The Last Photograph

Gideon Levy

The bullet tore the main artery in his thigh and his blood ran out.


HA'ARETZ

26 July 2002

Imad Abu Zahra after he was shot: Died the same night.
(Photo: Rafik Dahla)

 

   This is the before-death image of the photojournalist Imad Abu Zahra, who was killed two weeks ago in Jenin. The desperate bending on the ground; the hands on the leg, trying to staunch the blood; the eyes reflecting terror and helplessness; the sweat pouring down his face; the glasses lying uselessly on the chest; the jeans and the polo jersey; and, of course, the blood. The large amount of blood that was shed. 

The place: The entrance to what was once, in another time, the branch of Bank Leumi in the center of Jenin. This is where the dying photographer found temporary refuge from the shooting, until the soldiers stopped firing and allowed him to be pulled out. According to the IDF Spokesman, the soldiers were responding to shots fired at them. Shortly after Abu Zahra's colleague, Rafik Dahla - the brother of Said, who was working with Abu Zahra when they were shot - took the photograph, Abu Zahra died from loss of blood. As far as is known, he lay bleeding for half an hour, but because the firing continued, it was impossible to evacuate him. He was finally taken out in a private car, but by then it was too late. The bullet tore the main artery in his thigh and his blood ran out. He was a freelance photographer. A few years ago he wanted to join the Peace Now movement in Israel, establish a Jewish-Arab television station in Jenin and forge peace. He was shot holding his camera. 

The camera disappeared. No one knows for sure where it is or what the last photograph he took was. Said Dahla, who was wounded in the leg, says the two of them split up the work that day in the face of the tanks: Dahla took photos and Abu Zahra followed the movement of the tank's cannon. It turns out that a professional code has developed in these confrontations between tank and photographer: If the cannon is pointed downward, at the ground, that is an order to stop; if it is raised upward, that means get out fast. An upward and downward movement is an order to raise your shirt and advance slowly. The Palestinian Information Ministry published this lexicon, which is intended for journalists and ambulance drivers during this period when tanks are roaming around the cities of the West Bank. 

But the tank cannon did not budge, says Said Dahla. It didn't go up or down. He says the two of them deliberately positioned themselves in the middle of the road, about 40 meters from the tank and the armed personnel carrier, so that the armored soldiers, who see but cannot be seen, could have a clear view of them. Dahla wore a protective vest with the word "Press" emblazoned on it in large letters. He says Abu Zahra was also wearing a photographer's vest with the word "Press" on it. 

Abu Zahra did not lift his gaze from the APC while Dahla took photographs. The APC smashed into an electricity pole, even though the street is far wider than the steel machine. According to the IDF Spokesman the crash was accidental, the result of a pursuit. Then, the firing started. Dahla says the soldiers shot for no reason; the IDF Spokesman says the shooting came in response to the throwing of stones and other objects and later on to a shooting in the direction of the soldiers. 

Dahla has the photograph in his computer, showing the pole bending as the APC rams into it. Also in the computer is the last photograph taken of his friend Abu Zahra, as he lay bleeding. This photo was shot by Rafik, Said's younger brother, who came to the aid of the wounded men and took the photos. 

There is also a video: Abu Zahra emerges from the building where he took refuge after being shot, descends the steps of the Bank Leumi branch slowly, walks into the street and collapses, gets up, takes a step and falls down. These are the images of his last remaining strength; the blood flows relentlessly red across the sidewalk in his wake. He will somehow manage to get into the Transit that has arrived to rescue him, but there his face will begin to turn the sallow color of death. By the time he reaches the hospital, he is almost unconscious. By the time he is given six portions of blood and placed on the operating table, his soul has almost left his body. "If they had even a little humanity, they would have evacuated him to Afula," says the bereaved father. "They know the hospital in Jenin is not a real hospital, that its standard is of a clinic in a remote village. Every army needs customs, rules, a little humanity. At least to let him be evacuated and not prevent the rescue of someone who did not endanger them in any way." Abu Zahra died at midnight. 

