Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


Sami Kosba's 40 days

February 8, 2002

Yasser was killed first; soldiers shot him at close range during a stone-throwing incident at the Qalandiyah checkpoint. Forty days later, Samer was killed. He, too, was shot in the head. Yasser was 11; Samer was 15. They were brothers.

"Shooting an unarmed youth is totally illegal. I am very disturbed by the number of children who were killed over the last year and a half. Was each one of these incidents a case where there was no choice and we had to shoot to kill? This is a question that should disturb all of us." 

Former Shin Bet chief Major General (res.) Ami Ayalon in an interview on Channel One's "Yoman" program, February 1, 2002. 

Sami Kosba is a broken man. As he relates the details of his tragedy, he stares at the floor, and his voice is barely audible. The expression on his unshaven face is one of great sorrow. His devastation is obvious in everything, from his trudging gait to his weary speech. He lost two sons in the space of 40 days. Two boys who threw stones at soldiers and were shot to death. The soldiers shot both in the head, at close range, with rubber-coated bullets, against all orders about when to open fire. 

These orders prohibit the firing of rubber bullets at children from close range, and prohibit lethal fire at anyone who is not endangering soldiers' lives. It's impossible to believe that Yasser and Samer endangered the soldiers' lives. It's also hard to accept the terrible killing of the two brothers in light of the fact that, as far as is known, Samer hurled the rock at a tank and, according to witnesses, little Yasser was shot in the head after he'd already fallen to the ground while fleeing the soldiers. 

Each brother in turn lay dying for about a week, at the same hospital in Ramallah. Exactly 40 days - the Muslim period of mourning - separated Yasser's death from that of his brother Samer. 

Two brothers, children of refugees who grew up in one of the bleakest refugee camps, shot to death for the crime of throwing stones. Did anyone order the soldiers to shoot at these children's heads, or did the soldiers act on their own initiative? Does it make any difference? Can such incidents still be called anomalous? Or has this become the norm - shooting to kill at stone-throwers, be they children or adults? And this is another thing that we don't consider a war crime? And does anyone in the IDF care that its soldiers are behaving this way? No investigation of either of these killings was launched - as if to say that all is well and proper about the horrifying killings of these two children. And who really cares about the lives and deaths of Yasser and Samer Kosba, two children born without a chance and killed for no reason? 

Sami Kosba lost his first son at the Qalandiyah checkpoint. The mounds of garbage, dung heaps and endless lines of cars backed up here provided the setting for the first of the two atrocities. We sat there this week. Kosba is the son of refugees from the nearby Qalandiyah camp. In 1948, his family fled from the village of Rafiliyah; the city of Maccabim is now built on its ruins. He is 41 and owns a snack stand at the refugee camp's elementary school, where he sells felafel for half a shekel and candy for less. 

He and his wife Fatma had five sons and a daughter. Taher, the eldest, is 18. Mohammed, the youngest, is three. Until 1990, Sami was in and out of Israeli jails - He was a Fatah activist who threw stones at the Israeli occupiers during the first intifada and was imprisoned, with and without trial, again and again. 

Two months ago, on Saturday, the eighth of December, the Kosba family got up and ate breakfast and went out to do some shopping for the upcoming Id al-Fitr holiday. Fatma took little Mohammed to Ramallah to buy clothes for the children. Sami wanted to go to the nearby A-Ram neighborhood, so he could find a new holiday outfit in the store where he always bought his clothes. Taher, Samer, Yasser and Asil went to school. The soldier at the checkpoint threw a wrench into the plans: He would not allow Sami to go through. But Sami found an indirect way around the checkpoint. He spent NIS 290 on a gray shirt, blue pants and black shoes for the holiday, then turned around to head home, by way of the checkpoint. The soldiers usually let people back in. They just don't let them out. 

Three soldiers and an officer were standing at the edge of the checkpoint, right by the refugee camp, next to a billboard advertising Mirage satellite dishes. Opposite them, on the hill, next to the broken fence of the Jerusalem international airport, a crowd of children from the refugee camp were throwing stones at them. It was around 1 P.M.; the kids were dressed in their school clothes with their knapsacks on their backs, fighting the occupation. They were 11 to 14 years old, at most. 

Sami says he went up to the officer and said to him, "Come on. These are little kids. If you stay back, they won't do anything to you. Why are you running after them?" The officer suggested that Sami go up to the children on the hill and try to persuade them to disperse. Sami left the bag with his new clothes in it with an acquaintance in a nearby store and, with two other men from the refugee camp, walked over to where the children were. But then, other soldiers suddenly started shooting from the direction of the airport (several concrete blocks next to the broken fence there occasionally serve as a shooting position for the IDF). 

The soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas. They were about 20 meters away from the group of young stone-throwers. Sami fled as fast as he could. As he tells the story, his voice is drowned out by the blaring horns of the long line of cars stuck at the checkpoint behind us. From time to time, we hear the wail of an ambulance, which is also having no luck forging a path through the awful traffic jam. Sami returned home; the children continued to throw stones and the soldiers continued to shoot. 

He breathed a sigh of relief when he got home. Yasser was playing Atari with little Mohammad, Samer had gone to buy bread. All was peaceful. In the afternoon, Sami went to Ramallah to buy provisions for the holiday meal. Fatma had meanwhile returned with the new clothes she had bought for the children. Yasser wanted to try on his new jeans and shirt. He tried them on and then took them off, wanting to save them for the holiday. His dream was to go to Ramallah on the holiday and play bumper cars. At age 11, he was already used to going to the big city on his own. His father also sent him to Jerusalem sometimes to get lottery tickets when the closure was so tight that only children were allowed through. 

