The protest around the illegal outpost of Evyatar has claimed four lives in six weeks. Palestinians on whose lands the outpost was built tell of armed civilians walking amidst Israeli soldiers
Among the four residents of Beita who have been killed since mid-May in protests over the establishment of the illegal outpost Evyatar, Dr. Issa Barham is the only one who didn’t “merit” the same generic statement that the Israeli army spokesperson issues whenever there is a Palestinian casualty. A statement such as: “there were disturbances… the army is familiar with the report that a Palestinian was killed.” Barham, 41, was a legal scholar who specialized in international criminal law and worked in the Palestinian prosecutor’s office in the district of Salfit. He came to the protest in order to help evacuate the wounded. He was past the age of the youngsters who clamber over the terraced hills, race down the paths wending among the olive groves, burn tires, throw stones at soldiers a dozen meters away or more, and flee from tear gas. This is a protest that demands above average physical fitness and light feet.
On Friday, May 14, there weren’t enough ambulances to take the sheer numbers of wounded and the mosques called on people to bring cars, says Barham’s brother Sultan. One of the responders was Barham.
It was the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the month-long Ramadan fast; the fourth day of the war in Gaza; and the twelfth day since the illegal outpost began to arise, and fast, on land belonging to Beita, Qablan and Yatma.
That Friday there were demonstrations throughout the West Bank. Ten Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire, four of them in the Nablus area alone. Barham was one of them. About 1,650 people were injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent called for blood donations.
A protester who had been near Barham relates that there were soldiers about 200 meters away from them. He also noticed armed Israeli civilians on the slope, near another group of soldiers. “Settlers,” he concluded.
That is a detail repeated by a number of witnesses in Beita: alongside the soldiers, who are spread out in several groups, are armed Israeli civilians. One of the witnesses mentioned armed Israeli civilians when he told B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Daba’i about seeing Barham.
Barham had been driving towards him along a dirt road between olive groves, in his white Hyundai Tucson SUV, and asked him, “Where are the wounded?” Several had already been taken in another car. Others, including one in serious condition, were still waiting among the trees, whether to be evacuated on stretchers by ambulances or for support to get to a car. Barham parked and started to walk toward the wounded. The witness saw that one soldier – from the distant group – lowered himself to sniping position. The witness didn’t think the soldier would shoot; he thought maybe he just wanted to put the wind up in the people. At that spot, at that moment, things were relatively calm. Everyone was busy with the wounded.
Suddenly the witness heard one shot. “I saw Issa fall to the ground on his back,” he told a-Daba’i. Barham was hit in the middle of his abdomen. He was still breathing and had a pulse when he was put into another volunteer’s car to be taken to the field hospital set up in Beita, then to an ambulance. Soldiers were blocking the main entrance to the village; the ambulance drove north on the narrow winding roads of Beita, Odala and Awarta. En route the ambulance crew tried to resuscitate Issa. But at Al-Najah Hospital in Nablus, he weas declared deceased.
We need to describe the topography in order to understand what’s going on there.
The demonstrations take place on Mount Sabih, which has several peaks: Evyatar is on the highest, most southern one. As the crow flies, the distance between it and the other, lower peaks is about half a kilometer (0.3 miles). One of the other peaks has a fenced swimming pool surrounded by a garden. On Fridays at midday protest prayers are declaimed by the pool; then the more daring of the demonstrators begin to spread out on the mountain and down the wadi. The soldiers are already waiting for them, far away; they fire tear gas at the protesters, followed by rubber-coated bullets. Another point of assembly is one of the westerly peaks, near large storage buildings. The soldiers and armed Israeli civilians are usually positioned above the demonstrators. Sometimes soldiers travel on the dirt roads of the groves towards the demonstrators, dismount from their armored vehicles, then from a distance of a few dozen meters, fire tear gas and coated metal bullets. Sometimes soldiers, unnoticed before, suddenly appear out of the wadi. Sometimes soldiers prostrate themselves to sniping position, and fire live bullets.
On the slopes of the southern peak the young people burn tires, hoping the black smoke will reach the settlers in the outpost who invaded their land. They would prefer to climb as close as possible to the outpost, but as one climbs, the mountain grows steeper and the trees are sparse.
The military spokesman commented to Haaretz: “Violent disorderly conduct … endangers the lives of Israeli civilians … which is why a military force was deployed at the site.” But the armed Israeli civilians choose to leave the outpost and descend down the mountain towards the unarmed demonstrators, and the soldiers’ lives are not in any danger, the demonstrators explained to Haaretz.
The number of demonstrators ranges from a few dozen to several hundred, depending on the day and the time. “We deploy here in protest every day, at night too,” said one of the demonstrators to Haaretz last week. He didn’t use the term “nighttime harassment,” which apparently joined the jargon just this week, whether spontaneously by demonstrators, or intentionally by spokesmen associated with Hamas, who echo the Gazan attempt to engage and confuse the army along the separation barrier.
The demonstrators are in groups that can number anywhere from three to 10 young people. “Sometimes we sit like at a picnic, on a rock, next to a tree,” said Mohammed Hamayel, brother of Zakaria Hamayel. Mohammed was right next to Zakaria when he was killed on May 28. “People stay several meters from one another, and then if they’re wounded – nobody sees the moment of injury. That’s what happened with Zakaria. He had moved several meters away from me and my other brother and our cousin, looking for a place to recite the afternoon prayer. That was at about 4 P.M. We saw a group of soldiers and heard the shot, but at first we didn’t know that he was the one who was wounded.”
