- Introduction: Recently, my family and I were in Israel-Palestine.
We spent Christmas in Palestine and then drove north to Nablus. There we
witnessed the aftermath of the Israeli targeted killing of three Palestinians.
We met the affected families and I wrote down my impressions of the Israeli
operation in the form of a report (supplemented with photographs). Later
I found out that the American government is questioning the Israeli government
on the operation, and therefore I have made the report available to Congress
and the State Department. However, I really think that the impressions
of an ordinary American citizen should be seen by other Americans.
- Much planning had gone into our family vacation in Israel-Palestine.
We could spare only the last two weeks of 2009, and so had developed an
uncompromising itinerary for each day, allowing a mere half-day to recover
from jet lag from our trip from California. After devoting most of the
first week to visiting holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and
Jericho, we were, in the words of our 17-year-old, quite "churched
out." We are a typical American family in at least one regard: we
have two other children (ages five and two), and we are all blessed with
limited attention span. Absorbing detailed references to the Old and New
Testaments in the places we visited was beyond our capabilities. Our hired
tour guide and driver, Issa Habash , had long ago taken notice of our monumental
ignorance and had given up on reciting chapter and verse from the Bible.
- On December 26, 2009 we headed north from Bethlehem,
where we had celebrated Christmas. Entering the city of Nablus, we stopped
briefly at Jacob's Well, just enough time to use the facilities and for
a photo-op of my wife drawing water from the fabled well. Our plans for
the rest of Nablus were somewhat vague; Issa suggested we take in an ancient
Samaritan synagogue, but everyone else rebelled against this idea. My wife
was more interested in seeing a soap factory or a store with the legendary
spices of Nablus. As a former academic, I was keen on touring the an-Najah
National University, which is the largest one in Palestine. I had even
made a tentative arrangement with a local, Ala Abdessalam, to show us around.
Ala is affiliated with the university but also functions as a coordinator
for human rights groups and youth exchange programs operating in Nablus.
- When we left Jacob's Well, it was a little after eleven
in the morning. We called Ala on his cell-phone and were told that he was
no longer available for the tour. Apparently the Israeli Special Forces
had killed some people in a pre-dawn operation in the Old City, and Ala
was busy taking pictures and interviewing people. However, if we were up
to the challenge, we could tag along while he went about his business.
He said that it might even help him to have international observers with
- We agreed to this proposal, albeit with some nervousness.
Until that point we had not encountered any trouble in the Palestine Territories-to
the contrary, the people we had met were extremely friendly and ready to
debate political issues involving Israel, Palestine, and the United States
quite openly. Still, we were uneasy about visiting the neighborhood where
people had been killed that very day.
- Ala met us at the outskirts of the Old City. He was accompanied
by two other volunteers. All of us, including Issa, got down from the van
and set off on foot. Our intrepid five-year-old led the way, taking his
stuffed toy cat along for security (see Figure 1). Soon, a mentally challenged
man joined the group and started yelling at us. Ala assured me that the
man was harmless ("Isn't there someone like this in every village?"
was his comment.) Noticing my wife's anxiety, one of the volunteers linked
arms with our five-year-old and the two marched along happily.
- Ala explained that there had been three distinct "termination"
operations conducted by the Israeli Special Forces. The operations had
been well coordinated, taking place between 2:00 and 4:00 AM, in three
different houses within 2 kilometers of each other. Ala had already taken
down preliminary testimony from the neighbors. In accordance with Muslim
customs, the funerals had to be done promptly, and so Ala had to break
off his interviews. He warned us that there would be a lot of mourners
in each house that we visited.
- At the first house, we were met by two neighbors, a young
man and an older woman. Ala rattled off questions and translated briskly
from Arabic to English for the benefit of my wife, our 17-year-old and
myself. I asked an occasional question.
- The man who had been killed was named Ghasan Abu Sharakh.