But that afternoon, Yasser said that he wanted to go to the market. His mother tried to dissuade him, but to no avail; his father was in Ramallah. Yasser left the house. Outside, he met an uncle who also tried to persuade him not to wander too far from the house while there was shooting and stone-throwing going on on the main road. Yasser promised his uncle that he was just going to buy a special holiday sweet and then come right back. At 4:15 P.M., the uncle called Sami and told him to hurry back because there were problems on the road and Yasser wasn't home yet. 

By the time Sami got back from the city, people were crowding around the entrance to the refugee camp. Someone told him that Yasser was in the hospital. Panicked, he turned around and hurried back to Ramallah, to the hospital, where the doctor explained that his son had been critically wounded in the head, and was in surgery. The operation continued until 10 P.M. Yasser clung to life for another eight days. 

Witnesses said that Yasser was shot in the head after he tripped while fleeing the soldiers. Sami says that eyewitnesses told him that the soldier shot the boy in the head from very close range. In any event, the distance between the soldiers and the stone-throwers was no more than 20 or 30 meters. On December 16, on the holiday of Id al-Fitr, they buried Yasser in the refugee camp cemetery. They set up a mourners' tent. An aunt from Jordan came. Yasser's grandparents were unable to come because the bridge was closed due to the holiday. 

     Another bullet 

After seven days, Sami returned to work. When the semester break started a few days later, Sami went to Jordan to visit a dying uncle. In Amman, the bereaved father worked on a memorial booklet of Koranic verses in honor of his dead son. He made 700 copies; he gave out 200 copies to relatives on the East Bank of the Jordan and planned to bring the other 500 home with him, to give out in the refugee camp. He was supposed to return home on Saturday, January 19. But then his uncle's condition deteriorated and he was forced to postpone his departure by one day. At 6:30 in the evening, the telephone rang. 

Sami lost his second son across from the tanks that encircle Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. When he answered the phone in Amman, a relative asked Sami when he planned to return and Sami told him he'd be back the next day, Sunday. The bridge was already closed at that hour; they closed it early on Saturdays. Then the phone rang again. This time, Sami was told that Samer was in the hospital in Ramallah with a bullet in his head. Samer? Another bullet? Again in the head? The next day, in the same room in which Yasser had died, Sami saw Samer, his 15-year-old son. He was unconscious, like Yasser had been, and his bandaged head was still bloody. The bullet penetrated about 15 centimeters and did not exit. His chances of survival were remote. 

Samer died on Friday, January 25. Sami had gone home to rest at four that afternoon. At five, his 16-year-old son Tamer came in and gave him the news. Fatma and Sami couldn't bring themselves to return to the hospital to collect their son's body until the next day. Samer was buried next to his brother Yasser. 

On Saturday, January 19, Samer had gone out to one of the demonstrations in support of Arafat, who was besieged in Ramallah. The young people threw stones at the soldiers manning the tanks outside Arafat's office. According to eyewitnesses, like his brother, Samer was also shot in the head from a distance of about 20 meters. That morning, Samer had helped his mother clean the house, and he wanted to go out in the afternoon. His mother says she asked Samer not to go anywhere until his father returned from Amman. 

"I'm afraid for you," she told him. "I'm going to a friend," he replied. "Invite him over here," she said. "Okay, I'll go get him," he told his frightened mother as he left - just six weeks after she said goodbye to Yasser, who said he was just going to the market. 

The hours passed, and Samer didn't come back. On the main road, they were throwing stones again. Fatma sent her nephews to check to see whether Samer was there. They came back and reassured her that they hadn't seen him. At 4 P.M., the uncle arrived - the same man who was the last one to see Yasser - and asked where Samer was. "At a friend's house," Fatma answered. "For a while?" the uncle asked. "Has something happened?" Fatma asked anxiously. And then the uncle told her that he had heard on the Kol Israel news in Arabic that Samer had been seriously injured. 

That evening, the doctor told Fatma, "Samer will go like his brother. He only has a few days." Forty days after Yasser's death, Samer died, too. 

A group of kids stands on the dirt mound across from the checkpoint. The angry blasts of the car horns split the air, but the traffic doesn't budge. Fourteen-year-old Yusef Abdel Rahman, his hair slicked back with gel, shows off his scars: one on his head, one on his knee and one on his shoulder. Three rubber bullets in one boy's body. His friend Abed, 19, was hospitalized for two months in Iran to recover from his injuries. And Mustafa, 14, tells how he was once pushed from the first floor of a house by a soldier. His hand has been twisted ever since. 

Sami: "I want to say something that speaks to the Jews' mothers. I want to say that the little boy does not have a Kalashnikov or a bomb. I want to say that the bombs they set off in Israel don't help anything, and shooting at our children doesn't help anything either. What did an 11-year-old boy do? What did a 15-year-old boy do?" 

Then we walked up the hill, and Sami silently pointed: This is where Yasser fell and this is where the soldier who shot him stood. 

The IDF Spokesman's Office: "The investigation by Central Command of the incident in which Yasser Kosba was killed showed that during a disturbance on the outskirts of Atarot airport, use was made of crowd dispersal measures against a youth who was recognized as the chief inciter. The soldier who fired the shot saw that the youth was hit, and that he was evacuated, in the direction of the Qalandiyah refugee camp. In the area, there are daily disturbances, and the soldiers at their posts are briefed regarding the use of crowd dispersal measures. In this particular case, the soldier who fired the shot acted according to regulations. 

"The investigation about the incident in which Samer Kosba was shot shows that on that date, there was a large crowd gathered around Arafat's office, and stones were thrown. The force that reached the place responded with crowd dispersal measures, but did not identify any casualties. No complaints have reached the communication and coordination office. We would stress that IDF soldiers are briefed by their commanders to act with maximum restraint in order not the hurt the innocent."

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