Meanwhile, a medical team nearby was treating a man shot through the leg. The bullet went in one side and out the other. When the shouting “Ambulance, ambulance” began, some of the team started to run over.
The terrain is rocky. Soldiers, and a number of armed settlers, had positioned themselves at a higher point. The shooters were perhaps a few dozen meters from Zakaria, one of the demonstrators told Haaretz; another estimated the distance at about 150 meters. Anyway, as the volunteers and the medical team were coming in Zakaria’s direction, the soldiers fired at them, one of them told Haaretz. One of the rescuers was hit in the thigh by a rubber-coated metal bullet. He had been dressed, as they all were, in the phosphorescent vest worn by medics. Tear gas grenades were fired at them even as they carried Zakaria on a stretcher. One of the rescuers was hit by a gas grenade in the face.
Zakaria, 26, had taught Arabic in a school in Bir Nabala, south of Ramallah. The bullet entered his torso from the right. He suffered from internal hemorrhage and was bleeding profusely from his mouth and his nose. Two witnesses told Haaretz that he had been shot by an armed civilian; one said that the civilian was wearing a red shirt. Another said that the shooter was dressed in black. Another witness said that it was the soldiers who fired, but that there were armed civilians next to them.
The army spokesperson later stated: “At this point the reason for the shooting is unknown.” He did not directly answer Haaretz’s question if they’re checking the claim that the shooter was a civilian, issuing only the generic statement that the military police investigative unit is investigating, following which any findings will be sent to the military prosecution.
The army spokesman also told Haaretz that when necessary, soldiers use live fire in compliance with the rules of engagement.
What in the conduct of Zakaria Hamayel and Issa Barham, and the distance between them and the soldiers, required the soldiers to fire on them with live and lethal fire, hitting their torsos? What in the location and behavior of Mohammed Hamayel, a 16-year-old high school student, who was killed on June 11, “required” the use of live fire against him? The army isn’t saying.
“We went out to demonstrate after the afternoon prayer, at about 12:50,” M., a student in Al-Najah, told Haaretz. “We spread out in the area of the storage buildings (on the western peak), where we also prayed, among the olive trees. We saw two buses unloading soldiers and therefore kept our distance from them. I was there for several hours, fleeing from the gas, hiding among the trees, resting, advancing towards the top. At about 5 P.M. I found myself next to another two guys – Mohammed and his cousin. We know each other from the neighborhood. We didn’t throw stones. We saw four soldiers. One soldier picked up his weapon. I thought he wouldn’t fire, or at most would fire a rubber-coated metal bullet. The soldier fired twice, Mohammed and his cousin fell, and I was in shock. I froze in place. I didn’t know what to do.” He said that Mohammed had concealed his face; other witnesses didn’t remember that detail.
Another witness told Haaretz that the four soldiers, at a distance of a few dozen meters, were lying on the ground, aiming their rifles. Other soldiers around them fired tear gas. The sound of the firing of the gas grenades and the rubber-coated metal bullets muffled the sound of the live fire. The cousin was shot in the shoulder. The bullet that hit Mohammed entered the center of his chest, exited from the left and penetrated his left arm, near the shoulder.
The wounded cousin managed to run on his own in the direction of the rescuers. At first they thought that he was the only casualty; then they discovered Mohammed, bleeding. One of his evacuators told Haaretz. “I ran towards him. The soldiers fired tear gas at us. There was so much tear gas that I didn’t see his wound. We were suffocating. I don’t know how we continued to carry him on the stretcher, while we were having a hard time seeing the path, among the rocks and trees and terraces.” Later the army spokesman stated: “We know of a Palestinian claim about a young man who was killed, and wounded men.”
On June 18 another high school student, Ahmad Bani Shamseh, was killed. The army spokesperson said that he had thrown an explosive at a soldier which is why he was shot. Haaretz was has not yet obtaine testimony about the circumstances.
The army spokesperson didn’t answer Haaretz’s questions as to whether soldiers were wounded at those demonstrations in Beita, and whether it’s true that the drone that fires tear gas at the demonstrators comes from Evyatar and is activated from inside the outpost.
Regarding the repeated eyewitness reports that tear gas grenades were fired at medical teams and people evacuating the wounded, and that Red Crescent ambulances that work in the Beita area come under attack, the spokesman replied: “The IDF forces do not use means of crowd-dispersal at demonstrations or fire at medical personnel and ambulances deliberately.”
The conversations with the families of Zakaria Hamayel and Issa Barham lasted for hours, durign which they relived their lives. The beehives that Zakaria put next to the house constrict his brother’s throat.
“Not only their deaths: their lives also deserve to be written about,” said Barham’s uncle and father-in-law, Ziad Bani Shamseh, grandfather to Issa’s four children. Asinat, the eldest, is 7, Maryam, the youngest, is a a toddler a year-and-a-half old. He has two sons, 6-year-old Yihye and Mohammed, 4-and-a-half. They’re too young to understand what death is, he said. Issa’s brother, Sultan, said: “A few days ago a white SUV like Issa’s stopped next to the house. His children shouted happily: Daddy’s here, Daddy’s here.”