A Palestinian couple driving home at night are stopped by soldiers, questioned and sent on their way – but then one soldier fires a bullet at the vehicle, and his comrades begin to shoot as well. The husband is killed. The army claims he tried to run the troops over, but they didn’t even try to pursue the car
The main street of the West Bank village of Al-Jib, on the way to the adjacent village of Bir Naballah, north of Jerusalem. Monday, April 5, 2:45 A.M., the early morning watch. The Israel Defense Forces raided Al-Jib three times that night. The soldiers parked their heavy, armored vehicles on the narrow traffic island separating the two sides of the road.
Three weeks earlier, on March 13, they had wrested a young Palestinian named Ahmed Ghanayem from his bed at night and detained him. Now they were back again to search his house and his family’s store, which is around the corner from Ahmed’s house. Two soldiers stood next to some cars parked on the median strip across from the store. Suddenly an old Toyota approached from the east. A soldier signaled the driver with a flashlight to pull over. The driver at first didn’t notice the flashlight, but his wife quickly shouted at him to brake. The car came to a stop about four meters from the troops. A short conversation and the car was sent on its way. But then a moment later, the soldiers began spraying it with dozens of rounds of bullets.
“If a person falls from a plane in the middle of the night, / only God alone can lift him up,” the poet Dahlia Ravikovitch wrote. If a person is traveling in a car in the middle of the night in the West Bank, only God can apparently save him. Osama Mansour was killed; his wife, Somaya, survived.
The attractive Al Badawi World Liquidation Sale store, across the street, sells clothing, footwear, perfume and kitchen utensils at bargain prices. A sign in the store says, in Hebrew: “Up to 50 percent off on the whole collection for club members.”
The soldiers came here for the first time that evening around 9:30 P.M. A sizable force in vans, Hummers and other armored vehicles. They searched Ghanayem’s home. Children and teens pelted them with stones, the soldiers hurled back tear gas and left the village – only to return at midnight. Again stone throwing, again tear gas, soldiers conducted searches in a few homes. Eyewitnesses had the feeling that the troops were planning something.
The soldiers left at 1 A.M. and were back at 2:30. Two vehicles, a van and a jeep, stopped on the traffic island across from the store. Two more armored vehicles were parked a few dozen meters away. There may have been more. The street was quiet now, so late at night. Two soldiers stood on the same median strip that we stood on this week when we tried to reconstruct the events of that night, step by step, with the aid of the Ramallah-area field researcher of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Iyad Hadad. Two eyewitnesses, Azam Malkiya and Bassam Iskar, had observed what happened from their apartments, on either sides of the street, with the soldiers in the middle.
The Mansours’ 2010 Toyota approached, a soldier signaled the driver to stop with his flashlight, the car came to a complete halt. According to the witnesses, the driver also turned off the engine. Somaya and Osama Mansour come from the nearby village of Biddu, once a hub for Israeli shoppers on Saturdays but not since the separation barrier went up there about two decades ago.
Somaya and Osama told the soldiers that they were on the way home from a clinic in Bir Naballah, as Somaya hadn’t felt well. The family had been stricken by the coronavirus: Osama got over it easily; his mother, Jamila, was confined for 25 days in the Hugo Chavez Ophthalmic Hospital in the town of Turmus Ayya, which had been converted into a hospital for COVID-19 patients; and Somaya suffered from various symptoms and rested at home. The worst was over, but that night Somaya felt unwell again. The Mansours’ son Mohammed also fell ill, but the other children weren’t infected.
Osama was a vegetable merchant who made the rounds of nearby villages in his car. The day we visited their home, Monday, would have been his 36th birthday. Two months ago he was released from prison after serving an 18-month sentence: He had been caught in Jerusalem without an entry permit and was already serving a suspended sentence. Somaya, 35, works as a seamstress in Givat Ze’ev, a settlement just north of Jerusalem. The couple have five children and live in a small house with an asbestos roof in the yard of Osama’s parents’ house.
When we arrived, Bisan and Nisan, 10-year-old twins in school uniforms, had just returned home from school. They are now fatherless.
A photograph of Osama is propped up on the television screen. On the last evening of his life he asked his mother what he could buy for Ramadan, which began this week. There’s still time, she replied. One of the last photos of him was taken next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; he had snuck in to pray; later on he was caught and arrested.