A reader of Ha'aretz, Dr. Hanna Amit-Kochavi, a translator, noted in a letter to the editor this week (in the Hebrew edition) that Abu Zahra's dream was to study Arabic-Hebrew translation at Beit Berl College in Israel. "Every few months he would phone to ask whether I had been able to get him a scholarship," Amit-Kochavi wrote. "He was skilled enough to meet the admission terms, but the tuition fees in Israel were too high, far beyond his means. I felt that for him I was a bridge to the hope of a different life, one in which he would be able to realize himself and exhaust his full potential. But now he is dead." 

Curfew was imposed again on Sunday in Jenin. Nevertheless, a few people could be seen outside occasionally and even some cars, whose drivers dared to move around until the advent of the tanks, and then they fled in panic. Like human shadows, the few individuals wandered around the dusty, wrecked streets in the July heat, looking as though they had nothing more to lose, so why not go outside during curfew and risk their lives? A handful of children, a mentally disturbed youngster, a pregnant woman laboring to climb the steep street. A few fruits and vegetables, covered with blankets, are for sale in the stalls of the deserted market. Melons that have grown mushy, eggplants that have dried out, piles of rotten tomatoes. The devastation of the city is even more pronounced when its residents become prisoners in their homes. 

"Liquidation, occupation, terror - nothing will stop us," someone has scrawled with a marker pen on a poster that hangs on a tree at the entrance to a handsome house in the city's eastern neighborhood - the home of Imad Abu Zahra. This was the center of the struggle in the first intifada; now the refugee camp is in the forefront. There are no posters of political organizations on the house, only of the Palestinian Journalists Association. "This is our fate and this is the fate of the entire Palestinian people, and we must cope with that fate," says the bereaved father, Subhi. "At this time, everyone in the Palestinian people - child, adult, woman, the aged - the same fate that befell Imad is liable to await them all." He is a retired English teacher who became a car insurance salesman for an Egyptian company, and he insured the cars of Jenin, which are now immobile or reduced to mangled heaps of metal. The neighbor's car, which was totally crushed by a tank, lies in front of the house. "No, the policy doesn't cover that," the insurance agent explains with a smile. "We know what we want and our neighbors know what we want. But they themselves do not know what they want." 

Imad was his first-born. Not long ago he hosted a group of foreign journalists in the house and the father noticed that one of them, a woman, was sitting alone, apart from the others. She was a Jew from the United States. "She was hesitant and afraid and I reassured her: `You are in the home of a Palestinian and you are safe.' Subhi proudly shows photocopies of his late son's press cards, issued by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel's Government Press Office. The validity of the GPO card expired at the end of 1996; the Palestinian card is still valid. There is also a letter from 1998, admitting Imad to Leicester University in England to study for a second degree in mass communications - another dream that was not fulfilled. And a certificate of participation in a course on "Art as Language," given at the Arab-Jewish community of Neveh Shalom, in Israel, in 1997. And a business card: Abu Zahra, journalism, advertising, media. 

He compiled a clear resume: Born, July 1967. Current address: Jaffa, Jerusalem, Ramallah. Permanent address: Jenin. E-mail address, four languages, including Hebrew at a "very good" level. Areas of interest: activity for democracy, peace and nonviolence, women's status, special activity in the organization Women, Work and Society, ability to think creatively, interpersonal skills, good photographer, excellent writing ability. N.B., Able to move freely in all the Israeli territories. How ironic that this is what he wrote in his CV a year ago. In a whisper, his father admits that one chapter in his son's life is missing from his resume: work in the kitchen of a Tel Aviv restaurant. "It was to pay for his studies," the father says almost apologetically. He himself was born in Haifa to a father who worked in an ice-making factory, and he grew up as a refugee. 

A local paper that Imad and a friend of his published was shut down by order of the Palestinian Authority, which didn't like its critical spirit. The well-designed journal was called "Jenin" and had a circulation of 5,000. Here is an editorial written by Imad, entitled "Yes, Jenin" ("the city that made sacrifices and did much for the homeland but remains remote from the center of things"), and an article written by his father about the problems faced by pensioners in the city. Six issues appeared before the paper was shut down. The editor, Tahar Zbeida, was killed in the Israel Defense Forces' operation in the Jenin refugee camp three months ago. Abu Zahra's father urges, "Don't connect them. One was killed wearing an explosive belt and one holding a camera: Imad did not believe in violence." (Zbeida was in fact armed when he was killed, but he was not wearing an explosive belt.) 

