Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


Death Blow

September 1, 2000

The soldiers ordered Muhammad Sa'ad to clear the street of stones. Afterward, he was pushed into an army jeep and driven away. An hour later, battered and unconscious, Muhammad was found on the side of the road. Last week, after more than nine years as a vegetable, Muhammad died, the latest casualty of the Intifada

One wonders how the soldier, perhaps he's an officer, is doing these days - the one who put Muhammad Sa'ad in his jeep, took him to wherever he took him, did to him what he did, and then left him by the side of the road like a sack of garbage.How does he sleep at night, this soldier or officer, who apparently is a reservist? Does he ever think of that particular summer night - May 24, 1991? Does he remember the blows that he inflicted upon Sa'ad? Especially the blows to the head?

Do images from that night ever flit through his dreams? Does he ever think of Sa'ad at all? Do his memories trouble him? Has his victim's fate disturbed his peace of mind? Does he know that this young man, who was healthy and in one piece when getting into the jeep, was no more than a vegetable after he was thrown out of it?

What has become of this soldier since then? Did he go to school? Make a career for himself? In high-tech, perhaps? Does he have a family? What has he told his children about his military service? That Dad was a hero? In a combat unit? That he defended the country? What will he tell them when they grow up? Has he told his wife? Has he told her that he once beat someone to death? How does he explain it to himself? That Sa'ad deserved what he got? That we deserve soldiers and officers like him? That it's the Arabs' fault?

And whom has he been hitting since then, if one may ask? More Palestinians? Just Palestinians? Maybe he's vented his wrath at home as well. While waiting in line, perhaps, or maybe a little bit at home, on his wife and children? After all, that night, he had no problem beating up a helpless person.

And what does he know of the suffering that he caused the victim's mother and brother, who for more than nine years cared for their stricken loved one in their poor home in the Askar refugee camp, not far from where he dumped Sa'ad? Does he know that Sa'ad died last week, nine years and three months after his brain was destroyed by the blows? What does it do to him? What does it say to him? When, for God's sake, was the last time he gave Sa'ad a thought?

Familial anguish
Yusra Sa'ad crosses the room with difficulty, leaning on the plastic chair that now serves her as a walker. Until last week, they used to sit Muhammad on this plastic chair in the bathtub, where they bathed his withered body once or twice a week.

Wiping tears from her eyes, Muhammad's elderly mother, who raised 16 children, mourns for her beloved son, who died a vegetable. A picture of him as a handsome teenager hangs on the wall in the entrance. And there are other pictures taken a year before he died - to be more precise, the year before he was beaten. Nine years and three months passed from the time his brain died until his body died. A young man in a black leather jacket, a young man with a bird on his shoulder, and a young man in a T-shirt - these are the only remaining photographs of him.

No, they don't have any photo of him lying in bed as a vegetable; the bed has now been moved to the storeroom. It was an old hospital bed with a water-mattress meant to ease pressure sores. Muhammad spent the last nine years of his life in a room with his sister and his elderly mother. In his final month as a man and not a vegetable, he was looking for a bride. Then 25, he had already met three or four women, say his brothers. But none of them were right for him.

He had owned a small grocery store on the main road of the Askar refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. His mother still remembers how she was expelled from Lod as a young woman, just 20 days after her wedding.

"It was Ramadan and the Jews came by on Friday morning, and said that anyone who didn't leave the house would be killed." They traveled on foot to Gimzu and from there to Na'alin, where they slept on the streets until trucks came to take them to Askar. Her eldest son was born a year later and lived for only 40 days. His name was Fayiz; several years later, she gave birth to another son, who lives today in Amman, with the same name.

Muhammad, Yusra's 11th child, was born in August 1966. Until 10th grade, he studied at the school in the refugee camp. Then he left to work in Israel to help support his family. He was a painter who did odd jobs in Tel Aviv and Hadera.

Fruit and stones
What did he want to be when he grew up? A storekeeper, just like his father. From this perspective, his life was a success. He had realized his dream. When he was 19, he and his brother Sultan opened their own store. The brothers arose each morning at six. Sultan went to the wholesale produce market to buy fruits and vegetables, while Muhammad went to open the store where they worked until late. It was different during the Intifada, when the stores were forced to close at noon. But Muhammad and Sultan used to leave the door open a crack for customers who needed something in the afternoon.

