Demanding justice for Yousef, a quiet boy killed by Israeli settlers

Yousef Ikhlayl, top left-hand corner, attending a demonstration in Beit Ommar less than six months before he was killed by Israeli settlers.

Palestine Solidarity Project

On 28 January 2011 at 6:30am, Yousef Ikhlayl, 17, went with his father Fakhri to their farmland on the outskirts of the West Bank village Beit Ommar, where they prepared the land around their grapevines. At approximately 7am, two groups of Israelis from the illegal settlements Bat Ayn and Kiryat Arba were taking a “hike” in the privately-owned Palestinian agricultural land belonging to the residents of Beit Ommar (“Palestinian killed in clashes with settlers near Hebron,” The Jerusalem Post, 29 January 2011).

There was no indication that the settlers were planning on shooting. Yousef’s father reported that the first shot fired by the settlers hit his son in the head. The settlers then began shooting in the air and the surrounding areas to prevent others from approaching, as his father screamed desperately for help.

Yousef was carried to a car that drove him out of the agricultural valley and to the main road, where an ambulance “rushed” him to the hospital in Hebron, passing two Israeli military checkpoints on the way. At the hospital, Yousef was put on a respirator, though he had no brain activity. He passed away soon after.

At his funeral the following day, as is common practice with the Israeli military involving martyr funerals, soldiers numbering in the hundreds invaded Beit Ommar and attacked the funeral with tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and even live ammunition, as the Palestine Solidarity Project reported (“Funeral of Yousef Ikhlayl attacked by Israeli military, dozens injured,” 29 January 2011).

The murder of Yousef Ikhlayl, the impunity with which the settlers acted and the military’s behavior at the funeral are common occurrences in the occupied West Bank. The death of a Palestinian, even a child, is rarely noted and quickly forgotten in much of the world. The killing of Yousef was, however, a profound event for myself, the Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP, the organization I co-founded) and popular resistance in the Hebron district as a whole.

Never safe

PSP began farmer-accompaniment programs in the areas surrounding Beit Ommar — particularly the areas near Bat Ayn settlement — in 2006. We did so because of the extreme violence and the regularity with which settlers from this colony would attack farmers, particularly in the Saffa valley near where Yousef was killed.

Yousef was a regular participant in all of our activities, including demonstrations, farming actions, summer camps, English classes and even a photography workshop we held in 2010. He was a fixture at PSP events, volunteering to set up for conferences and often babysitting my young daughter as we held meetings and tours for international activists. I have vivid memories of Yousef carrying my baby, Rafeef, around the yard of my house, pointing out tree leaves and flowers while my husband, PSP co-founder Mousa Abu Maria, and I met with international delegations and the local popular committee.

Yousef was quite familiar with the Israeli settlers from the area and their potential for violence. Perhaps it was because of this familiarity with them that he did not run when they arrived in the area. He had been with PSP dozens of times as we accompanied other farmers to their land, as settlers watched from the hillside or hurled rocks at us from hundreds of meters away. Perhaps he assumed this time would be no different; but maybe it would have been different if we had been there with his family. I wonder about what he thought when the settlers approached. I have often thought in the last year if things would have been different if international activists had been there; if I had been there.

Our farmer-accompaniment program in the area throughout the years, though it had led to literally dozens of arrests of Israeli and international solidarity activists, was completely successful in deterring settler violence during the accompaniment.

In the end, the settlers roamed the area freely, shooting at residents and youth who began throwing stones for two hours. Two hours before Israeli soldiers, who are responsible for the security of Area C — 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli military control — could persuade the residents to return to their homes.

The aforementioned Jerusalem Post article adds that twenty settlers were detained at the scene by the military — a highly unusual occurrence, possibly due to the presence of international and Israeli activists who had arrived in the area after the shooting — but were all released the same day.

Israeli impunity

During the two hours that the settlers stayed in the area, PSP activists arrived and began taking pictures of them to provide to the Israeli police responsible for investigating attacks by settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank. Shortly after the murder, Yousef’s father and the activists who took the pictures went to the Israeli police station (located in the settlement Kfar Etzion, next door to Bat Ayn) and filed a formal complaint.