He had been living in the house with his mother. At around 3:00 AM, the
neighborhood was awakened by commotion in the streets. A convoy of about
30 jeeps had appeared suddenly, along with a Hummer and a bull-dozer. Some
70 soldiers and at least one dog had spread around and a few soldiers had
quickly entered the house.
- "Nobody took pictures?" I asked. It seemed
remarkable to me, in this age of ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, that it
had not occurred to anyone to film the whole thing.
- Ala explained patiently to me that if you were anywhere
near an Israeli raid you did two things. First, you made sure that you
did not have a camera; if the Israelis found one on you they would beat
you senseless. Second, you visited a toilet as soon as you could-if you
were rounded up you might not get to use the potty for a long time.
- The old lady continued the story. Ghasan had been sleeping
upstairs when the door of his house had been blasted open (see Figure 2).
When he came downstairs to the door, he was immediately shot in the face.
His mother, who was right behind him, had watched her son's head explode
and spill blood all over the room (see Figure 3). The old lady was sure
that the Israelis would have shot the mother too if she had been the one
to come to the door first.
- I took some pictures and tried to think of meaningful
questions to ask. My wife held on tightly to the two-year-old. The old
lady asked us to enter the house and go upstairs to the living area. Ala
assured my wife that it was alright for her as a foreigner to not wear
a hijab; he told her to simply pay her respects to Ghasan's mother when
we met her.
- There were many people inside the house. A local TV station
was interviewing the mother. A groan emanated from the assembly when the
mother related something (see Figure 4). Ala translated for us: "S
the soldiers kept putting bullets into my son's body even though his face
was completely gone."
- Somehow a path opened up as people made way for us to
reach Ghasan's mother. Holding on to the two-year-old, my wife kneeled
down and held the woman's hand. Ala moved up to translate, but my wife
was having difficulty forming words. It did not matter-grief has a universal
language and whatever needed to be said by one woman to another in this
situation had already been communicated.
- Outside the house, Ala informed us that the mother had
also lost her elder son in a similar way three years ago.
- "Will there be an investigation?" I asked.
- Ala shrugged. "What's the point? Everyone knows
the cause of death and who did the killing."
- "In any case Muslims do not like autopsies and embalming.
Martyrs are to be buried in their own clothes soon after death."
- I took out my notebook and scribbled in all the details
I could remember. A Scottish youth volunteer joined us at this point. He
already knew Ala and also seemed to be familiar with the neighborhood.
He said that he had been living in Nablus for a month. I asked him if he
kept a diary or a journal. He glanced at my notebook said that it was best
not to keep a written record: "The Israelis will read it at the airport
and put you on a black list if they see any pro-Palestine sentiments."
- Only a few details differed in the second killing. Raed
Surkaji had been an activist some seven years before, and had been sent
to an Israeli prison. He had been released eleven months ago, as part of
a negotiated arrangement between the Palestine Authority and Israel. Since
that time he had been living in Nablus. This fateful morning he had been
sleeping with his pregnant wife when the Israeli soldiers arrived and knocked
down the door of his house. He too had been shot in the face through the
glass (see Figure 5) when he went up to the door.
- Raed's wife told Ala that she had pleaded with the soldiers
to stop, but they kept shooting her husband long after he had died. They
told her that she should be happy that they were letting her live. The
commander came running up from the alley and pumped more bullets into the
chest of the corpse. Then they had all left, laughing and shouting victorious
- Ala said that he had come to the house earlier that morning.
At that time, the room had not been cleaned and there was flesh and brain
substance all over the place. He pointed to two soap bars that still had
some grisly matter on them (see Figure 6).
- When I approached Raed's wife, she pointed to her foot.
Ala told me that when she walked out of the room glass shards had pierced
her foot. She was unable to walk and had to be carried to the hospital
for treatment. I had composed something to say to her, but when I looked
into her eyes, I too found that I could not speak, just like my wife in
the previous house. I touched her foot silently. But this time my wife
managed to get out some words: she told Raed's wife that she was sorry
for her loss. Ala translated and the woman said "she was honored that
we cared." We were quite overcome with sadness when we left.
