Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


The birth of hatred

September 28, 2001

For nine years, Rafaat Ahmidan transported workers from the Beit Or village to his company's road construction sites. He was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers on a Thursday, two weeks ago. Now his bereaved mother, who grew up with Jews, says she's waiting for a new Hitler to rise up and annihilate the Jews; and his brothers, who work for Tnuva and Strauss, say they're liable to strike any Israeli who crosses their path. A case of mistaken judgment, says the IDF spokesman 

What can you say to a newly bereaved mother, when she explains that she always opposed terror strikes and yearned for peace, but now that soldiers have slain her oldest son, she wants Israelis to die horrible, tortured deaths? What can you say to a grandmother who recalls a home in the Jerusalem area Lifta village, still standing today and occupied by Jews, who lost a son-in-law and now bitterly grieves what happened to her grandson? What can you say to brothers who still mourn a father who died in unclear circumstances, in the house of a Jew who didn't pay him his money, and who now mourn the death of an older sibling who raised them for many years? What can you say to a young widow who wonders why it is that Palestinian gunfire against Israelis is called terror, whereas shots fired by Israel Defense Forces which killed her husband are described as a case of "mistaken judgment?" What do you say to brothers who worked for years in Israel but are now being dismissed from their jobs, one after the other, due to the fear that they will try to avenge their sibling's death? 

And what about the trigger-happy IDF soldiers who, with such heedless ease, killed Rafaat Ahmidan, a man of typical Israeli tastes and habits who read Yedioth Ahronoth and put milk in his instant coffee, and who worked with Jews for years paving roads around the country? What are the soldiers supposed to say? Do they care that Rafaat was killed for no reason, and that more seeds of alarming hatred have been sown in his home? 

All told, what can be said to a bereaved family whose house was taken in 1948, and which has lived in a refugee camp since then - a family whose father died in such an uncertain, unsettling manner, whose eldest son has now been killed, a family intimately connected with Israeli life whose members earned their daily bread in the country, a family now overcome by scorn and loathing, and by yearning for revenge? 

Mourners gathered this week around a picture of the deceased man (which was pasted on a refrigerator), sitting in a soggy warehouse, across from the dismal road which runs through the Shuafat refugee camp. Answers to the series of poignant questions they posed were lacking. 

Rafaat Ahmidan's death has no plausible excuse or explanation. He was one of the final Palestinian victims to be killed during the first year of the Al Aqsa Intifada, a year which ends this week. Nobody in the Israeli establishment is going to grapple seriously with Ahmidan's death. It was just "an error in judgment," as the IDF spokesman rapidly termed it - which is an official euphemism for "to hell with it." Somebody made a mistake. Mistakes happen. A newcomer visiting the Shuafat camp would be likely to think that he is lost in the crowded hub of a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, not a mere 10 minutes away from shopping and leisure areas in Israel's united capital city, Jerusalem. The camp's narrow alleys burst with masses of inhabitants and automobiles; trash and dirt sweep over the skeleton frames of unfinished homes. 

Their faces cast in mourning sorrow and bearded by black wrath, the brothers sit in the converted storage room. Their mother and grandmother join them in the mourning area, also bristling with newly provoked anger and hatred. All of them - grandmother, mother and sons - speak excellent Hebrew. On the weekends, they would read Yedioth Ahronoth's 7 Days supplement - the last edition they read is lying on the floor, a memorial to a discarded Israeli lifestyle. 

The family patriarch, Mohammed, was a building contractor who died nine years ago in a home he built at Moshav Ora, whose owners withheld payment due to Mohammed for a year, his relatives claim. As his sons tell it, his death is beclouded by suspicion and mystery. Israeli police say the death was induced by a heart attack; hinting strongly of foul play, the sons say it may not have been a natural death. The scars left behind by Mohammed's death never healed; the family's suspicions were never dispelled. 

