On Monday, August 1st, 2011, at dawn, the Occupation soldiers murdered Mu’tasem Udwan and Ali Khalifa and seriously wounded Ma’amun Awad.
It was the first morning of Ramadan.
Murder is always shocking. And because afterwards there is nothing. But what shocked me in particular was how Mu’tasem’s mother saw him very soon after he was murdered, lying on the ground by his house door, his brain splashed on the asphalt. This is how she saw him, her son, and somehow this is what shocks me most of all. Because as soon as he is dead, he is already gone and my thoughts go to the holes that he has left behind. But this particular hole, of Mu’tasem’s mother, is what turns off all the lights for me.
On the one hand, what happened that dawn in Qalandiya refugee camp is not extraordinary. Such things happen all the time. The Occupation soldiers invade one Palestinian locality or another, especially at night, under this or that pretext, and then they break doors, and after breaking in they smash things inside the house, closets and plate glass and television sets, and usually pick up one or another youth, about whom this or that has been said, some truth or some falsehood, usually taken as testimony from another boy under some pressure or other, whereby it is reasonable to assume that he would say anything he was told to say and confess anything he was ordered to confess, and usually there are also stones hurled at the Occupation soldiers and mostly the Occupation soldiers shoot at the stone throwers who are usually mere children, and they also fire rubber or teargas ammunition and even live bullets into homes and on the streets just like that, and here and there at the end of all of this people are wounded or killed, and all this is not that extraordinary. Not in the Qalandiya refugee camp, not throughout the Occupied West Bank.
Still, the murders of Ali Khalifa and Mu’tasem Udwan were cast in the camp as a unique event and different from all the other events that have become routine with the dripping of the years.
Again and again people have been saying, “how could they possibly do this”, and “why of all days on the first day of Ramadan”, the religious and the secular ask alike.
And not because the blood of a person murdered during Ramadan is more precious than that of a victim on any other day. But perhaps it is only that people cannot complain to the same extent at any given moment and shout ‘No!’ and that it is unbearable, unacceptable. For if they did that, no joy would be left, no endurance and the ability to exert oneself and bring up one’s children properly in spite of it all, and live in spite of everything, and also it is normally too dangerous to revolt, and involves tremendous effort.
But there are such moments when the truth, always present, emerges and is heard, and time stops.
Ramadan is such a symbolic moment. Perhaps because in Ramadan the shops remain open at night, too, and one has the duty of doing good deeds, and because people need such moments of shift away from the everyday, and this is provided by religion and tradition, and not only for Palestinians under Occupation.
“This is what happened that night”, says Haitham Hamed, our friend. A gentle, special man from Qalandiya refugee camp. “This is what I heard happened”.
“They came for Wajih. Wajih Haitham Khatib. He is a 15-year old boy. More than 200 soldiers came. 200 soldiers to catch a 15-year old boy. 200 soldiers came for one kid and killed two adults. That’s what happened.
They always come, all the Israeli soldiers, to the camp. They bring with them all those forces just to pick up a kid or two… And the Border Patrol and… They keep coming from a thousand ways. From down here, from outside, from the settlement above. They come down, or up, and around the camp where the airplanes were (what used to be the Atarot airfield) and from the main road, from lots of roads.
This time, too. They came from near the settlement.
And he’s accused – this I heard in the camp – do you know of what? Are you familiar with the settlement next to the camp? Not Psagot, what’s it called? Kochav Hashachar. He’s accused of having burnt the mountain.
Burnt the mountain?
With all those soldiers and Border Patrol and the guys with the guns and jeeps and fence and guards and cameras all around. He came to them and burnt a mountain there?
What a story. Just doesn’t enter one’s head. But that’s what his parents told me. That this is what he is accused of. That this 15-year old kid went near the settlement and burnt the mountain.
The soldiers didn’t know his real address. So they entered more than one house. And in every house they broke stuff. That’s what I heard. And it’s normal for them to break stuff. They don’t know any other way.
First they break the doors with their special machines that they bring. They don’t knock. Only this way, without saying a word, they place the device on the door and press a button and – pow – it opens the door. Always. Not once or twice. Like they did at our home, remember? People replace doors a lot in our camp (chuckling).
In short, they came to the camp, and didn’t find the boy. They didn’t find the boy.
So if you don’t find the boy, you raise such hell? Right, Tammi? You don’t find the boy so you go ahead and kill two people?
And then what did they do? What they did was to pick up his cousin. 22-years old. They didn’t find Wajih so they took his cousin, and said that they were taking him until the kid’s father would turn him in.”
