Sacrificed On The Feast Day
IDF soldiers fired at least 17 bullets at the car of Hilmiya and Mahmoud Al Tus, two grandparents driving home from a holiday visit with their family. Now there are 12 motherless children and a few hard questions for the army.
31 March 2000
Mahmoud Al Tus in the hospital this week
The Al Tus family decided to spend the last day of Id el Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, with their married daughter and their grandchildren from a neighboring village. Around noon, the daughter, Udit, arrived with her two small children at her parents' home in the village of Jab'a, north of Hebron, and they all had lunch together. Later, at around 5:30 P.M., her parents took her back to her village, Nuba, a 20-minute drive from Jab'a.They all got into Grandfather Mahmoud's small Autobianchi - he says it was given to him by an Israeli as payment for a renovation job in the man's house - and drove to Nuba. They were in a good mood. It was the fourth day of the holiday, which had been pleasant. Mahmoud, about 50 years old, was on vacation from his day job as a plasterer in Israel, and they decided to pay a few visits in Nuba, where his wife, Hilmiya, 46, was born.
The visiting went on for several hours, and it was around 11 P.M. by the time Mahmoud and Hilmiya set out to return to Jab'a. They had one more cup of tea at the home of Mahmoud's friend, Mohammed Mourshad, in the village of Haris, which lies on the road to Jab'a. Then, they set off into the dark night. The road from Nuba and Haris to Tsurif, and from there to Jab'a, is narrow and winding, infrequently traveled even by day. Mahmoud drove, Hilmiya sat by his side. Mahmoud does not have a driver's license. His car has yellow license plates, attesting to its Israeli origins. When soldiers stop him at roadblocks, they see that he is a grandfather and let him be, he says: they are army, not police, he explains.
So, he says, he was not frightened when he suddenly saw a beam of light cut through the dark as a soldier signaled him to stop. Mahmoud says he stopped the car next to a mobile stop sign that had been placed on the road. A few meters behind him was the makeshift roadblock with a soldier holding a flashlight standing next to it. The press reported the next day that the soldiers manning the position were reservists from the Territorial Defense unit and residents of the urban settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron. A few hours earlier, not far away, terrorists had opened fire at a vehicle carrying three Chabad men, seriously wounding one of them.
Mahmoud says that the soldier signaled him with his hand to turn around and go back. Lying in his hospital bed, he illustrates the soldier's gestures. No, he did not approach the soldier, did not talk to him and did not hear what he was saying. The IDF's contention that he tried to run the soldier down is absurd, he says. Mahmoud says he turned around and drove back in the direction he had come from. First gear, second gear, and the car began to wheeze and jerk on the upgrade. Then came a burst of fire. A hail of bullets from the left struck the car, and then, as Mahmoud continued driving, more shots came from behind.
Mahmoud says he did not hear a word from the soldiers, but saw a jeep lurking under cover of darkness by the roadside. He thinks the shots came from the jeep, not from the roadblock. Leaning over the steering wheel, Mahmoud tried to accelerate the car and escape the inferno. Hilmiya's head, from which blood was streaming, drooped on her shoulder. Suddenly he felt a bullet enter his back. Hilmiya was already unconscious. Blood gushed from her head.
That was how the death trip of Mahmoud and Hilmiya Al Tus began. He kept driving the bullet-riddled car, the back windshield shattered and one tire ripped to shreds. Wounded in the back, his dying wife leaning on his right shoulder, he drove and drove until he got back to the home of his friend Mohammed Mourshad - where he had drunk that last cup of tea. Mahmoud collapsed in front of the house. Hilmiya gasped her last breath.
This week, Mahmoud lay with drainage tubes hooked up to his body in the Al Ahali Hospital in Hebron. The bullet entered through his back and punctured his spleen and liver. Fatma, their eldest daughter, is already 30; Riman, their youngest daughter, is 4, and in between are another seven girls and three sons - altogether a dozen children and another dozen grandchildren.
Mahmoud has worked in Israel for years without a permit, as a plasterer. He does not have a steady job. Lately he was working in moshavim around Masmiya, in the south. "He is our head man, he helps with the livelihood of our parents and brothers," Hassan, his brother, says proudly. Mahmoud has never been arrested. Once, during the Intifada, they searched his house, at a time when they were searching almost every home.