That was the case on May 24, 1991. That day, the camp leadership had announced an intensification of tactics. Lots of tires were burned and lots of stones were whizzing through the streets of Askar. Muhammad and Sultan closed the store at about 5 P.M. When they went out to the street, it was already covered with stones. The local mosque was being renovated at the time and the pile of stones meant for the minaret were hurled at the Israel Defense Force jeeps that passed by. These were especially large and heavy Jerusalem stones, and the street became blocked to traffic.

Muhammad, whom his brother, Hisham, describes as a careful dresser, went home and changed clothes. Then he went to the neighbor's house that overlooked the main road, which had been strewn with rocks. He often spent his free time there with his friends, Imad and Ibrahim Al-Ahwal. They would sit on the roof, surveying the scene and chatting. Muhammad's brother, Hisham, was still sitting in the doorway to their house at the top of the alley leading off the main road. He saw a group of soldiers get out of a jeep and go up to the roof of the Al-Ahwal house, where Muhammad and Ibrahim were sitting.

The soldiers took the two young men's ID cards and ordered them to come down. It was the kind of typical Intifada scene that has already been forgotten: soldiers ordering young men to clear a stone-strewn street, confiscating their ID cards in the meantime.

The rocks were large and numerous and the camp mukhtar (head man), Mahmoud Shakukani, who happened to pass by on his way to the evening prayer at the mosque, heard the desperate Muhammad tell one of the soldiers that he knew someone who owned a bulldozer who could get the job done in no time. But the soldiers brought more and more young men, and the work was all done manually. When the mukhtar left the mosque, the street was already clean. He saw four young men standing on one side of the road and Muhammad standing on the other side.

The mukhtar described the ensuing sequence of events in a signed deposition taken in December 1991: "I went over to him and asked him why he was standing here. Muhammad replied that the soldiers had asked him to. He asked me to take the keys to the store and give them to his brother. When I took the keys, a soldier came over and asked him to get in the jeep. I asked the soldier where he was taking Muhammad. He answered that he wanted to speak with him. I asked the soldier to let him go, but he insisted that he wanted to speak with him. Muhammad got into the jeep and they drove off."

Muhammad's uncle, Sa'adu Faiz Sa'ad, who was also on his way home from the mosque then, gave a similar statement. The mukhtar, his uncle and his brother, Hisham, were the last ones to see Muhammad Sa'ad healthy.

Fateful journey
Once the military jeep had headed down the road leading to the Elon Moreh settlement, the soldiers took two other young men from the street-cleaning group - Muhammad's friends, Imad Al-Ahwal and Nasser Al-Nakib - to the yard of the local school. Imad realized that the soldiers intended to beat them behind the school walls. He tried to argue with them and to resist. A crowd began to gather and the two were let go after just a few blows.

At the same time, Hisham rushed to his old Opel, and tried to take off after the military jeep in which his brother and the soldier were riding. It seemed to him that the soldier was an officer. But the jeep had already passed through the IDF checkpoint and Hisham returned home. By this time, it was dark.

What happened next? Apparently, the only one who knows is the soldier who was sitting in the jeep. He alone knows what led up to Muhammad being tossed on the side of the road, battered all over and unconscious.

Hisham went to the military authorities to find out what had happened to his brother. The soldiers checked and told him that Muhammad had not been arrested or interrogated, that he was not being sought nor was he being held by them. Around 11 P.M., a neighbor came and said that a rumor was going around the camp that someone from the Sa'ad family had been found injured at the camp exit.

A woman from the Sabah family later testified in a Jerusalem courtroom, when the Sa'ad family sued the state for damages, that she had seen a bundle tossed from the military jeep to the side of the road not far from her home. No one knows for sure if this was Muhammad. Shortly afterward, soldiers knocked on her door and asked where to find a doctor. She directed them to the home of Dr. Jouad Bitar on the other side of the street.

Dr. Bitar, in his statement: "At around 10 or 10:30 P.M., two soldiers came to my house accompanied by my neighbor, Hassin Abdel Aziz. The soldiers asked if I was a doctor. I said 'yes,' and they told me to come with them immediately. I asked what had happened and they answered that there was a young man lying on the road. I walked with the soldiers and the jeep followed us. When I got to the main road, it was pitch black outside and I couldn't see a thing. The soldiers turned on a flashlight and showed me the young man who was lying on the sidewalk. As soon as I went up close to him, the two soldiers got in the jeep and disappeared."