Somaya, the widow, enters the room, dressed in black, accompanied by the twins. She is tall and impressive, soft-spoken and tear-less, though her face is pained and pale. Osama returned from work at 11:30 P.M. on April 4, and hurried to take Somaya to the clinic in Bir Naballah. Somaya relates that he always looked after her like that, taking her to a doctor for every ailment. The doctor, she says, told her she had to rest at home. Osama then suggested that they should drive around a little, as she’d been cooped up in the house all day. She recalls that he bought her a sandwich at a grocery store that was open in the middle of the night. They didn’t notice anything unusual going on until they saw the soldier with the flashlight signaling them to pull over. The soldier aimed his rifle at them and shouted, “Why didn’t you stop?” “Why are you shouting at me?” Osama, who knew Hebrew, asked in reply. The soldier asked where they lived and where they were coming from, but didn’t ask to see ID cards or vehicle registration documents.
The soldier told them to be on their way, and Osama drove off. A moment later, however, Somaya says that she heard the sound of a single shot from behind; immediately afterward a few soldiers darted out in front of the car and riddled it with gunfire. Somaya describes “a rain of bullets” that landed on them. Terrified, she bent forward to protect herself. She felt shrapnel striking her back. “Are you all right?” Osama called to her, and she said, “I’ve been shot.”
The car veered from side to side; Somaya realized that Osama had lost control of the steering wheel. “Why are you driving like that?” she asked him – but there was no longer an answer. Osama fell over onto his wife’s lap, his head oozing blood. Somaya started shouting, but kept her wits about her. From the passenger seat, she grabbed hold of the steering wheel and also stepped on the gas pedal, in an attempt to escape the nightmare. A few hundred meters later she stopped the car with the handbrake and even shifted into park mode. The soldiers did not follow them. Four young men driving from the opposite direction stopped and quickly transferred Somaya and Osama to their car. He was still breathing, but had lost consciousness.
They took Osama to the Al-Carmel Clinic in Biddu, where staff summoned an ambulance that rushed the dying man to the Government Hospital in Ramallah. Somaya was treated for light wounds and the physicians told her Osama was being operated on. At 4 A.M. he was pronounced dead, but Somaya wasn’t told until two hours later.
The soldiers got to the car they had peppered with bullets 15 minutes after the incident, and took it away. They then proceeded to the stores and apartment buildings in the immediate area and dismantled the security cameras, including the one in the Ghanayem family’s store – it is not clear for what purpose. They also took the trouble to collect their shell casings from the street – the witnesses reported that about 50 rounds had been fired at the Mansours’ car. Hadad, from B’Tselem, found seven casings the soldiers had missed.
Osama’s body was transferred to the forensic medicine institute in Abu Dis, outside Jerusalem, where a postmortem was performed. Its findings haven’t yet been published, but as far as is known, only one bullet hit him, in the head.
The IDF lost no time in issuing an announcement stating that there had been a car-ramming attempt and that the vehicle had driven fast toward the soldiers and had endangered their lives.
This week we asked the army’s spokesperson’s office a number of questions: Does the IDF still maintain that there was a car-ramming attack? Have the soldiers involved been interrogated yet by the Military Police? And if they thought it was a car-ramming, why didn’t the troops rush after the vehicle in order to arrest the perpetrators? To all these questions the answer was: “In the wake of the event, a Military Police investigation was launched, and at its conclusion the findings will be forwarded to the office of the military advocate general.”
Salam Abu Eid, the head of the Biddu council, told Haaretz this week: “It was a crime not only against Osama but also against his wife and five children. The soldiers killed seven people, not only one person.”
Daisies planted by Osama adorn the yard of the house. His daughter Baylasan, 13, is sitting, dresed in black, her gaze bleak, along with the older brother, 15-year-old Mohammed. Baylasan (“elderberry” in Arabic) is a plant with white flowers from which myrrh and incense are extracted. One family member relates that today the plant can be found only across the barrier, on lands seized by Israel.
Ten-year-old Nisan rests her head on her mother’s lap, just as her father did in his last moments. Nisan covers her face with her cellphone, as though to distance herself from having to hear, over and over, what happened to her parents that night on which she lost her father – most likely for doing nothing wrong.