- Outside, Ala wanted to go to the third house right away.
He told us that this case was different-the man who was killed had worked
in the Palestine Authority security service. Therefore he had had a pistol
with him. He had hidden himself in the cellar when he heard the noise outside,
but it had mattered little; he too was killed as swiftly as the others.
- "How far is the house?" I asked Ala.
- "Only a kilometer away."
- I looked at my wife, and she shook her head. We had seen
- We discussed the day's events over a late lunch. The
first and most obvious question was why the three men had been killed.
On this question, Issa and Ala had different opinions.
- Issa thought that the operation was Israeli retaliation
for some crime that the three men had committed. An Israeli settler, Meir
Avshalom Hai, from the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron had been killed
in his car on Christmas Eve. The al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade had already claimed
responsibility for the killing. Issa was positive that the Israelis would
have had evidence connecting the three people to the killing of the settler.
- Ala was skeptical. He said that neither Ghasan nor Raed
was armed, and even the Israelis would not claim that they possessed deadly
weapons. According to the family and the neighbors, the men did have active
links to al-Aqsa. "These killings were random," Ala declared.
"These guys were simply no use alive to the Israelis," he said.
- I could not accept the idea of random killings by the
Israeli government. Since December 26, I have read all I could find on
the Nablus operation, though I am handicapped by having to limit myself
to English sources. News reports in Israel and Palestine are susceptible
to the spin from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority,
which makes it difficult to piece together even simple aspects of the truth.
For example, Ala had told us that a "large number of people"
had attended the funeral of the three people on December 26, but estimates
of this large number varied from "a few thousand" to "about
10,000" to "well over 20,000," depending on whether you
read the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Al Jazeera, or the Ma'an News Agency.
(The first one is pro-Israel, the last is pro-Palestine, and the other
two are somewhere in-between.) Another detail on which there is no agreement
is the spelling of the names of the people killed. This may well be a problem
of transliterating Arabic names; I myself have rendered the names the way
Ala spelled them out for me.
- Much more disconcerting than these discrepancies in inessential
details is the wholesale disagreement among the news sources on crucial
facts, such as: the location where the men were killed (inside the house,
upstairs, downstairs), whether they had been armed, whether they had been
given a chance to surrender, whether taking prisoners was an option, etc.
The following is a small selection of key points in the news reports I
- The Ma'an News Agency mentions that the second man, Raed,
was shot not only in front of his wife but also in front of his two children.
This detail did not emerge in our meeting with Raed's wife, but perhaps
it was true and she did not consider it important to mention her children.
The new report also indicates that the first man, Ghasan, was taken outside
his house and shot. This does not match the physical evidence we saw in
the house and I have puzzled over how the report could have gotten it so
wrong. Perhaps it's a cultural thing; could it be that the downstairs area
where Ghasan was killed is not considered to be part of the house proper?
- Al Jazeera notes that "the three men targeted by
the Israelis had been disarmed under security measures taken by [the Palestinian
Authority President] Abbas's police force." The inference we are asked
to make is that this was a cold-blooded execution of unarmed men.
- The Jerusalem Post states that the Israelis soldiers
came from the Judea and Samaria Division's Special Forces unit and the
Kfir Brigade's battalion under the command of Col. Itzik Bar. The Post
is unequivocal that the three men killed were Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade operatives,
and claims that the Israelis recovered two M-16's and two pistols in the
third man's hideout, contradicting the Al Jazeera version. It also claims
that Raed "left his house holding his wife in front of him" and
the IDF troops "acting on information that he was armed, opened fire,
killing [Raed] and wounding his wife in the leg."
