Attention builds over a slain civilian
A Palestinian grandmother's death tests Israel's justice system
NABLUS, WEST BANK — 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.
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.
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.
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."
Qadri had known Shaden since childhood, first as her mother's friend and later as a charity volunteer. Shaden's activism began in 1967, when she stopped teaching rather than accept Israeli-imposed curriculum changes. She earned a degree in social work in her 50s and worked with orphans before joining the charities, which distribute food to families impoverished by the ongoing conflict. "If she believed in something," says Qadri, "she would do it."
Qadri and the diplomat sped to the hospital. "I entered emergency room calling for her, 'Shaden? What happened?' " Qadri recalls. "She was lying on a bed. I recognized on the spot that we had lost her."
Qadri knows death. In March, the Israeli Army accelerated its reoccupation of the West Bank after a massive suicide bombing near Tel Aviv. Nablus was a particular target because many bombers have come from the city.
Fierce fighting made funerals impossible. It fell to Qadri to marshal dairy trucks to store decomposing bodies. "I was dealing with horrible things, worms," she says. "Many people lost their lives while I was treating them, but to see a family friend..."
Qadri's cool evaporated. "The ambulance driver told me I beat him. I was crying. I put her hand in mine, I was shouting, 'she's warm!' They told me to take her wedding ring off. I had it until the next day, so I felt she was with me until then. I started to calm down and then I started to work." Her first act: asking the diplomat to find witnesses.
Palestinian civilian deaths are a problem for Israel. This is war, many Israelis say. It's often hard for soldiers to tell if someone is civilian or terrorist. Palestinian militants show little regard for their own civilians when they attack Israeli troops from residential areas, exposing innocents to return fire. Some say this may even be part of the militants' goal, since it draws international condemnation for every Palestinian woman or child it kills.
But Israel has an ethical obligation to take civilian deaths seriously, says Col. Daniel Reisner, head of the IDF's international law department. "A country's moral fiber is revealed in how it handles itself in times of adversity."
Since taking office in July, IDF's Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has insisted on reviewing all inquiries into civilian deaths. Critics say his interest has done little to improve the system.
Until the conflict began, military police scrutinized each civilian death. Since its start, that duty has passed to the commander of the soldiers involved. Before Lt. Gen. Ya'alon's order to see all such reports, commanders decided whether something untoward had happened, and if so, whether further examination was needed.
The commanders aim to recreate an incident minute by minute, but they are not required to speak to witnesses outside the military. It rarely happens.
IDF Chief Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron says that Palestinian testimony is often unreliable - deaths are manipulated for political gain, many witnesses refuse to cooperate and on some occasions, investigators have been ambushed while collecting testimony.
The Israeli human rights groups B'tselem says more than 1,700 Palestinians have been killed, including 318 minors under 18, though it doesn't offer a civilian-combatant breakdown. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says the toll is at least 1,789 adult civilians and 340 minors, 66 of whom it says were killed in circumstances of complete quiet.
Yet the IDF has only investigated 20 cases. "For me this is the ultimate example of how the army gives soldiers the wrong message," says Mr. Eldar. "The message now is that we understand the soldiers are very nervous, it's a war, and of course, they'll convey their condolences to this family. But to kill an old lady on her porch? Somebody should pay for this."
Public uproar over Shaden's death began immediately. At first, an IDF spokesperson said soldiers were responding to "disturbances" after Friday prayers. But mosques were closed for curfew.
Soon after, an Israeli official said Shaden was caught in a shootout. Monitor attempts to interview soldiers in the Nablus area were unsuccessful and IDF officials won't comment until the investigation is complete.
Army inquiries can result in disciplinary measures, but a soldier will only face a criminal investigation if the IDF decides it,s warranted. At that point, the military police step in and start from scratch.
Word of Shaden's shooting rippled through the neighborhood. "Like that," says her son Saed, snapping his fingers. Neighbors took him to one hospital and his parents to another. When he joined his father, who was kept in intensive care that night, he found the waiting room full. "All these people broke curfew and risked their lives to be with us."
The diplomat, who requested anonymity for this article, arrived at the Abu Hijleh house to find the wreckage of chipped stone, shattered glass and spilled blood. Neighbors told him what they'd seen. He examined the bullet holes and paced the area where the jeeps had stopped. There, in the fine, dusty gravel, he found a cluster of copper-colored bullet shells. Army officials would later identify them as M16 or Galil rifle ammunition, standard issue for Israeli soldiers.
"The bullet holes were tightly grouped, it doesn't look like a random shooting," says the diplomat. "It's not required by curfew laws [for people] to be inside and it's not legal to enforce curfew with live ammunition. This was so unnecessary."