Mahmoud's room in the hospital hums with visitors: friends and relatives, children and grandchildren. He tells the story of that night, the night of the Feast of the Sacrifice, as though he were relating something that happened to a neighbor. When he reaches the point in the story where Hilmiya died, he seems about to burst into tears, but holds back by drinking a glass of water.
When he reached his friend Mohammed's house that night, he got out of the car, collapsed on the road and called for help. Mohammed, who now sits by Mahmoud's bed, relates that when he saw the horror, he placed his hand on Hilmiya's chest, and it was still warm. A cousin called for an ambulance, while another cousin brought his van; they bundled the two casualties into the vehicle and made for Hebron, about half an hour away. They placed Hilmiya on the back seat; Mahmoud was in the front, next to the driver. At the hospital, Hilmiya was pronounced dead and Mahmoud was rushed into surgery.
Yusuf, 13, arrives to visit his father. He has a downcast look. Mahmoud says he cannot understand how the soldiers opened fire after they saw a woman wearing a kerchief sitting next to him. (The IDF's rules of engagement in fact forbid opening fire at a vehicle in which they see a woman or a child.) Mahmoud says he did not know about the terrorist attack at Turqumiya two hours earlier. Perhaps the soldiers were tense because of the attack, I say. "If soldiers are tense, do they kill everyone they see?" his brother asks. Raslan Mahajana, a field worker for the B'Tselem human rights organization, who arrived to investigate the incident the day after it happened, counted 17 bullet holes in the car. Probably more bullets were fired; some shattered the back windshield and some missed the car. According to a report in Ha'aretz, the soldiers said they fired at the tires, but it turned out that some of the bullets "strayed upward." Some of the bullets? The fact is that only one bullet, of the 17 known to have hit the car, struck a tire.
Questions to the IDF: Why did the soldiers open fire? If they suspected that the car contained dangerous terrorists, why did they not give chase? How did they let a wheezing Autobianchi which they suspected was dangerous get away from under their noses? With the driver bleeding and one tire punctured, they surely would have overtaken it.
Why so many bullets? And why were they fired at the head? What about the rules of engagement? If the car came so close that it brushed one of the soldiers, as they claim, how did they fail to see that there was a woman in the car? And did Mahmoud Al Tus really endanger the life of the soldier touched by the car, as the IDF spokesman claimed on the night of the incident? What happened to the soldier whose life was in danger? Was he hospitalized? And why did the IDF spokesman, as usual, immediately claim that "a preliminary investigation by the IDF indicates that the firing was undertaken in accordance with the rules of engagement"? On what basis did the spokesman make this statement?
".. However, flaws were discovered in the soldiers' performance," the spokesman added. Flaws? What flaws? And how did it happen, also as usual, that the Palestinian eye-witness was not even questioned? Can an IDF investigation possibly be credible and comprehensive if it includes only the version of the soldiers who did the shooting? Wouldn't the account of Mahmoud Al Tus shed light on what happened?
The IDF spokesman, this week, in reply to the questions: "The Military Police have opened an investigation into the circumstances of the event. When the investigation is completed, the findings will be transferred for the perusal and opinion of the office of the Military Advocate General's Office. The Military Police does not provide details about an ongoing investigation." As for another question put to the spokesman, which has nothing to do with the investigation of the Military Police - whether the soldiers involved were in fact reservists from Kiryat Arba - he also preferred not to respond.
The bloated carcass of a cow, swarming with flies and infested with maggots, lies on the roadside at the place where the roadblock apparently stood. A few meters away, there is another bloodstain on the road. A quarter of an hour's drive away, well out of sight, at the edge of the village of Nuba, is the Autobianchi, riddled with bullet holes. Mahmoud's brother Hassan says they moved the car so the relatives would not have to see the horrific sight. In the trunk are Mahmoud's work shoes and a bottle of Coke for the next day of work, which did not come.
Yusuf, the son of Hilmiya (deceased) and Mahmoud (wounded), gets into the car and sits behind the steering wheel, as children like to do. He looks around, at the dried bloodstains on the floor in the back, and at the pieces of brain that are still stuck to the plastic ceiling of the jalopy. The visible remains of his mother.