- This certainly does not match the physical evidence of
destruction in the house that we saw ourselves, nor does it match Raed's
wife's testimony. If I had to guess, I would say that this version of events
is an Israeli attempt to spin the killing as an operational decision rather
than a pre-meditated execution. Also according to the Jerusalem Post, "the
troops entered Ghasan's home, which was filled with other family members,
located him and shot him dead as well. No one else was hurt." In these
sentences one can see only the mildest form of retrospective rationalization-it
seems more humane than the account we ourselves had heard of Ghasan being
shot dead in front of a single person: his mother.
- Western sources such as BBC are disappointing; they simply
stitch together reports based on what the Israeli forces or the Palestinian
Authority said, without any attempt at independent verification. Fox News
is an exception: it gives a revised Israeli version offered for American
consumption: "The forces surrounded the homes of the three S Lerner,
the army major, said all three turned down a chance to surrender. Lerner
confirmed that none of the wanted men returned fire, including Subeh [the
third man], who had two pistols and two assault rifles on him S Asked why
soldiers opened fire, Lerner said troops "had to operate under the
assumption that they (the suspects) are dangerous."" However,
Fox makes it clear that it has not bought this explanation. It notes that
"the relatives of [Ghasan] and [Raed] said they were killed without
- Where does this leave us? My wife and I have talked about
this experience over and over, and have been led to a modest but inexorable
conclusion: whatever we heard in translation in the two houses was the
simple truth. We may be gullible American tourists, but there is a different,
more compelling reason for our conclusion-real grief is difficult to fake.
We cannot conceive of a reality in which Raed's wife and Ghasan's mother
would be so depraved as to portray the deaths of their loved ones other
than how they actually happened, just in order to suit some twisted ideology.
Therefore we believe that the Israeli forces did execute two unarmed men
in cold blood and keep putting bullets into them long after they had died.
- This conclusion is troubling when combined with what
the news sources actually agree on. All reports generally accept that the
"termination" operation had been authorized at the highest levels
of the Israeli government. Indeed, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime
Minister, had praised the commando operation in Nablus, and said that Israel
would "continue to defend aggressively and respond to every attack
against Israeli citizens and every rocket strike." This high-level
sanction makes the operation more chilling. Even if Netanyahu had conclusive
evidence linking the three men to the killing of the Israeli settler, there
should be better accountability and due process in a law-abiding nation.
The three men could easily have been arrested, given the overwhelming force
that the Israelis had against them. Why was it necessary to raid the houses
and kill unarmed men with great brutality in front of their family, and
then walk away with impunity? Surely this cannot be the way of civilized
- As we continued our travels through other cities in Israel,
I discussed the Nablus killings with various people. When I brought up
the disturbing question mentioned above, I was surprised by the similar
answer that I got independently from two persons who occupy relatively
high positions. Disclosing their job description will be tantamount to
disclosing who they are, so I will avoid that; in any case, it is their
response that is revealing. One of them put it this way: "It's important
for the Israeli government to show that it's always in control. It's not
so important to be right. It's not so important to kill the real perpetrators,
but it's very important to send a message. The message is that retaliation
for any aggression will be swift, overwhelming, and precise. It's irrelevant
if the real culprits in the killing of the Shavei Shomron settler got away."
- Al Jazeera and Haaretz mentioned that the US government
has "questioned" Israel over the operation. As American citizens,
my wife and I intend to offer our account to the State Department and to
our Congressman, along with the photographs I took. We will do this as
a matter of civic duty, but we are not good witnesses. What we saw and
heard came after the fact, and may have lost many details in translation.
The best witnesses are people like Raed's wife and Ghasan's mother. If
the US government or UN observers or human rights organizations wish to
interview them, they will find a compelling story. From our experience,
they are not afraid to talk. Whether it will help in bringing about peace
is a different matter.
- By Vijay Raghavan, Ph.D
- 1. The names of living Palestinians (with the exception
of well-known people such as the Palestinian President) are fictionalized,
as a precautionary measure.
- 2. http://www.uruknet.info/?new=61463
- 3. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/12/200912266331470601.html
- 4. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1261364507807
- 5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8430688.stm
- 6. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,581167,00.html
- 7. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/12/2009122710172247177.html