Death in a Cemetery
How many of us can imagine the night of horror that the Salah family endured? To lie on the floor of the living room for what seemed an eternity, embracing as one being, trembling with fear as the house was blasted with bullets and missiles; to watch the sniper’s laser ray doing its dance of death across the apartment, searching out its victims; to see the missiles slamming into the walls of the house, missile after missile, as though an earthquake had struck; to get to their feet in the dark following the order to evacuate the building before it was demolished; to try to open the front door and discover that it had been twisted out of shape by the gunfire and couldn’t be opened; to open a window and try to shout to the snipers, in the dark of the night, that the door was jammed; to see the father of the family collapse from a bullet fired into his neck by a sniper; to see the son collapse a few minutes later from a bullet in his cheek fired by a sniper; to watch, helpless, as your son lies on the floor, the life ebbing out of him, next to his dead father, and to cry for help, but to find that the soldiers will not allow anyone to enter; then to undergo an interrogation and humiliation; and to discover that the entire contents of the house had been destroyed.
That was the night of horror of the Salah family: the father, Prof. Khaled Salah, 51 at his death, founder of the Department of Electrical Engineering at An-Najah University in Nablus; his wife, Salam, and their three children, Diana, 23, Mohammed, 16, and Ali, 11, all of whom were at home that night. Fortunately for the firstborn, Amer, he was in Boston, where he is an engineering student. It was a night of horror on which the father, possessor of a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, and a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Committee at An-Najah, was killed, along with his son, Mohammed, a boy who loved soccer and dreamed of becoming a pharmacist, who lay dying on the floor for lack of medical treatment, which the soldiers denied him.
Maybe you saw them. Two years ago, during the Mondial (the World Cup of soccer), Channel 2 News correspondent Itai Engel broadcast a report of his impressions from a house in Nablus where he had watched the game between Brazil and Turkey as a guest of the Salah family. Engel was flabbergasted this week when told what had happened to the family that hosted him. The boy too? The boy, too. He said he had been charmed by them, by the father and his son, both of them avid soccer fans. When asked about the possibility of a game between Israel and Palestine, Khaled consulted with Mohammed and then replied, “We’re better, but it’ll be best if you win, because we’ll be in for it if we beat you.” They talked about peace and about soccer.
Salam, the widow and bereaved mother, a survivor of that night, found it difficult this week to remember the television piece and her loved ones’ remarks about peace. It’s important for her that the Israelis know that Khaled was a man of peace. Between fits of crying, still in shock, it’s important for her to tell the Israelis in detail what happened in the pre-dawn hours of July 6 in her home on Saka Street, in Nablus.
Salam Salah got home from a wedding in the city a little before midnight. Only she and Diana had attended the family wedding. Mohammed stayed home with his father, watching television and waiting for the candies his mother would bring from the party. Mohammed was very fond of the white and pink wedding sweets stuffed with walnuts. No one could have imagined that those would be the last candies he would ever eat. Diana, who, like her brother Amer, was born in California – both are American citizens – holds a degree in business administration from An-Najah. She, too, was getting ready for her own wedding, a large-scale affair that was set for next month.
They soon went to sleep. Mohammed was an anxiety-ridden boy. Born into the first intifada in the tough city of Nablus, reaching adolescence as the second intifada erupted, he was a habitual nail-biter. He sometimes got nosebleeds, when the tension in Nablus rose. Salam says it might have been because they overprotected the boy.
At a quarter to two they woke up in a fright to the sound of a powerful blast. Salam and Khaled leaped out of bed and looked out the window of their bedroom. They saw nothing. From the window of Diana’s room they spotted dark forms of soldiers surrounding the building. It was only from the kitchen window that the full picture became clear. “It’s like hell,” Khaled whispered to his wife. The whole area was swarming with snipers, tanks, helicopters and other army forces that had come to apprehend or liquidate wanted individuals who were probably hiding in the ground-floor apartment.
Their building is situated high on Saka Street, wedged on the hillside, with Nablus spread out below. The residences in the building are spacious. Two neighbors are physicians, and Sami Aaker, the owner of a sewing factory that produces garments for Israeli fashion houses is another neighbor. Aaker’s home now lies in ruins, like that of the Salah family.