And Tamar said: “It’s shocking, Haitham. Shocking. Not only do they kill them, they take in his nephew… kidnap…”
“Yes,” said Haitham. “And his dad brought him to Ofer prison the next day, I think. So his nephew would be released… Under what kind of law do they do this? Taking his cousin, telling his dad if you bring your own son, you can take back your nephew… What law has such words… For the father to hand in his own child. In his own hands he takes his child to prison. And the child knows he’s going…
I can’t lie to you, stones have been thrown at them. They left Wajih’s house on the way to the another one, and stones were thrown at them. But often they entered the camp and picked the people up, and every time stones were thrown at them. But they didn’t always do this.
So why did you come this time, in Ramadan? For a boy no older than 15 or 16? And you knew there were people in the street because of Ramadan. And you knew stones would be thrown at you.
And I want to say something about the stone-throwing thing. Throwing stones, that’s the maximum. For who in the camp would have the heart to pick up a gun and shoot at soldiers? So maximum they throw stones. Say a Molotov cocktail, right, Tammi? At most, a Molotov cocktail or stones.
So a stone was thrown, so what. They don’t kill you with a stone, right? A stone doesn’t kill, only wounds you. So for this you came and killed two?”
“Mu’tasem, Mu’tasem Udwan, the first fellow they killed. He is my neighbor,” says Majdi from the camp, whom we have just recently met. “He lives just 10 meters away. We were all woken up by the shooting… it was war… I went up to the roof. And there was this soldier down in the street. His rifle placed on a tripod… And Mu’tasem opened his door to take a look outside because of the shooting and the noise. Terrible noise… and teargas and lots of shooting.
Mu’tasem who looked down didn’t notice the soldier. The soldier shot him in the head, and he fell to the floor.
He opened the door of his home and the soldier shot him with a live bullet to the head… and his brain spilt on the ground.
And he didn’t have a head anymore. He didn’t have a head…
I saw all that from my roof. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. He had no more head… and his brain spilt on the floor.
Abu Ali, Ali Khalifa the second one, he lives down hill. But that night he was at the camp. With his friends. That’s how it is during Ramadan. A bit like your Thursday and Friday nights. People hanging out together. All night. And guys beating traditional drums to wake people up before dawn so they might still get bread or other things for the house before the fast.
And then it all began.
When the shooting got really heavy he wanted to go back home. To get away. His car was parked near my house.
He may have come there because he wasn’t as familiar with the camp as we are, so he came back for his car.
And he saw Mu’tasem lying on the ground. All alone. It was just 6 minutes after he was shot. And he went over, to Mu’tasem, he may have thought he was wounded, and wanted to help him. He didn’t notice the soldier…
And the soldier shot him too. Two bullets. One came out the other side. And a hole opened up in his abdomen. And then he fell, right by Mu’tasem.”
“That’s how he went… How Abu Ali went…”
“Haitham, did you call him Abu Ali?”
“His name was Ali Khalifa. But he was called this way. Abu Ali, because his name is Ali. So you add the Abu. Like that.”
“Everyone knows these guys”, says Haitham. “The camp is small, but everyone knows Abu Ali most.
I knew him well, the day before I saw him at the gas station, washing his car. But earlier too. He was with me in prison. As a boy. At the Russian Compound.
He was a good person… He used to help people, the elderly, all of us cannot believe he’s dead, I swear to you. That he’s gone. Unbelievable. And he is a Jerusalemite. A Jerusalemite. He lives down the hill. Not in the camp… His parents pay municipal taxes.
I knew Mu’tasem, too, but not well. He’s a nice guy. Really nice. Studied at the university. He was about to graduate in a year’s time. And he didn’t do anything. Doesn’t throw stones. He was at home. Looking out through his own door and was shot in the head.”
“And the one who was wounded, Ma’amun Awad, he was shot inside his car”, says Majdi. “He was trying to get away, and the soldiers wouldn’t let him pass, and he pleaded, and finally they threw a gas canister into his car, and smoke broke out, and he opened the car door to escape the smoke, and they shot him, they had an M-16, and he is wounded now. Badly wounded.”
“Maybe you know him”, says Haitham, “this is Ma’amun Awad, whose father owns a gas station at Semiramis, where the army camp used to be and the soldiers would throw stones at the taxis, remember? Poor guy. Got two bullet. Two bullets sitting in his backbone, and the doctors fear that if they’re removed, he will become paralyzed. They say if the bullets are taken out, he’ll end up paralyzed.”
