IDF’s murder of Palestinian grandmother tests Israeli justice system

Attention builds over a slain civilian

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

By Nicole Gaouette | Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.”

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.

The fog of war

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.