In the next few hours, Qadri and the Hijlehs photographed Shaden's wounds to record the evidence. Then Qadri undertook a more common ritual associated with death in the territories, bringing Shaden's photograph to the printer to make a martyr poster.
The printer looked at the photo - Shaden smiling, wearing lipstick, her short brown hair uncovered - and refused. Martyrdom has always been a religious notion, even for the secular cause of a Palestinian state. Shaden, the printer said, should be shown wearing an Islamic veil. "That's not the woman we knew," countered Qadri. In the end, she prevailed.
After the funeral, Jamal gathered his children. Two other sons, both US citizens, had flown in from Dubai and the US. His daughter Lana, a civil engineer who works for the UN here, had rushed back from a conference in Jordan.
Jamal and Shaden had only recently applied for resident alien status to go stay with their son in the Chicago suburbs. Jamal's future was now uncertain, but he had something to say about his children's plans.
"He told us that our mother had given us the tools for a good life, that we should carry out her message [of nonviolent resistance]," Lana remembers. "So we decided not to let her become another number, because Palestinians have become faceless lately. She was known for the work she did. She has a name."
The family is using its affluence and influence. Jamal is a respected physician, Saed is a university professor, and his two brothers are engineers. The brothers who hold US citizenship wrote to the US consul general in Jerusalem with their mother's story. Israel receives about $8 million a day in US aid; its army uses American ammunition. In their letter, the brothers said they felt their tax dollars had helped kill their mother.
They say they received no response.
Forty days after Shaden's death - a day when Muslims traditionally commemorate the dead - the family hired a lawyer to take the army and Prime Minister Sharon to court, first in Israel and then to an international court, if possible.
"Many people don't have the tools we do," says Lana. "They might be frightened, they might say it's God's will. In our opinion it's not God's will that our mother is dead, it was some soldier's will and he should be punished."
The Abu Hijlehs' chances of seeing some accountability for Shaden's death are about fifty-fifty, say lawyers and human rights experts. If their case isn't investigated and prosecuted in an Israeli court, then theoretically they can approach the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Hijlehs are considering international law at a time when Israel, along with the US, is distancing itself from world courts.
In 2002, survivors of a 1982 massacre at a Lebanese refugee camp went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to bring war crimes charges against Sharon for his involvement. The case was dismissed.
But later that year, Britain's Scotland Yard began investigating war crimes allegations against Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz while he was visiting the country. Shortly after, Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes during its spring siege of the West Bank.
Israel reacted swiftly. Its leaders do not want soldiers reluctant to act for fear of future war crimes charges. Officials ordered an assessment of the countries where Israeli politicians and soldiers could face arrest for war crimes.
Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a conference of countries opposed to the international court. And Israel "unsigned" the ICC mandate last year, signaling that it has no intention of submitting to its oversight.
Israeli officials acknowledge the irony of this situation, since much international humanitarian law was born from the ashes of the Holocaust.
"The concept that there are crimes the world should try was invented by us," says Colonel Reisner. But like many other officials, he says Israel has no choice but to protect itself. "Arab states are using the international court to target Israel."
Curled on her living room couch in a Gap sweatshirt and jeans, Lana abu Hijleh has a dark, heavy-lidded beauty and a dancer's build. The Jerusalem sky, visible through large half-moon windows, is a heavy gray. It has been six weeks and she misses her mother's regular 8 a.m. calls.
"She came from a conservative family, but she was liberal," Lana says. Shaden helped her become the first Nablus woman to study in the US and stood by her through a divorce, no small issue in a Muslim society. The greatest challenge, Lana finds, is coping with her anger. "I'm trying to direct it the right way," she says, "but it's so hard. People say 'You should be proud, she died a martyr.' " Lana shakes her head. "I couldn't relate. It wasn't her choice to die. It's dangerous, this glorification of death."
Her family is changing. Jamal and Saed fasted this Ramadan, for the first time, and commemorated Shaden's death with a reading of the Koran. Jamal prays regularly now and refers to Shaden as Al Marhouma, an honorific which means "God rest her soul." "That really upsets me," says Lana. "I want to tell him: She has a name, use it."
Lana worries about her father. A few weeks after Shaden's death, the invitation for an immigration interview arrived. "We told him he has to start a new life on his own," she says.
When she took Jamal to the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, the guard asked where Shaden was. When Lana said she had passed away, the guard picked up a marker, turned to a list of the day's visitors posted on the wall and drew a red line through Shaden's name. Jamal began to weep.
Last month the report on Shaden's death reached the chief of staff, reportedly outlining the stray bullet theory.
Ya'alon returned it, demanding more details.
On Jan. 6, almost three months after the killing, army investigators arrived at the Hijlehs' front door, prodded by the attention her case has received, the family believes. "They listened, they were polite," says Saed.
The IDF says its investigation will be finished within two weeks.