Yousef’s father provided the photographs to the police and even identified a few individuals he saw closest to him and his son when he was shot. In a democracy, one would think this level of evidence, combined with the heinousness of the crime, would lead to a thorough investigation and speedy indictment. But, as we all well know, that is not what happens when settlers attack Palestinians.

In December 2011, Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors the criminal accountability of Israeli civilians and Israeli military forces in the West Bank, released an updated report on the rate of which Israeli civilians are prosecuted for crimes committed against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Yesh Din discovered, after researching the progress of 700 individual complaints filed with the Israeli police in the West Bank by Palestinians, that 91 percent of all complaints end with the investigation being closed without an indictment, including 85 percent of cases involving violence. The most common reason for closing a case (which can be done either by the police or by the police prosecutor) is “perpetrator unknown,” though a full 2 percent of all cases were closed because of a “lack of public interest,” which begs the question, “which public?” (“Updated data monitoring hundreds of investigations: 91% of cases closed without indictments,” 15 December 2011).

The report reveals that only 7.4 percent of cases involving settler crimes committed against Palestinians from 2005 to 2011 actually ended in an indictment. The statistic regarding crimes committed by Israeli military personnel against Palestinians, which are investigated by a separate entity, is a negligible 3.5 percent ending in indictments.

Yesh Din’s full report shows a series of failures, from the process of filing an initial complaint, to the police investigation, to the process inside the prosecutors’ office for initiating an indictment. In Yousef Ikhlayl’s case, Yesh Din discovered that while an investigation was conducted by the police (which may have only constituted the interview with Yousef’s father) and the file was turned over to the prosecution, the case has inexplicably been stalled for months because the prosecution’s office has refused to assign the case to an individual attorney, a step necessary before a final decision can be made on whether an indictment will be handed down.

It is obvious that individual justice for Palestinian victims of settler crimes — even when the victim is an unarmed child — remains elusive. Perhaps, as was suggested in an op-ed that appeared in Israeli daily Haaretz about the murder of Mustafa Tamimi, knowing the individual perpetrator, and pursuing a case against the individual, only serves to alleviate the responsibility of the system as a whole (“A courageous Palestinian has died, shrouded in stones,” 13 December 2011).

However, violent, ideological settlers, and their counterparts in the Israeli military, will only continue to act with total disregard for the basic human rights of Palestinians if they are assured that they will not face consequences. The death of a civilian, particularly a child, should result both in a black mark on the society that condones it, as well as the prosecution of the individuals responsible.

A call to action

Yousef Ikhlayl’s murder was overshadowed by world events taking place in January 2011. Activists and sympathetic journalists alike were focused on the massive uprising in Egypt that had just erupted, as well as other developments during the Arab uprisings. Beit Ommar, Yousef’s hometown, had fallen into the background as settler violence had decreased in previous months and the demonstrations in Nabi Saleh were gaining attention.

The community of Beit Ommar and the Palestine Solidarity Project have called for an international day of action on Saturday, 28 January, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Yousef’s death and ensure that he will not be forgotten.

People all over the world will hold demonstrations in front of Israeli consulates, and will plaster their cities with posters of with his face (which can be found on the website).

We are calling for an end to Israeli impunity, and the world to remember that behind statistics and policy reports, the victims of Israel’s murderous policies are real, live people. It is imperative that the international community not only hold Israel accountable for its criminal acts, through movements including boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), and solidarity work in Palestine, but also to humanize the victims of these crimes. Yousef Ikhlayl was a goofy, quiet and dedicated boy. He had a sheepish smile and made my daughter laugh. We will not forget him.

Bekah Wolf is a co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project, and has worked in the West Bank since 2003.  Further details on the day of action to demand justice for Yousef Ikhlayl can be found on the PSP website, www.palestinesolidarityproject.orgPSP can be followed on Twitter at @PalestinePSP.