Khaled herded the children into the living room and they lay on the floor, folded into one another, five members of a family like one body. From time to time, another missile or shell hit the apartment and exploded, casting a lurid light, like fireworks. Occasionally searchlights or the snipers’ red laser rays lit up the darkened living room. The electricity came and went. The door of the refrigerator, damaged along with everything else in the house, opened wide and the yellow light supplied a bit of illumination. Salam and Khaled called everyone they could think of on Mohammed’s mobile phone, trying to find out what was happening. The shooting didn’t stop for a second, and their home was being gradually destroyed. They called relatives, asking them to do something, fast.
One relative called the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, but even the long arm of all-powerful America, whose nationals were in the besieged apartment, was of no avail. One missile had already slashed into the bedroom, another into the kitchen. Khaled’s mobile phone rang in the bedroom, but no one could get to it. They cried, prayed, shouted, fell silent. And embraced one another. They had a Koran and they read verses from it in loud voices, so people would hear.
“It was a nightmare. I will never recover from it. No horror movie I have seen can compare to it,” says Salam, who wears black mourning clothes. Five missiles had already struck the house. Khaled tried to calm them: “It’s only property damage, no one has been hurt.” Salam says he was strong and knew no fear. They just didn’t want him to move and risk being hurt.
They heard the windows shattering, the water streaming from pipes that had burst and the perfumes flowing out of bottles that broke one after the other, their scents wafting through the apartment. From above they heard the sound of a helicopter. The battle for the house was at its height. “We phoned and phoned but everyone was helpless. It was war, and my feeling was that none of us would survive it.” It went on that way for an hour and a quarter, until 3 A.M.
When quiet fell, Salam shouted, “Please, please, we are a family of peace. My name is Salam, shalom.” The quiet continued for a bit, and then the shooting resumed. Immediately afterward, the Israeli force ordered everyone to leave the building, because it was going to be blown up. The order was given through a loudspeaker, in Arabic. “Anyone who doesn’t come out will have the building blown up with him inside,” the soldiers threatened.
Khaled got up first. “We’re all right, everyone is all right,” he whispered. He walked toward the corridor and turned on a light. Salam told the children to wait until he could see what was happening. But the shooting started again and Khaled hurried back to the living room. When the shooting died down he again made his way toward the front door and tried to open it. However, the door had been bent out of shape by the gunfire and the key didn’t work.
Unable to open the door, and taking seriously the soldiers’ threat to blow up the house with them inside, Khaled went to the bedroom, opened the window, raised his hands and shouted to the soldiers, in English, “Sir, sir, we need help. Please come and open the door. I am a professor, we are people of peace. We have American passports.” There was no response. Khaled tried again, this time in Arabic: “Help, help, we need help.”
A split second later, Salam heard three shots. Khaled fell silent. She would never hear his voice again. Inside the room, the terrifying red laser ray pranced across the walls.
Salam crawled over to her husband and found him lying on the floor, between the bed and the window. At first she saw no blood, but he was no longer breathing. Then she saw the hole in his neck. “Diana, Diana,” she screamed, “they have killed your father.”
Then she noticed Mohammed lying on the carpet next to Diana. “What happened, Diana?” she cried. Diana said nothing. Salam quickly moved her son, revealing his mouth. Blood was flowing from his mouth and his cheek was split open. She tried to stanch the blood coming out of his cheek using paper towels. At first, she says, she thought it was a superficial wound. The boy groaned. His eyes were wide open and he emitted strange noises. His eyes pleaded for help, but his mother had only the paper towels. She opened the screen window in the room and shouted hysterically to the soldiers, “You killed my husband and my son.” She says she heard a soldier laugh.
“Shut up, woman,” the soldier commanded her, in Arabic. And again a red laser beam skitted around the room.
“I will never understand how Mohammed was killed. Maybe one day I will know. Khaled raised his hands, so he was a convenient target for them. Him they killed in cold blood. They let him finish speaking and then they killed him. But how Mohammed was killed I don’t understand. I shouted like a madwoman: ‘Help, my son is alive, we have to save him.’ They laughed and told me to shut up. The soldier who was laughing was standing below, on the street. I sat on the floor and kept on shouting like a crazy person. I pounded on the door until my hands were injured. I don’t know how those curses came out of me. I called for help, Diana and Ali were crying hysterically, and the soldiers threatened to blow up the building with us inside.”