And we fell silent again. Time passed. Then I asked: “Haitham, after that happened to Mu’tasem, did his family see?” Because I kept thinking of it the whole time.
“Sure they saw. He was shot at the entrance to his house.
In the beginning his mother was upstairs, watching everything. She saw someone on the ground, his brain spilt… she didn’t realize at first that it was her own son she was seeing. Poor guy, she said, poor wounded child, crying for him not knowing it was her son. But shortly afterwards she knew. And rushed out. She couldn’t recognize him. his head was blasted, the brain was spilt on the ground. That’s what they say. And from the eyes up there’s nothing… And his mother went mad, poor woman. We all cried for her. Pulling at her hair. She’s ill. She’s ill now…”
“The thing that hurts you about Mu’tasem is that the fellow was inside his own home. Standing inside his home. You know what that means, at home? Where the heart is. That’s the worst. The most painful. Right?”
“I couldn’t eat for 4, 5 days after all of this”, says Majdi, “nor sleep properly… not after seeing his brain splashed on the ground.. his flesh hot. His and Abu Ali’s, hot… Abu Ali’s abdomen on the floor… all the flesh, the meat… After the soldiers left I went down where they lay, Mu’tasem and Abu Ali. I thought I’d pick all that up from the ground and put it away, on the side. But I was told not to. That they will take it too, to later sew it back into their bodies… So we collected all of this and put it in plastic bags, and it was hot, hot, their flesh was hot.”
“I think they do it on purpose”, Haitham added. “It’s on purpose. Tammi…. People are sitting like this anyway, and have nothing, and their life is hard. Such a hard life… So why pack in Ramadan like this? Why do this and leave people with no illusions?
That’s the reason, I say. To take away their illusions. Their… How do you say this in Hebrew, I’ve forgotten.
To take away their hope, Aya. That’s the word. That’s the point.
And I’m not racist. I look at things from many angles. This will happen and that will happen and I’ll think again and again. And I don’t see everyone the same way. But they did this out of racism. That’s what I think. Not because of the stones, and not because of Wajih. Because of racism. Otherwise they wouldn’t kill two people.
It’s their racism that got Mu’tasem. And Abu Ali. Their racism…”
“The camp is very heavy now. Our heart is heavy” says Haitham, after we sat quietly for some more moments. “And fear. People are walking around afraid of soldiers, that if they go out at night, they’d be killed. From far away. And it’s quiet at night. People don’t open their windows out of fear.
This is the story of what happened that night of Ramadan in our camp… This is what happened.”
And this is what our friend A., another friend from Qalandiya, told us (A. is a very close friend of ours, and he is always asking us to keep him anonymous because he is afraid that if the soldiers find out that he is talking about what happens at the camp, they would hurt his family). He is the one who first told us about this all, right after it happened. He called us twenty minutes after the murder in the camp, to tell, while the calls for the first prayer of Ramadan were still heard in the background, and Mu’tasem was already dead, and Ali not yet, and Ma’amun unconscious, and it all sounded unreal, like a film or a book or a nightmare:
Mu’tasem, you know, is such a cute guy. He heard a noise… We say “this guy’s clock is through”. Now he stepped out of the door, the soldiers standing outside, saw a guy look out, so they shot him.
I don’t know, I say this, you know, he’s dead, but someone shot him. The guy who shot, I mean what is he saying in his own home now?
He’s sitting alone, I think he has kids, he too has a family, or a mother, brothers, his father… And he’s sitting at home, and saying I killed a child today. Why? He can’t say why. Because, why? What did the kid do? What did he do to me? Was he armed? No, he carried no weapon. Was he, how do you say this, was he one of the Arab fighters? No, he was not one of those. And I know he had nothing on him. He didn’t throw stones. He just stepped out of his home, and suddenly I killed him – the soldier would say.
And I say, this soldier, what can he say?
If he has a heart, what does he end up saying?
He’d say, wow, why did I kill him? That’s what I think. Just like that. Because, why? What did he do?
And Tamar said, I think he’s sitting at home and making this… screen… making up some story for himself.
No, no, listen, A. interrupts her. He did this and he knows.
He could have aimed at the leg, no? He could shoot at the leg and wound him. If he’d want to. But he aimed at the head.
And Tammi, on their rifle they have this… he sees through his sights… he looks, he knows. You understand… So I don’t know, I don’t know what he… how he sits at home, knowing, knowing he killed.
Say, the soldier is a human being, right?
He has a heart, doesn’t he? So what does he tell himself. That I killed a boy today. What does he tell himself…