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Seeking to arrest a mentally disabled Palestinian, Israeli troops kill a teenage bystander

Zeid Qaysiyah dreamed of becoming a famous singer. To help himself realize his dream he bought a simple amplification system with money his mother loaned him, promising to pay her back when he became a star. He performed for free at almost every family event in Al-Fawar, the refugee camp south of Hebron where he lived, and in the surrounding towns.

Sometimes the 17 year-old performed on the street, in schools and in private homes; indeed, many of the camp’s residents have video clips of him singing, accompanied by an instrumental backing track. He especially liked dahiya, traditional Bedouin dance melodies, to which he composed lyrics. He dreamed of emulating Muayan Alasam the “king of dahiya” from Rahat, the Bedouin town in the Negev. To achieve that goal he hoped to study music in a Bethlehem school, for which he needed to raise the necessary funds.

Shortly after dawn on May 13, the young man’s dreams were aborted forever. A soldier from the Israel Defense Forces Duvdevan special ops unit who was positioned on a street in the camp, aimed his rifle at the roof of the building where Qaysiyah was standing with his younger brother and their cousins, watching what was going on. From about 100 meters away the soldier fired one bullet – straight into the center of Qaysiyah’s face, killing him instantly. No stones had been thrown from the roof where the group was standing, due to their height and distance from the soldiers; in any event another roof, lower down, separated the youths from them.

Why, then, did the soldier shoot? The IDF will have to answer that question. In the meantime, the photos taken just after Qaysiyah was killed are gruesome to look at. His face is shattered, his red T-shirt is drenched in blood, and the floor where he had been standing is awash in a harrowing amount of blood, evoking an abattoir.

The Israeli force arrived in Al-Fawar to execute a mission that was apparently of great urgency: An intellectually disabled 18-year-old, Ayman Halikawi, known as being unstable and mocked by local youngsters, had uploaded a post to Facebook in which he wrote: “Captain Nidal, come to Al-Fawar and I will shoot you.”

“Captain Nidal” is the hush-hush code name of the Shin Bet security service commander in the area. The post by the disabled youth was enough to prompt the IDF – which usually avoids raiding the camp because of its pervasive militant atmosphere – to send in a special force of about 20 soldiers. They arrived toward dawn in a van disguised as a Palestinian vehicle, in order to arrest the dangerous young man who had written such a dangerous post. That’s how bored the Duvdevan soldiers are; that’s how empty the world of this elite unit is.

But the force failed to execute its mission: Halikawi was not home. Now the soldiers had to withdraw quickly on foot from the camp, where life was already stirring at dawn on May 13, in the midst of Ramadan and the coronavirus pandemic, with everyone in the camp having been up all night – between the fast of the previous day and that of the new day.

The soldiers were moving along the main street and about to exit Al-Fawar via the hills, on their way back to the Adurayim base, which the Palestinians call Al-Majnooni (“the crazy place”). But then, as usual, the stones began to fly – hundreds of young people had already gathered along that street – and one of the unit’s soldiers decided, perhaps because of the failure to capture the wanted individual, to aim up and fire the bullet that killed Qaysiyah.

By the way, several hours later, Halikawi was handed over to the IDF by his father at the checkpoint at the entrance to Al-Fawar. One phone call to his father would have been enough to bring about his detention even without the daring operation mounted by Duvdevan and the horrific price it exacted. Halikawi has been in custody ever since, despite his compromised mental condition.

Al-Fawar is the southernmost and most remote of the West Bank refugee camps, which perhaps helps account for its Gaza-like appearance. Its population of 12,000 dwells in an area of one square kilometer (less than 0.40 square mile). The atmosphere there also recalls the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip: a spirit of struggle, determination, human warmth and simplicity.

Qaysiyah’s father was born in the nearby town of Dahariya; his mother, in the refugee camp itself. She is the descendant of a family from Iraq al-Manshiyya, on whose ruins stands the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat. The parents were married according to an ancient and unusual arrangement: She married a man whose sister had married her brother, instead of paying the dowry to the bride’s parents. But the couple divorced and their son’s life was split between his mother in Al-Fawar and his father in Dahariya.

Qaysiyah’s mother Barlanet lived for 15 years in Rahat and in nearby Segev Shalom without a work permit, cleaning Israeli homes throughout the south. On occasion her son would join her, as he did at her previous job, in Moshav Ahisamakh, about two years ago.

Barlanet, 45, who was named for a well-known Egyptian singer, is a smiling, warm-hearted woman who experienced other ordeals before this tragedy. Besides Zeid, she has six daughters and two sons. Their home is in the basement of a five-story building on the main street of Al-Fawar. Half a year ago, she opened a small clothing shop for children and teenagers on the building’s street level, calling it Roses Center, after one of the daughters, Wardah (“rose”). Her average daily income is about 50 shekels ($15). Now a photograph of her dead son is glued to the shop window. Since he was killed, more people have been buying at the small shop, as a gesture of solidarity with the bereaved mother.

Her home is somewhat ornate. A descent of a few steps leads to a door that opens onto a broad space, with colored lights, red-velvet hearts and glass cabinets holding household utensils. The house is abuzz with women and children, all sitting on rugs on the floor. This is where Zeid Qaysiyah grew up. Three days before he was killed he returned from a short visit with his father in Dahariya. Besides music, the youth’s second love was PUBG (Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds) – a cellphone game that is very popular in the territories. He played the game on his last night, too, with his 13-year-old brother, Jihad.