After his father's death, Rafaat, then 16, was forced to leave school and go off to work. An uncle found him a job with the Bar'ed road construction company; it turned out to be the first, and last, place of work of Ahmidan's short life. He started as an apprentice mechanic, helping to repair bulldozers and other kinds of heavy equipment at the company's road construction sites. Climbing up the ladder, Ahmidan became a full-fledged mechanic, and also a driver who had the keys to a company pick-up truck. The company's owners had him pick up laborers from the territories at the start of the day, before he got to work to repair road equipment; at the end of the day, Ahmidan brought the workers back to their homes on the other side of the Green Line. He was the one who had to take risks, darting on dangerous roads, passing through intimidating checkpoints. That was his routine: he transported workers, fixed machines and built roads. In return, Ahmidan took home NIS 4,500 a month. 

Ahmidan family members speak about Rafaat's industrious character, recalling how after a hard day's work, he would fall asleep on a sofa in his work clothes until I'man, his wife, would bring dinner. The work day, they say, would start at 5:30 A.M. and end at 8 P.M. 

"He was never totally content" at work, the mother, Fari'el, interjects. "He was never really happy. They treated him well enough, but he would work 14 or 15 hours a day. He got married; they gave him a week off, and he returned to work. They never let him go home from work early. They had him transport equipment from far-off places. They even called him to work on Saturdays ... He was never really content. More than once he told them `enough,' that he didn't want to transport workers, and they replied, `go, bring them.'" 

Beit Or is on the deadly Modi'in-Jerusalem road, Route 443. Access to the village is blocked-off by piles of dirt and boulders. According to the brothers, the IDF lifts the blockade for an hour each day, to allow schoolchildren from the village to travel to school. Rafaat would pass through the barricade - sometimes he would remove the rocks with his own hands and go through. 

Fari'el: "Two days before he was killed, he was here, in my house, and he spoke with one of his bosses on the phone. The boss told Rafaat that they had phoned from the company and given [the IDF] details about his vehicle, so that they would let him through, into the village. The [employer told Ahmidan that] police say he'll be allowed into the village, and nothing will happen to him. `I'm afraid to enter,' he told them; they said that he had no reason to be frightened, that nothing would happen to him. And look at what they did to him. How is it going to help me if you come, and every other Israeli comes here to visit - how will that help? He was a father, and a brother ... What can we say now? You tell me." 

Ahmidan's three brothers all worked in the heart of Israel - Asraf for Tnuva, Ala at a carpentry shop in Jerusalem, Louie for Strauss. Two days after Rafaat's death, Strauss phoned and told Louie not to turn up for work. Ala, who is learning the carpentry trade, received a similar call from his employers. For the time being, at least, Asraf is the exception - he doesn't know what Tnuva has in store for him. 

Asraf Ahmidan: "It always happens that when somebody's brother dies, the company gets scared." Nobody from the Bar'ed road construction company has come or phoned to console the Ahmidan family. For the company, it was enough to take out an announcement in the obituary section of the Arabic daily Al Quds. 

The bereaved mother: "Do you think that you've done yourself any good by doing something like this? Do you think you'll be better off? My heart died with my son. His wife and myself would cast off and kill everyone in Israel. For 11 years, he played the role of father to his siblings. I'll bring you his wife. Now she's a 20-year-old widow. Did he do Israel any harm? He worked like a mule, and they kill him?! What sort of world is this, tell me? Do you think it's good? It's no good, no good. You'll never get any good from this. Even if you bring two sons into the world; with us, each wife begets 10. You kill one, and we will bring another 10. I've been a widow for 11 years; my husband also died in your [society]. He worked for a whole year and the Jew told him `I'm going to pay you, I'm going to pay you,' and in the end he died in the man's house." 

On September 13, Rafaat woke up at 5 A.M., the usual time, prayed, and drank his coffee with milk. I'man remembers that he didn't have time to finish his coffee; he didn't want to be late for work. He traveled west in his pick-up truck, on Route 443. The early morning mist hadn't dissipated when he reached the Beit Or checkpoint. Five Bar'ed employees waited for him in the village, expecting Ahmidan to transport them to the company's construction sites along new Jerusalem roads. He conveyed workers from the village for nine years; on a few, rare occasions he was unable to enter Beit Or. According to witness accounts compiled by Rafaat's brothers, the shooting started immediately after he went by the deserted checkpoint. Soldiers were apparently positioned on a bridge, above the road; or perhaps they hid behind trees, seeing and not being seen, shooting and not being seen. 