Here is the family album: Imad the infant, his parents smartly dressed in the suits and holiday garb of another era, just like our parents in our childhood photos. Imad riding a tricycle, Imad talking on the telephone. And a later photograph, taken against the background of a fictitious sea in a Jenin photography studio. 

He took his camera everywhere. The first photographs of the destruction of the refugee camp were his. He worked as a journalist and freelance photographer and offered his work to the world. The Jerusalem Post, Al-Sinara and Kull al-Arab, bought his photos occasionally. Two weeks ago Thursday, he ventured out with his camera again. 

He got up about 9 A.M. and went to his office in the city. There was no curfew that day. The tanks entered around noon and rumbled their way to the city center. Just then his friend Said Dahla, who works for Wafa (the Palestine News Agency) and for Reuters, was photographing a group of people who had been detained by the army and made to sit down on the road at the southern entrance of the city, in the direction of Nablus. As usual, Dahla called Abu Zahra to join him, but Abu Zahra's mobile phone was off. Dahla went back to the city and heard the noise of the approaching tanks; he met his friend by the city square, across the way from two tanks and the APC. 

According to the bereaved father, there was an electrical short when the APC hit the electricity pole, as a result of which one of the machine guns was jostled from its place. According to the father, a young Palestinian then approached the APC and stole the weapon, and that was why the soldiers opened fire at the photographers. Dahla confirms there was such an incident, but says it happened after they were hit and that nothing happened beforehand that can explain why the soldiers opened fire at them. 

The IDF Spokesman has a different version: "On July 11, an APC entered Jenin following a terrorist alert. During the pursuit the APC accidentally crashed into a pole and became stuck. Palestinians were throwing Molotov cocktails, stones and various other objects at the APC. Shots were then fired in the direction of the APC. The soldiers retaliated with persistent fire toward the source of the shooting and then fired a warning shot in the air. During the exchange of fire the entrance of an ambulance was detained. Once the firing stopped, the ambulance was allowed to enter." 

Either way, the fact that the shooting continued persistently prevented the evacuation of Abu Zahra. 

There is no difference between the father's version and the account given by Dahla about what happened after he and Abu Zahra were wounded: The soldiers fired constantly, preventing any possibility of their rescue. Dahla: "Imad lay on the road. When I ran to pull him out, they fired. I pulled him a meter and ran. Finally I told him to try to move by himself, on his own strength." Imad leaned on his elbow and tried to get out of the line of fire. He crawled about eight meters like that. A 14-year-old boy, who is seen to his left in the photograph, was the only one who wasn't deterred and stayed to help him. During this entire time Imad did not say a word. It took 20 minutes before they reached shelter and another 10 minutes before the car arrived. Imad then said his last words: "Take care of your leg, I will manage to get to the car by myself," he said to Dahla, and moved onto the road. Earlier, Dahla thought Imad was about to choke to death, and the boy removed his vest. 

The video of her son's final hours keeps running on the television. "Enough," the bereaved mother, Hiyam, shouts from the side of the room. She breaks into tears, and Hamudi, another son, who attends the University of Cyprus (Middle Eastern studies), quickly places his head on her shoulder to comfort her. They have another son, who is studying medicine in Karachi. 

The father: "The question that gives me no rest is: Who is responsible for the crime? Who is responsible for this crisis, for the tears of mothers, for the pain of the two nations? Who is responsible?" And his answer: "The leaders of both nations. Both nations should have long ago forced their leaders to put an end to the violence. How long will we go on like this, action-reaction, action-reaction - until when? Until when will this bloody game continue? This sad game. I have to ask the Israeli people that question. We are thirsty for someone who will show us a little sympathy." 

The mother: "What will you say to the world? We are not terrorists. Imad was not someone who put the soldiers in the tank in danger. Why did they kill him? Only because he is a Palestinian? Is it right to kill someone only because he is a Jew? Why did they kill Imad?" Then the tears welled up again. 
 

 

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