The soldiers arrived, contrary to their usual practice of showing up in the middle of the night, after first light, at about 5:40 A.M. Because it was Ramadan, everyone had already eaten breakfast ahead of the fast. The van dropped the force off in the Beit Jubrin neighborhood – the camp is divided into neighborhoods according to the refugees’ villages of origin – which lies about 500 meters from Qaysiyah’s home.

The soldiers entered a few homes there and then, having discovered that the wanted individual was not there, began to head out. In the meantime, however, their presence had drawn hundreds of young people into the streets, with many others taking to the rooftops to watch the goings-on.

As the soldiers moved out, they opened fire, for self-protection. They fired stun grenades, rubber-covered bullets and also live ammunition into the air. The young people threw stones at them from the alleys leading to the main street.

At the time, Zeid Qaysiyah was playing PUGB at home, but when Jihad heard the noise he went outside to see what was happening. Zeid followed, perhaps to keep an eye on him. Their mother was sleeping in her room, having gone to bed at 4 A.M. A few minutes later the two brothers returned home and decided to go up to the roof to see the events from a safe distance.

It’s a high roof, five stories up. We climbed up to it this week.

“In Israel everything is elevators and here there is no elevator,” Barlanet mused as we walked up, through her bereavement. Six black plastic tanks and one white one, all for water, a dovecote, a birdcage, a satellite dish and a view of the whole camp. From here there was no chance of throwing anything and hitting soldiers standing so far below on the street.

The troops were going to turn left, into an alley that would lead them out of the camp, opposite Abu Muatasel’s grocery store and a bakery owned by a relative of the wanted teenager, Ayman Halikawi. And then, at the street corner, next to a car covered with a tarpaulin, one soldier assumed a firing position and aimed his rifle upward, at the roof where Zeid and Jihad were standing.

The two had gotten up there seconds before. Their uncle, who was also there, had just finished telling his daughters Asil, 16, and Hadil, 13, to move away from the edge of the roof. One of the girls noticed the soldier aiming his rifle at them. Jihad took cover between the water containers and from there peeked down to the street, but Zeid moved closer to the edge. His uncle related later that he was just about to warn him, too – but it was already too late. The youth was hit the second he peeked out, and collapsed. Jihad thought he was pretending to be wounded as a practical joke – “Are you kidding me?” he asked, before the blood began to seep out from under his brother’s body.

A field researcher for the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, Musa Abu Hashhash, collected testimony from six eyewitnesses about what happened on the roof. All gave the same account. No stones were thrown; there was no reason to shoot up at the roof. Abu Hashhash’s two brothers, who live next door, took Zeid Qaysiyah down from the roof to the street and from there to the small hospital in the town of Yatta, where he was pronounced dead.

Barlanet woke up to the sounds of screaming on the roof. She thought her niece Shirin had fainted again, as happened once before, panicking the family. She hurried up to the roof, but on the staircase, near the third floor, she saw two men carrying her son downstairs, on the run. They covered his face with a shirt, to spare his mother the brutal sight, so she still did not understand the full seriousness of his condition. Zeid had been wounded in the arm, they told her. She started to shout and collapsed on the stairs. It was 6:15 A.M.

Barlanet insisted on being taken to the hospital in Yatta in the wake of her son. When she got there and was about to enter the ER, her brother, who had arrived ahead of her, stopped her and said, “Ask God to bless Zeid.” She understood immediately and crumpled to the floor.

This week she and her two young nieces who were on the roof were summoned to give testimony to the Military Police at the Hebron offices of the Civil Administration – Israel’s governing body in the territories. According to Barlanet, one of the officers told her that a mistake had occurred and that the soldiers should be punished.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office issued the following statement to Haaretz this week: “During activity to arrest wanted individuals in the Al-Fawar refugee camp on May 13, 2020, a violent disruption developed during which stones and rocks, Molotov cocktails and explosive devices were thrown, and the fighters were shot at.

“The fighters responded with crowd-dispersal measures and with live ammunition. An IDF soldier was lightly wounded from the stone throwing. After the incident, a report was received about a Palestinian who was killed, and a Military Police investigation was launched. At its conclusion the findings will be transferred for examination by the IDF military advocate general’s unit.”

The people in the house show us the images on their cellphones. Almost everyone has a clip of Qaysiyah performing a song. Here he is singing to his mother on her birthday; here he’s standing on the street to passersby who gather around him: here he’s singing in Al-Fawar, in Dahariya, in the Hebron market. “I am Zeid and I have no money,” he sings in one of his painful songs. The musical accompaniment is downloaded from YouTube. Sometimes he sings with his stepbrother of 14, Abdel Bassat, sometimes with Jihad, who is now sitting with us.

Zeid’s own cellphone also has a clip of a Hebrew pop song he liked listening to:

“Why did you hurt me / Why did you break me / In your eyes I saw a lie / My whole body you left in ruins / How could I have believed you / How did I pledge myself to you / You went with another / And you left me behind / Don’t look me in the eyes / Because I have already suffered enough.”

Original: HAARETZ – Gideon Levy and Alex Levac