What happened? Did the soldiers happen upon Muhammad by chance and then summon the doctor? Was the soldier who did the beating among them, and was his conscience perhaps bothering him? And why didn't they take him to the hospital? Who knows? Maybe the state's astounding version of events as presented at the legal hearing - the despicable assertion that Muhammad was actually beaten by his friends from the refugee camp - is correct. Could it be? After at least three people saw him being pushed onto the IDF jeep?

'Only' pain and suffering
In its defense, the state also argued that Muhammad was insane, maybe even homosexual, and that's why he was beaten. The same claims have been made in more than a few other similar cases. At its height, the hearing was held before District Court judge Dr. Awani Habash. The family's lawyer, Eli Sharaz, explained this week that Muhammad's death will make the chances of his family receiving compensation even tougher: "Now they can only sue for pain and suffering, which, relatively speaking, means very small sums."

In response, the IDF spokesman says: "The incident of the beating of Muhammad Sa'ad was investigated by the military police at the time. In February of 1992, the IDF Central Command's attorney presented a legal opinion that ordered the closure of the investigation. It seems, from this opinion, that there was no substantiation to the claims that Sa'ad was beaten by IDF soldiers, and the suspicion even arose that he was beaten by local residents. Therefore, the military police closed the investigation. Information regarding the identities of those who beat Sa'ad was transfered to the jurisdiction of the Israeli police on the grounds that local residents were involved."

Either way, Muhammad's plight was already grave when he was lying by the side of the road. Dr. Bitar, whom the soldiers had left in the darkness with the injured man, was able to ascertain that Muhammad was unconscious by examining his ears with a flashlight. His pulse was weak, his pants were wet and he was drooling.

The neighbor called an ambulance and Muhammad was taken to Al'Ittihad Hospital. That night, they sent him to Ramallah for a C-T scan, which showed that he was suffering from severe internal bleeding in the brain. His brothers, Hisham and Sultan, who had meanwhile come to the hospital, saw that Muhammad's head was swollen and that his eyes were shut. They noticed all the bruises, but did not see any bleeding wounds.

The next day, Muhammad was transferred to Hadassah Ein Kerem, where he underwent brain surgery. Afterward, the doctors explained to the family that the damage to his brain was irreversible and that they would have to take him home as he was, with no hope of recovery. Muhammad spent another five and a half months at East Jerusalem's Al'Muqasid Hospital before being returned to his home in the Askar camp, six months after he went out to have some coffee with the neighbors.

Three or four times a day, members of his family dripped food that his mother had pureed for him in a food-processor into his mouth, or else fed directly into his stomach by means of a tube threaded through his nose. They bathed him once or twice a week.

Muhammad never regained consciousness. He did not move, did not react, did not control his bowels, and did not utter a sound, apart from a few grunts. His eyes gazed opaquely at his surroundings.

As often happens in such cases, family members thought they noticed some signs of consciousness - a weak squeeze of the hand, a nod of the head at the sound of his name. And once it seemed to them as if he were struggling unsuccessfully to say something. But the fact is that his brain died once and for all that May night. And he lay there ever since, for nine years and three months, in his family's poor but well-tended home.

Two weeks ago, he began vomiting and his temperature rose. They took him to the Al'Watani Hospital in town. Last Monday at 11 P.M., as his brother, Hisham, was sitting by his bedside, the nurse came in to check Muhammad's temperature.

"Are you his brother?" she asked Hisham. "Your brother is dead."

New pink-and-gray paving stones, installed by the Palestinian Authority, now cover the sidewalks of Askar's main road. Here, where Muhammad sat on the roof, two more stories have been added to the house. Two more stories have also been added to what was once his house. The family has, meanwhile, moved to another house nearby. And here is the mosque renovated with the stones that Muhammad was ordered to clear. It has a new name: the Mus'ab ibn 'Umayir Mosque.

The street is crowded with people, including children who weren't yet born when the last martyr was taken from the camp. One boy takes a flyer out of his pocket and unfolds it: "The Fatah movement regrets to announce the death of hero and victim Muhammad Sa'ad, after 10 years of suffering and great perseverance."

Not far from here is the spot where Muhammad was dumped. Here, too, there is a new sidewalk. Also, an old sorghum field and a new checkpoint - manned by the Palestinian Authority. So much has changed since then. Elon Moreh looms even larger from the mountain. The doctor's shingle has rusted.

And at the doorway of the store that once belonged to Muhammad, his friend, Sami Al-Ahwal, the brother of Imad who was detained together with Muhammad that day, says, "Do we need to know how that soldier has slept at night?

 

 
 

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