Gideon Levy and Alex Levac – Haaretz April 19, 2019
It’s a very busy traffic circle on Highway 60, the major route in the West Bank, between the Hawara checkpoint and the Tapuah settlement intersection, not far from Nablus. As you drive toward the spot, which the Palestinians call Beita Circle and the settlers call Beitot Circle, garbage is piled up along the roadside. This is the industrial zone of the town of Hawara, where there is no industry other than garages and workers’ restaurants that look out onto the highway.
On April 3, three men, all of them on the way to work, arrived at the traffic circle separately. Only two of them left the site alive. The third was shot to death. The B’Tselem Israeli human rights organization asserted this week that the shooting was an execution and that the Israel Defense Forces destroyed evidence and whitewashed the findings.
It all happened in a flash. A little before 8:30 A.M., Mohammed Abdel Fattah arrived at the circle. He was 23 years old, married and the father of 7-month-old daughter, on the way from his apartment in his uncle’s house in the village of Beita to his job at the uncle’s brick factory in the village of Jama’in. He had apparently been traveling in a shared taxi. Eyewitnesses saw him standing by the side of the road and smoking two cigarettes, one after the other. What was going on in his mind? What was he planning? What made him act? We are unlikely to know.
He then crossed the road, to the west. He stood on the shoulder, within touching distance of the vehicles proceeding from north to south, a few meters from the circle, where traffic has to slow down. The road was very busy at that time of the morning. He threw two or three stones, not very big ones, at passing cars, hitting no one.
Even a visit to the home of Mohammed’s family did not provide an explanation for why he threw the stones. He was not a teenager and had never been arrested. He was married with a child, had a steady job and was on the way to work. A few days earlier he’d been to Israel for the first time in his life; together with his wife he visited Jerusalem and they later ate fish at a restaurant in Jaffa. Perhaps that trip holds the key to what drove the young married father to throw stones or try to stab a settler that morning.
One of the cars he’d thrown a stone at stopped. It was a white Renault with a blue poster of the Union of Right-Wing Parties displayed in the rear window. The driver was Yehoshua Sherman, from the settlement of Elon Moreh, who was working as a field director for the Union of Right-Wing Parties during the election campaign, which had then entered its final week. A blurry video clip from a security camera shows Sherman’s car, which had been traveling from north to south, stopping. Fifteen seconds later, Sherman gets out of the car and apparently shoots Mohammed Abdel Fattah, who’s seen kneeling behind the vehicle. We don’t know what happened in those 15 seconds – the car blocks the view.
In the meantime a truck with Israeli plates also stops and the driver gets out. B’Tselem field researchers Salma a-Deb’i and Abdulkarim Sadi cite witnesses as saying that they heard two shots. They think Sherman fired them before leaving his car. Abdel Fattah apparently tried to seek refuge behind a dumpster, which this week was still there, overflowing with refuse, at the edge of the road. A second video clip shows him lying on the road on his stomach, and being turned over onto his back by soldiers trying to ascertain if he was carrying explosives.
According to the testimonies B’Tselem took from four people, who all saw similar things, the two drivers fired a number of shots from close range even after Abdel Fattah lay wounded on the ground. B’Tselem also claims the Israel Defense Forces deleted footage from security cameras in the area of the shooting of the wounded man. Israeli media reported that “a Palestinian terrorist was shot and subdued by two drivers after trying to stab a father and his daughter near Hawara, south of Nablus.”
From the B’Tselem report, on its website: “At that point, Abdel Fattah was crouching among the dumpsters. Sherman approached him and fired several more shots at him. A truck driving along the road also stopped, and the driver got out. He came over to stand next to Sherman, and the two men fired several more shots at Abdel Fattah, who was lying wounded on the ground… Abdel Fattah succumbed to his wounds a short while later, at Beilinson Hospital in Israel.”
One of the shots hit Khaled Hawajba, a young man who works in a nearby store, in the abdomen. He was treated in Rafidiya Hospital in Nablus and discharged a few days later.
Minutes after the shooting by the two settlers, military jeeps arrived at the scene. The soldiers used stun grenades to disperse the crowd that had begun to gather at the site. According to B’Tselem, immediately afterward a group of about eight soldiers entered two of the nearby businesses to check their security cameras. They dismantled a digital video recorder in one of the stores and left. About 20 minutes later, the soldiers returned to the store, reinstalled the DVR and watched the footage.
“Two soldiers filmed the screen with their mobile phones. They then erased the footage from the DVR and left,” the B’Tselem report states.
In one of the clips that was uploaded to social networks in Israel, the photographer can be heard saying in Hebrew: “The terrorist tried to jump onto the Jew’s car and stab him. Our heroic soldiers eliminated him, may his name be blotted out. There are no casualties.”
