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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Oldest Martyr

The Oldest Martyr
Gideon Levy, Haaretz, Nov 14, 2007

This article was originally published by Haaretz and is republished with permission. Translated from the original Hebrew by Mark Marshall (Occupation Magazine).

Israeli army jeeps crowd a street in the West Bank city of Nablus during a military incursion earlier this month. (Rami Swidan, Maan Images)
Israeli army jeeps crowd a street in the West Bank city of Nablus during a military incursion earlier this month. (Rami Swidan, Maan Images)
Think about your aged parents. Think of them sitting terrified on the sofa for an entire night, in a tiny room in their unfortified dwelling. On the other side of the window the battle rages – shots and explosions – dozens of soldiers are passing through the alleyway, until the order to leave the house is heard. Think about your father going outside, afraid and helpless in his pyjamas, calling to his wife to go back into the house to get their ID cards. No sooner does he stick his head into the courtyard than he is hit. Five bullets in the abdomen and the legs, from the guns of the three soldiers who are sitting on the stairs of the facing house, he falls, wallowing in his blood in front of his terrified wife.

Think about your elderly mother, trying with all her strength to save her husband while the soldiers prevent him from being evacuated for several long and fateful minutes, until the ambulance arrives. Think about the feelings of the mother, the helplessness, the anger and the frustration of an old woman. "Now I am sorry that I did not take a big stone in my hand and throw it at the soldiers," says the widow, Subhiyye al-Wazir, whose husband, Abed al-Wazir, was killed thus at the entrance to their house in the Ras al-Ein neighbourhood in western Nablus.

Al-Wazir was a retired bookkeeper for the Nablus municipality. He was a cousin of Khalil al-Wazir, who was none other than Abu Jihad, the legendary deputy of Yasser Arafat, who was liquidated by Israel on 16 April 1988 in his house on the seashore at Tunis. His widow, Umm Jihad, who was the Palestinian Minister of Welfare, came a few days ago for a consolation visit at the small house of mourning in Nablus. With his death Abed al-Wazir became one of the oldest of the martyrs, but the widow’s nights of terror are not over. The IDF is continuing to enter the neighbourhood nearly every night, sowing terror in the hearts of the widow Subhiyye and her neighbours, turning their nights into a protracted nightmare.

The small house can be approached from above or from below. The Wazir’s house was built on the steep slope of Mount Gerizim, in a row with the neighbouring houses. A narrow staircase connects the dense rows of houses to two streets – the street above and the street below. Our hosts did not want us to climb, so we descend

Two small rooms are in the couple’s apartment – a bedroom for the wife and a sitting-room, which converted at night into a bedroom for her husband. Here, on the sofa on which we are now sitting, Abed al-Wazir slept on the last night of his life. On the facing sofa the couple sat alone throughout that night of terror, until they were summoned on a loudspeaker to go outside. About 37 years ago they moved to this house from their previous house, which was located in the heart of the Casbah. Abu Jihad, Abed and Subhiyye al-Wazir are all members of the same family, cousins whose origins are in Ramle (Abu Jihad), Jaffa (Subhiyye) and Haifa (Abed).

The couple have six children. One of them, who is working as an engineer in one of the states of the former Yugoslavia, has not yet received the news about the killing of his father. He has not seen his parents for 25 years. The couple have 20 grandchildren. On the night of the 16th of October they went to bed at an early hour, as usual. At around one in the morning the husband woke up to the sound of voices in the alley. In a quiet voice, relates Subhiyye, he woke her up: "There are lots of soldiers outside and we have to be careful," he whispered to her. They hurriedly got dressed and drowsily went to sit on the sofa. On the other side of the window they saw the silhouettes of the soldiers as they rapidly ascended and descended. The noise from outside intensified. Bursts of gunfire became more frequent, accompanied by the explosions of concussion grenades. A war just out the window. Periodically they heard the sound of windows shattering in the houses of their neighbours. It is not hard to imagine the fear that gripped them, sitting next to each other on the sofa, silent, petrified with fear. At about a quarter past two their oldest son telephoned: Shaker, who lives in a neighbourhood that has been built on the side of Mount Ebal, just over there, where black clothes can be seen hanging on the line. Shaker wanted to know how his parents were doing and if they knew what was going on in their neighbourhood.

A photo of the husband has been placed on a cabinet and a Koran lies below it. Beside it is a box of tissues for anybody who bursts into tears. On the wall hang pictures of the family hero, Abu Jihad, with the late Arafat and Abu Iyad. The couple sat like that for about four hours. From time to time the voices of soldiers were heard issuing unclear instructions on a loudspeaker from the street above. They did not hear or understand very well. At a quarter to five the son called again. He said that he saw the soldiers entering the house of the lawyer Hakim Sbeih who lives up the alley, and searching it. A short time later the couple heard the voice of the neighbour Sbeih on the loudspeaker, passing on instructions that the soldiers gave him. The soldiers appointed him to evacuate the neighbourhood, because he knows all its residents well. The first light rose over the Ras al-Ein neighbourhood. The dawn of a new day.

