`I'm Sorry For Your Loss,'
The Officer Said

Gideon Levy

"I told the soldier - You killed my children and I am a farmer. He told me to be quiet”.


HA'ARETZ

17 May 2002

Mohammed Abu Samra Zakarna with his surviving children. 
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)

 

   For nearly three hours two Sundays ago, farmer Mohammed Abu Samra Zakarna sat in the vineyard he works, the bodies of his wife and daughter stretched out before him. For part of that time, his young son lay crying and dying next to them. Mohammed's hands were tied behind his back, and his pants had been taken away at the order of the soldiers who had just killed his family. It happened in the vineyard belonging to Khalid Ibrahim, which Zakarna works as a tenant farmer, at the side of the Jenin bypass road, in the early morning hours, when the soldiers thought that their tank had hit a roadside bomb. Only there was no bomb, and the soldiers shot and shelled the Zakarna family, the parents and their two children, who were picking grape leaves. 

A week later, on this past Sunday, the bereaved father and widower sat in his one-room apartment in the extended family's home in the town of Qabatiyah, holding his two remaining children in his arms. Seven-year-old Yasmin, the eldest, keeps crying. She knows that her mother, sister and brother were killed, but she has no idea how this happened. The IDF tried to save Basel, but when their efforts failed, the body was returned to the hospital in Jenin. 

When he went to the hospital to claim the bodies of his wife and daughter, he also found the body of his son, who had been taken away by an Israeli ambulance a few hours earlier. 

When he saw Basel's body, he fainted. 

This week, he went to the graves of his wife and children for the first time. During the funerals, he was in too much shock to leave the house, and for several days later, he couldn't bring himself to visit their graves. An eyewitness and survivor of the killing, along with an aunt named Hilwa who worked with them in the vineyard, he now flatly tells the story of that bloody day in which he lost half his family. He isn't crying or angry or thirsty for vengeance; he only hopes that his loved ones will be the last victims, for both peoples. 

Every morning, they would get up at 5:20, eat a little breakfast and then go out at six to Khalid Ibrahim's field. The owner of the land gave them a ride to the field, about four kilometers from Qabatiyah, in Kafr Zebabdeh, south of Jenin. Every day, they took two of their children along and left two at home with their grandmother Fairuz, Mohammed's mother. It was too hard for the grandmother to watch four children at once, so they took two of the children to the field with them. Now the only two left are Yasmin, 7, and Hilmi, 18 months, named for his uncle - his mother's brother - who was killed in Jenin during the first intifada. 

Two Sundays ago, it was Basel and `Abir's turn to go to work with their parents. Yasmin, who doesn't go to school yet, and little Hilmi stayed behind with their grandmother. A third of the money from the crops is supposed to go to Mohammed and Fatima, the tenant farmers, but lately there have been no crops and no money, because of the closure. But even in a good month, they brought home no more than NIS 1,200, after working from six in the morning until four in the afternoon in someone else's field, and living six people to one room. 

That Sunday, they were going to pick vine leaves in the vineyard, as it is the season for this. Hilwa, 48, came to help. At 6:30 A.M., they reached the vineyard, sat down among the vines and began picking. `Abir and Basel played nearby. Tanks passed by on the road across the way, a familiar sight in the past months. 

Around 10 in the morning, before they had taken their mid-morning break to eat some pita with olive oil, Mohammed heard the noise of a tank moving fast. They all sat down around one vine to pick the leaves. Mohammed didn't even glance at the tank, but then he suddenly heard shots, a hail of gunfire and explosions. Before he understood what was happening, he says, he saw 4-year-old `Abir's head become severed and fall to the ground. He relates all this without any noticeable emotion. 

He remembers that he started shouting to his wife and son to lie flat on the ground and then he noticed that Basel was crying. "I saw my son Basel lying on his stomach, face down and crying." Mohammed also lay on the ground, covering his head with his hands as the bullets whizzed past. He tried to call out to his wife, but got no answer. "Daddy, Daddy, save me, save me," the boy shouted. When Mohammed lifted his head for a moment, he saw that Fatima's arms were around the crying boy, but her head was drooping and blood was pouring from her shoulder. They were less than a meter away from him and he saw that his wife was dead, too. 

The relentless gunfire pinned him down and kept him from going to Basel. He thinks that the shooting lasted for five or ten minutes. He thinks that they fired from the tank, which was about 70 or 80 meters away. He is sure that they could see whom they were shooting at, since it was open countryside, the vines were low and they'd been working there near the passing tanks every day. He felt paralyzed and didn't utter a sound. He only heard Hilwa screaming, "May God help us!" 

The gunfire subsided and the soldiers approached on foot. Mohammed doesn't understand Hebrew, but he recalls that the first soldier who arrived and saw the bodies, yelled back to his comrades something like, "Goddammit! Little ones, little ones." Seven soldiers approached, aimed their weapons at Mohammed the survivor and signaled to him to get up. He says he found it hard to move. The soldiers took his hands and handcuffed him behind his back. One soldier removed Mohammed's trousers, leaving him in his underwear. "I told the soldier - You killed my children and I am a farmer. He told me to be quiet and not say another word." 