After the incident, Sherman told Srugim, a website that calls itself “the home site of the religious sector”: “At Beitot junction a terrorist with a knife jumped on the car and tried to open the door. I got out and as the terrorist tried to go around the car in my direction I subdued him with gunfire with the aid of another resident of a nearby settlement who was driving behind me.”
The media reported that Sherman’s daughter was in the back seat; the allegation was that Abdel Fattah tried to open the car door and stab her. In the clip B’Tselem attached to its report, her father is seen moving relatively coolly toward the young man who is hiding behind the car. What happened there?
The human rights group is convinced, on the basis of the accounts it collected, that the shooting continued from close range as the wounded man lay on the ground. Moreover, B’Tselem believes that the two drivers shot Abdel Fattah with no justification, after he had moved away from the car and was kneeling behind the dumpster. According to the organization, the security forces who arrived at the scene made no attempt to arrest the two settlers, quickly dispersed the Palestinians and then proceeded to go to the stores and delete the documentation of the event “to ensure that the truth never comes to light and the shooters would not face any charges or be held accountable in any way.”
It was reported this week that the Samaria Regional Council has decided to award citations to the two settler-shooters.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week sent Haaretz this response: “On April 3, 2019 there was an attempted stabbing attack at the Beitot junction, which is [within the purview of] the Samaria Division of the IDF Central Command. The terrorist was shot by citizens and subdued after he threw stones at Israeli cars and then approached one of the cars in order to perpetrate a stabbing attack in the area. At the site of the incident a knife used by the terrorist was found. We would like to point out that the cameras that were dismantled by the security forces as part of their investigation of the incident were returned to their owners. The incident is under investigation.”
Khirbet Qeis. A small village below the town of Salfit, in the central West Bank, where Abdel Fattah’s parents live. His father, Abed al-Muneim Abdel Fattah, 50, is a night watchman in Ramallah, who has five other children in addition to Mohammed. The house is well kept. Mohammed, the eldest, completed high school, but “regrettably,” his father says, he did not pursue his studies and went to work. In October 2017, he married his cousin, Rada Awadala, from the village of Ein Ariq, near Ramallah, and their daughter Jawan was born last fall. They visited every second Friday, rotating weekends between Rada’s parents in Ein Ariq and Mohammed’s in Khirbet Qeis.
On the last Friday of Mohammed’s life they were at the home of his in-laws. The next day, when he and Rada went on an organized tour to Jerusalem and Jaffa, they left Jawan with her maternal grandparents. When they got back, Rada went to her parents’ home to collect the baby and stayed there for a few days. Mohammed remained alone in their apartment in Beita, close to his place of work.
Mohammed’s father was on the job in Ramallah the day his son died. A relative called to inform him that Mohammed had been wounded. Shortly afterward, a Shin Bet security service agent called and ordered him to come to the IDF base at Hawara, Abed tells us now. The agent informed him that his son had tried to stab a soldier and afterward corrected himself to say that his son had thrown stones. The father replied that it was unimaginable for his son to have done that.
Abed was asked in his interrogation whether Mohammed had been active in any sort of movement, whether anyone had tried to persuade him to throw stones or carry out a stabbing attack, whether he suffered from mental problems or problems at home or at work, or whether perhaps he’d quarreled with his wife. The father replied that his son had no family or other problems and was never active in any group. The interrogator repeated the questions twice, then a third time.
At this point Abed still didn’t yet know that his son was dead. The Shin Bet agent said he’d been wounded and taken to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva. He recommended that Abed get in touch with the Palestinian District Coordination and Liaison Office to arrange an entry permit to visit his son in Israel. Finally the agent said to the father, “From now on, you and your children are under surveillance. Dir balak [Watch your step]. Take this as a warning, as a red light. Anyone who lifts his head – we’ll cut it off.”
Abed was at the base in Hawara for nearly three hours. By the time he got home, almost the whole village had gathered next to his house, and he understood that his son was dead. The social networks said he had been killed by settlers.
Why was he throwing stones, we asked. Abed: “I don’t believe he did anything like that. He was on the way to work. But even if he did, sometimes the settlers provoke people who are standing on the road, spit at them or curse them or try to run them over. Even if he threw stones, by then he wasn’t endangering anyone. After all, the law says that it’s forbidden to shoot someone who is lying on the ground. Arrest him. But why did you kill him?”
Israel has not yet returned Mohammed Abdel Fattah’s body; all the family’s efforts to claim it have been rebuffed. His grave has already been dug in the village’s small cemetery. There’s a mound of earth there now, but the grave is empty.