They were not sure if they had heard their names over the loudspeaker, but their son said that he had heard. This was after four hours of nightmarish waiting on the sofa. "During those four hours we saw death a thousand times," says the wife. The muezzin had already made the call for the dawn prayer and they did not move from where they were sitting. But when their son telephoned and said that he had heard their name over the loudspeaker and they had been summoned to go outside, they set out do comply. It was a shortly after five. Immediately afterwards they heard Sbeih calling: "My uncle, Abu Shaker, you have been called to go outside with your wife, because they are planning to blow up the house in five minutes. That’s what the soldiers say." It was clear to them that they had better hurry up and go out.

First they opened the door to the house. The husband went out first into the small courtyard, followed by Subhiyye. The husband slowly advanced towards the iron door that closes on the courtyard and opened that as well. He was still turning around towards his wife and asking if she had taken their ID cards, without which residents of the Territories cannot live, with her. Subhiyye hurried back, to get the ID cards. As she stood with her back to her husband she suddenly heard him say: "Hajjeh*, they’ve shot me."

She dashed towards her husband. "Who shot you? Where?" she asked, while clinging to her husband. But al-Wazir fell on the pavement at the entrance to the house. Only then did the wife notice a pool of blood that was gathering beside him. She pressed on his two legs to stop the blood that was flowing from them, but the pool kept growing. The soldiers who had been sitting on the staircase opposite, a few metres from the entrance to the house, who had fired five bullets into him the moment he appeared on the street, stood before her.

Subhiyye began shouting loudly and some of the neighbours came out. They wanted to take her dying husband out into the street, but according to her account, the soldiers threatened to shoot them. Foam started to appear at the mouth of the husband. The soldiers stood in front of her and according to her, she yelled at them: "Shoot me like you shot my husband." She says that at least five minutes passed, maybe a quarter of an hour, during which her husband lay bleeding on the ground until the soldiers permitted him to be taken out onto the street below. The son Shaker, who lives in the neighbourhood opposite, had recently begun to work for a construction company in Kiryat Ono. At that time he was preparing to go to work in Israel . He did not know that his father was hovering between life and death.

Three neighbours carried the dying al-Wazir down to the street, Subhiyye right behind them. On the street stood an IDF Jeep, and the soldiers in it quickly handcuffed the neighbours who had evacuated al-Wazir and ordered them to lie on the pavement. "Why don’t you call an ambulance?" shouted Subhiyye to the soldiers. About another quarter hour passed until a Palestinian ambulance was permitted to approach. The neighbour Sbeih called to the soldiers: "Why did you shoot him? He’s an old man." Subhiyye says that the soldiers replied: "We are sorry, but we had to."

In the ambulance he asked "Where am I?" After that he lost consciousness. In the hospital Subhiyye saw that her husband had been shot not only in the legs, but also in the abdomen. He died a short time afterwards. In the evening, when she returned to their house, Subhiyye discovered that the soldiers had entered it, conducted a search and destroyed the bathroom. She added that her savings, 2,000 Dinars (about 12 thousand Shekels) had disappeared after the search.

Following a report that was prepared by the field activities coordinator of Physicians for Human Rights, Salah Hajj Yahiya, an employee of the organization, Miri Weingarten, sent a letter to the Judge Advocate-General, Colonel Avihai Mandelblit. Weingarten requested that the Judge Advocate-General instruct the Investigatory Military Police to open an investigation into "the killing of an unarmed man in his house, lack of medical care, delaying life-saving evacuation of the injured man and looting of the house of the killed man."

An IDF spokesman stated in reply: "The IDF spokesman is sorry about the shooting of an uninvolved Palestinian civilian, who was killed in the course of IDF action to arrest wanted terrorists in the city of Nablus on 16 October. The 70-year-old civilian, who lived in a nearby house, was killed in the course of exchanges of fire between the IDF and the terrorists. IDF forces that were operating on the scene summoned a medical team from the Red Crescent, which evacuated him to receive medical treatment. Later a report was received from Coordination and Liaison personnel that the man had died.

"The head of the Central Command, General Gadi Shamni, investigated the incident and in his investigation no errors were found in the actions of the force. The IDF reiterates that the terror organizations are converting the population into human shields and thereby endangering their lives.

"Regarding the matter of the money, no complaint has yet been received from the family of the Palestinian involved. To the extent that such a complaint is received, the matter will be investigated and verified according to army regulations."

Members of the bereft family are convinced that the soldiers got the wrong address. The soldiers were looking for two wanted brothers, Abdallah and Baher Hawash, who were hiding in a house next to the Wazirs' house. The brothers were caught in a hiding place inside it, after a search that lasted for all of the following day. The son Shaker is convinced that the helicopter directed the soldiers to the wrong house, and that’s why they shot his father the moment he opened the gate of his house. Mistake, mistook, mistaken – another young soldier walks our streets after having killed a Palestinian for nothing. This time it was an old man.

Children of the neighbourhood, they tell us, wet their beds, and Subhiyye too has been having trouble sleeping since then. The permit to work in Israel that had been given to the son, Shaker, only a month ago, has been withdrawn, as is always done with relatives of people who have been killed by the IDF, lest they go to Israel to seek revenge. Despite the killing, the suspected looting and the loss of a source of livelihood, the women of the family took pains to prepare a lunch for the Israeli guests: our plates overflowed again and again with mutton with akkub, chicken with lemon, mulukhiyya, beans and pickles.


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