Meanwhile, another soldier brought a first-aid kit and started to tend to Basel. The boy yelled to his father, "Get them away! Get them away!" After about 15 minutes, the father says, an Israeli Magen David Adom ambulance arrived and took Basel. Mohammed did not ask to go with them. He says he was in shock. The ambulance crew also examined Fatima and `Abir and confirmed their deaths. 

From 10 until almost 1 P.M., Mohammed says he remained there, handcuffed and half-naked. The IDF says that much less time went by. When more soldiers and officers arrived, he was told to make preparations to remove the two bodies from the vineyard. "I don't have a tractor and I have no way to evacuate the bodies," he told them. Mohammed had never been anywhere except Jenin, not even to Nablus. Only once, when he was a child, he remembers that his father took him to Israel. 

Three neighboring farmers who arrived in the meantime were also handcuffed by the soldiers and their wives were instructed to sit down and keep their hands on their heads. An Arabic-speaking officer asked Mohammed if he'd heard the sound of an explosion before the shooting began and Mohammed said no. He hadn't heard any explosion. The officer asked if he saw anyone running away through the vineyard and Mohammed said no. He hadn't seen anyone. Then the officer told him he could put his trousers back on. 

"I'm sorry for your loss," the officer said, as he wiped Mohammed's face (he was still in handcuffs). He tried to calm Mohammed, who was now weeping continuously, and promised to call a Red Crescent ambulance to remove the two bodies. "It was a mistake. We're sorry," the officer said. "They took my son," Mohammed told him and the officer said that he knew. "Why did you do this? Why did you shoot without knowing whom you were shooting at? Look at my daughter and my wife, dead." "It's from God," the officer said. 

At two, the Red Crescent ambulance arrived and collected the two bodies. The handcuffs were removed from Mohammed's wrists and he was given permission to ride in the ambulance. But Mohammed couldn't bring himself to go with the bodies of his wife and daughter, so the owner of the land took him home. When he got home, he told the family that Fatima and `Abir had been killed and that they had to prepare two graves. The same announcement was made over the loudspeaker at the mosque. 

At that moment, Majd Narnaria, Fatima's brother, was working as a gravedigger in the Qabatiyah cemetery, using a power drill to prepare a row of graves. When he heard the announcement over the loudspeaker about the death of Fatima Zakarna, he didn't imagine that it was his little sister. There are 13,000 Palestinians named Zakarna. He hadn't seen his sister in three months, because of the closure. But it wasn't long before he realized that it was his sister and his niece who had died. This week, he sat despondently at the Force 17 offices in Jenin, lamenting the deaths of his sister and niece who were killed now and the death of his brother who was killed in 1989. 

Meanwhile, Mohammed was still praying for Basel's recovery. Neighbors told him that the soldiers opened fire because something went wrong with the tank and they thought it was a bomb. Later in the afternoon, Mohammed went to the public hospital in Jenin to claim the bodies of his wife and daughter. Suddenly, they showed him three bodies. A week after his tragedy, he has no idea what his son went through in his last hours. At the sight of Basel's body, he passed out. 

Mohammed has not heard a word from the IDF. The IDF spokesman announced after the event that "A large bomb was activated against an IDF tank near Camp Bezek. One soldier was lightly injured and taken to the hospital. The soldiers identified several figures escaping through the nearby grove. The tank crew and the soldiers on the armored personnel carrier that was traveling next to it opened fire with light weapons. As a result, a Palestinian woman and two of her children were killed." As usual, the spokesman was quick to add that the soldiers opened fire "in accordance with drills and procedures" and that "the IDF regrets all harming of innocents." 

By the next day, there was talk of "serious findings" in the investigation of the incident. Apparently, no bomb had been set off. One of the tank's treads had slipped while the tank was in motion, and the noise produced "the effect of an explosion." But the drill that the soldiers followed in acting against the "suspicious points" was developed during Operation Defensive Shield; a military official gives his assurance that it is effective. The defense minister also expressed his regret. 

This week, in response to Zakarna's relation of events, the IDF spokesman added the following: "During a patrol that was carried out by a tank and an armored personnel carrier on Sunday, May 5, 2002, the sound of an explosion was heard in the tank due to the detachment of a tread. This caused those in the tank to think that a bomb had been detonated. In accordance with the drill [for such situations], the soldiers opened fire in the direction of suspicious figures. At this point, the force began foot searches of the area. 

"In the course of the searches, the soldiers found a Palestinian man. They approached him, moved him aside, tied his hands and asked him to remove his clothes in order to ascertain that he was not booby-trapped and that he was not associated with the detonating of the explosive. The force continued with the searches and, at this point, close to the scene of the event, they found two dead Palestinians and a wounded Palestinian boy. The commander of the force realized that they were not involved in placing the explosive device and that they were killed by mistake, and also that the man who was arrested minutes earlier also had no connection to the setting of the bomb. The soldiers untied the Palestinian man and allowed him to get dressed. A military physician arrived quickly. He pronounced the boy dead and transferred his body to the Red Crescent ambulance." 

The hospital reports in Jenin say simply that Fatima was struck by a shell in the left shoulder, Basel was struck in the chest and shoulder and `Abir received a grave head injury. Sitting on the floor at home in Qabatiyah, Mohammed has no pictures of `Abir and Basel, except from the photos of their deaths.
 

 

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E-mail:
levy@haaretz.co.il
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