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Attention builds over a slain civilian

A Palestinian grandmother's death tests Israel's justice system

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2003


Shaden abu Hijleh sat in her usual chair by the front steps, feet up in the late afternoon sun, comfortable in a green tracksuit. Her husband of 40 years, Jamal, was beside her, sorting through thyme from their garden, sharing the silence of their well-to-do neighborhood.

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Shaden was painstakingly embroidering a checkerboard of red, green, and black, the Palestinian colors. She was new to the hobby - she'd rather be out and about - but Nablus was under Israeli army curfew again that day. She needed a way to pass the time.

The roar of approaching army vehicles shattered the quiet. Two jeeps rolled past, stopping 30 yards away. Shaden's son Saed had been about to join his parents outside, but now he paused just inside the door of their glassed-in porch. "Wait," Shaden said, "don't come out."

The back door of one of the jeeps swung open. A soldier inside curled a finger around the trigger of his assault rifle and raked the front of the house with bullets, witnesses and survivors say, leaving a trail of 14 holes.

A flurry of bullets tore through the door, spraying Saed with shards of glass. Shots ricocheted, grazing Jamal on the head. One bullet hit Shaden as she cowered on the doorstep. She died instantly.

International impact

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cuts lives short everyday, but Shaden abu Hijleh's death on Oct. 11 resonated beyond family and friends. A United Nations official highlighted her killing in a Security Council briefing on Israeli-Palestinian violence; President George Bush raised her case with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to an Israeli newspaper.

Ms. Abu Hijleh's story has drawn attention that eludes hundreds of others killed here, in part because she was a well-known peace activist, but also because her four children - all Iowa State graduates - have campaigned for her case.

An initial army inquiry blamed a stray bullet from a shoot-out. Later, army investigators would acknowledge that the neighborhood had been quiet. An examination of evidence at the scene and eyewitness accounts suggest that this was no accident.

Shaden's death has sharpened questions about the army's investigations into and punishments for civilian casualties. It has given added ballast to those who charge that the army operates with impunity in the Palestinian territories.

"This should be a turning point," says Akiva Eldar, a prominent Israeli journalist who is following the case closely. "Sometimes people become symbols after their death to make sure it doesn't happen to others."

Israel's struggle is to ensure that soldiers don't mistreat or kill Palestinian civilians in a conflict where Palestinian militants routinely kill Israeli civilians. While discipline is crucial to a functioning military, Israeli officials are increasingly worried about protecting their soldiers from the aggressive use of international law. Shaden's children would like to bring her case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Rome.

The quandary is deepening Israel's sense of international isolation, even as it defends itself. One bill due for parliamentary debate this year would make it a criminal offense for Israelis to testify to the ICC.

In Nablus, where the Abu Hijleh house echoes with a new emptiness, the family is determined that Shaden not become another nameless statistic. For some of her children, this means resisting the Palestinian glorification of martyrdom. For her family and friends, it means pursuing some measure of justice. That mission began minutes after the bullets flew.

A self-made activist

Annan Qadri, a fine-boned woman who doesn't wear makeup, has a focused stillness that conveys authority. A biochemist, she heads the Nablus health department and the city's neighborhood charity committees. Ms. Qadri was meeting with a Western diplomat on Oct. 11 to discuss Nablus' growing poverty when her cell phone rang. It was an ambulance driver she knew. "It's Shaden," the driver said. "She's been hurt. Get to the hospital."