The sin of crossing an abandoned blockade, the soldiers must have reasoned, is punishable by death. There's nothing easier today than executing such punishment. What are the authorities going to do to a soldier who decides to open fire, and kills for no good reason? Ahmidan's pick-up had yellow, Israeli license plates. Just like yours and mine. But the soldiers opened fire, and didn't stop. It could have been you or me inside the targeted vehicle. They kept shooting, mercilessly. The brothers reports that 30 bullet shell-casings were found at the site. Maybe the number is a little high. 

But consider the photograph of the vehicle - there's a bullet hole in the steering wheel, another one in the driver's seat; several bullets penetrated the front of the pick-up, and some hit the back. Only Rafaat's lunch cooler in the back seat seems to have come away unscathed - the pita and hummus, with yellow cheese and cucumbers, along with grapes and an apple, which his mother would pack for him each day, escaped the barrage of IDF bullets. 

Wounded, Ahmidan apparently managed to keep driving. First he tried to take cover from the bullets by stopping under the bridge, but bullets kept raining down on him there. Somehow, he inched ahead several more meters, heading toward the first houses of the neighboring village, Harbata. Bullets ripped into his head, chest and a leg; his body was soaked by blood. 

Asraf provides a vivid, grueling account of his brother's intense will to live, and his final struggle. The brothers charge that soldiers, and later Israeli police, who gathered around the battered vehicle stopped village residents from approaching, and providing medical assistance. Morning chants from the Koran were still being broadcast on the destroyed vehicle's radio. 

Local villagers told police that the wounded man was an Israeli, a citizen with a blue (Israeli) identity card, and not the identity document belonging to a resident from the territories. The soldiers, or the police, replied, "why didn't you say this earlier," the brothers report. 

Finally, the authorities allowed one resident to come up to the vehicle - he took Rafaat out of the car, and the mortally wounded man handed the villager his cell phone, apparently asking that his loved ones be informed of his impending death. Rafaat picked himself up, took a few steps, tried to say something, and collapsed. Choking on his tears, Asraf says: "Such a tragedy only causes damage. A brother is killed this way. Now, when I meet an Israeli - I might not hate him, but if an argument comes up, what's going to happen to him? You tell me. You're only causing damage. A good [Israeli, Jewish] man, a bad man - he'll be shot. Why shouldn't he be shot after a brother has died in this fashion?" 

Fari'el exclaims: "What the Jews need is a man like Hitler to exterminate you in ovens. Go write in your newspaper that Rafaat's mother says that Israel needs someone like Hitler. Not even an oven - you should be destroyed, cut into pieces. When someone is put into an oven, you can't see that he's dead. Whoever is cut up is seen. You start with the legs - cut up in pieces, into pieces. Write it down. Put it in the newspaper. Write that the mother says this. I enter Israel, I buy things there, I've never spoken this way," the mother continues. "I always said that Jews and Arabs shouldn't [hate] one another. People on both sides have mothers. When I see people being killed on the streets, I ask myself `for what reason?' But now? When my son has been killed like this." 

The slain man, Rafaat, gazes out from the refrigerator. It's a photograph of a pleasant-looking man in a suit and tie, taken a year ago. Asraf: "You tell me, a man goes to work in the morning. He isn't carrying a stone. He doesn't even have a kitchen knife to cut his tomato and cucumber. Why do you shoot him? Had there been somebody at the checkpoint who told him to stop, and had he refused to stop, it would have been different. If he had explosives in the car, it would have been different. But they hid behind a tree and opened fire. Whey did they shoot him? You tell me. What did he do to deserve 30 bullets? Under [rules of engagement] laws, when a man refuses to stop at a checkpoint, soldiers aim at the legs, not at the heart. Not at the head. So you tell me, what did he do that made them shoot at the head, the heart and the legs?"

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levy@haaretz.co.il

 

 

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