Why We Should Care About the Suicide Note of a Palestinian Teenage Knife Attacker

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Scene of stabbing at West Bank's Hawara checkpoint. December 26, 2015.
Scene of stabbing at West Bank's Hawara checkpoint. December 26, 2015. Credit: AFP

It has been six months since the start of the ongoing intifada of individuals: a continuum of stabbing, shooting and vehicular assaults carried out by mostly young Palestinian lone-wolf attackers from the West Bank. The frequency, persistence and identical qualities of the attacks have made them a morbidly familiar part of desensitized Israelis’ daily lives.

But on March 9th, as live television broadcasts jumped between different scenes of attempted attacks, one news report caught my eye. Mid-morning at the Zawiya checkpoint in the West Bank, a 16-year-old boy, Ahmad Amer, from the neighboring village of Mas’ha, approached Israeli soldiers with a knife and was immediately killed. Nobody else was injured.

While the troubling details of the attack otherwise fit the familiar pattern, a Haaretz report mentioned that Amer had left a suicide note – an unusual detail. Driven by curiosity, I found a full copy of his letter.

“In the name of God, the most gracious, the most compassionate. May peace, God’s mercy and blessings be upon you.

Dear mother and father, forgive me and be pleased with me for I am a martyr by God’s will. Thank God for everything. I want you to recall my bad deeds and not my good deeds, so that people may forgive me.

I owe money to some people:

Rami Mohyee A-Din - eight shekels
My uncle Hamdallah - twenty shekels
Al-Beek Restaurant - thirty two shekels.”

The short note, in its humble, poorly scrawled simplicity, is a revelation. Not only does it portray complexity and humanity that is invariably lost between the headlines, but it shows us Israelis where we’ve gone wrong.

It's too late to ask 16-year-old Ahmad Amer why he made the poor decision to go up to an IDF checkpoint with a knife that morning - a long walk to what he knew would be his death. Before he could be arrested, interrogated and tried in court, which might’ve given us a clue as to the motive for his act, Amer was shot dead.

Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing government's determined efforts to ignore the deep-seated resentment and frustration behind politically motivated acts of violence, and to dismiss all attackers as zombies infected by incitement and hatred, equal to the Nazis or to ISIS, what emerges from the suicide note is a picture not of a hate-fueled killer robot, but of a boy. Amar believes in God. “Forgive me,” he begs, anticipating his parent’s disappointment. He seeks the forgiveness of his community. “Recall my bad deeds and not my good deeds,” is an unexpected, sophisticated twist of reverse psychology and penitence. This teenage boy believes he is sacrificing himself for what he feels is a greater good: his community’s historic struggle.

Perhaps Ahmad Amer was influenced by propaganda and nationalism. Perhaps he was reacting to the death and suffering in his surroundings and in the Palestinian community at large. Perhaps he was enraged by 50 years of occupation and oppression in the West Bank and years of zero effort toward resolution on the part of politicians on both sides. Don't forget that members of the IDF's own top brass have declared that young Palestinians with no affiliation to terror organizations, were expressing their own feelings of rage and frustration through violence.

But the most astounding thing about the note is that this 16-year-old boy confesses to the money he owes a friend, a family member, and a local business, making one last request: that his parents pay it back. The sums of money in question are so small that the act of contrition would be laughable if it wasn’t so heartbreaking; For Ahmad Amer, a small-town boy with an adult's sense of responsibility and honor, those measly few shekels were crucially important. In the last moments of his life and, in his own moral world — incomprehensible to us — he was concerned with doing the right thing.

And then there is everything Amer’s message isn’t. It isn’t angry or hateful; it doesn’t speak about revenge or glorify killing. It is personal, casual and hauntingly resigned - a world apart from the scripted, Koran-wielding, politicized videos familiar to us from terror group-sponsored suicide attacks.

The suicide note makes it hard to write off Ahmad Amer as a homicidal jihadist monster; it reminds us that no person, even a violent person, is just one thing: good or bad, black or white. A Palestinian, it seems, is also a human being with beliefs, experiences, pathos, and motives that demand consideration. Yes, Palestinians are killing. But these killings are a twisted response to an equally twisted political and social reality that Israel has a strong hand in. In the words of Charles M. Blow, “You can’t condemn the unseemly howl and not the lash.”

Ahmad Amar teaches us that there is always a partner for negotiation, despite Israeli leaders’ claims to the contrary. As the powerful side of the equation, it’s easy to sit back, claim victimhood, blame — or just kill — the enemy and assert that there’s no possible path to a two-state solution.

But what if we Israelis didn’t see Palestinians through hateful, hysterical, siege-mentality glasses of a tribe at the edge of extinction, but through clear, brave lenses of rapprochement. Israel should be able to deal with violence in ways more enlightened, humanistic and successful than unloading a cartridge of bullets into a 16-year-old kid, something even the IDF Chief of Staff was able to admit.

Ahmad Amer’s suicide note teaches us that there is still hope for a renewal of the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians founded on the basic mutual recognition of our humanity. In another time and place, Ahmad Amer wouldn’t have attempted to kill and wouldn't have had to die for the sins of others, becoming a statistic in a fifty-year-old conflict. Like his death, his note is not eloquent, but conveys a message much more powerful than the sum of its words.

David Sarna Galdi, a former editor at Haaretz, is the head of English language content for a non-profit organization in Tel Aviv.

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