Mohammed was still alive. Diana also shouted to the soldiers that they had two neighbors who are physicians, let them at least send over one of them or let an ambulance get through. Salam says that every time their shouting rose in pitch the soldiers threatened to shoot them unless they shut up. Finally the soldiers said they would send someone. They sent a human shield, using the outlawed “neighbor procedure,” in this case the neighbors’ 15-year-old son. The lean boy pushed the door from outside, Salam pulled from inside, and at last the door opened.
“We went out in our pajamas with our hands raised,” said Salam. “The soldiers spoke to us humiliatingly. I shouted that my son and my husband are killed and they laughed at us, imitating my shouts. They took us to the neighbors’ apartment. Diana asked where she should sit and a soldier said, sit on your bottom. When I asked to see the commanding officer, they laughed at me. When I said I wanted to be with Mohammed they imitated me. This is the most criminal and most cruel army in the world. It was murder in the first degree.”
At 6:15 A.M., four and a half hours after the attack began, the soldiers allowed a Palestinian ambulance to drive up to the building. The father and the son were dead. Salam was taken for interrogation by “Captain Razel” from the Shin Bet security service, who questioned her about the wanted men who had hidden in the apartment below. She had no idea, she says, what was going on outside.
And that wasn’t the end of it. “After all that they went into the house and shot at everything they found. Everything. There isn’t a dress, there isn’t a towel they didn’t shoot at. At the computer, the refrigerator, all our belongings, they destroyed everything. They didn’t leave us so much as a pair of socks. They destroyed everything. A home of 20 years, all our memories, all our dreams, our whole history. Imagine to yourself what’s in a home of 20 years. They destroyed it all. My husband’s books. I don’t understand why. They just wanted to show us how strong they are and how cruel.”
What do the soldiers who were involved think now? The sniper who shot a father and his son to death, and those who denied the dying boy medical assistance? The army issued a statement the next day: “Dr. Salah and his son Mohammed were apparently killed by IDF gunfire, but there was no intention to do them harm. Because of the shooting of the wanted man from the building, the soldiers were compelled to shoot in different stages at every floor and at the roof of the building, and it’s possible that in one of the instances the soldiers didn’t identify the sources of fire correctly or were forced to open fire at suspicious movements. Because of the continuation of the event and the lack of information about whether there were additional wanted individuals in the building, it was not possible to send medical teams into the building.”
Sirens wail in the main streets of Nablus. Another funeral procession – Yasser Tantawi, 21. His brother, Khaled, 19, was killed two months ago. Both are from the city’s Balata refugee camp. A Swedish volunteer, Henryk Larsen, a medical student from Uppsala University, who joined an ambulance of the Medical Relief Organization, was an eyewitness to Yasser’s killing last Saturday night.
Youngsters threw stones at Jeeps, the soldiers opened fire, Yasser was wounded in the leg and fell to the ground. The event took place in the camp’s cemetery. Larsen tried to treat the wounded man, but came under fire and had to retreat. He saw Yasser’s body jolted back and forth as the soldiers kept shooting at him. They shot him, he says, after he had already been wounded in the leg.
Dr. Rasan Hamadan, from the Medical Relief Organization, says that about 10 bullets were found lodged in Yasser’s body and that the medical team reported that he was unarmed. Larsen, too, says he saw no weapon.
The response of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office: “During operational activity by an IDF force in Balata refugee camp the force came under fire and a number of explosive devices were thrown at it. The soldiers opened fire at a terrorist armed with a Kalashnikov rifle who was advancing toward them, and killed him. In the complex reality in which the IDF operates, maximum efforts are made to avoid injury to the innocent. At the same time, in the case of armed individuals who are endangering IDF soldiers and those around them, it is the soldiers’ obligation to prevent them from acting.”
Two days later, on Monday of this week, soldiers killed another stone-thrower in the Balata camp cemetery. His name was Husam Abu Zeitouna. He was 14.
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