The Death of Anas al-Atrash




The Death of Anas al-Atrash by Ben Ehrenreich

December 1st, 2013 reset - +

The funeral procession of Anas al-Atrash: Hebron, November 9, 2013.

Images: Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

 

Hebron, November 20
 

ON THE EVENING of Thursday, November 8, Anas and Ismail al-Atrash closed up their family’s shoe store in the central West Bank city of Jericho. Before leaving for their home in Hebron, about an hour’s drive south, the brothers called their mother. “She asked me to buy tomatoes and lemons and oranges and cucumbers and potatoes,” recalled Ismail, squeezed between his parents in the sitting room of their three-story house in the Hebron neighborhood of Abu Sneineh. Ismail’s hair was neatly gelled, but his cheeks were unshaven, his eyelids heavy. An uncle sat sprawled across an adjacent sofa, fingering a length of wooden prayer beads.

“We got in the car and headed for Hebron,” said Ismail. Every Saturday the two brothers drove to Jericho, worked in the shop all week, and, on Thursday evenings, set out for home again. That night, Ismail drove. Anas was exhausted. “He put his head back, stretched his legs, and went to sleep,” said Ismail. At 11:05 p.m., the brothers’ blue Volkswagen lurched over the first speed bump outside the Israeli military barrier known as the Container checkpoint. Northeast of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and just southwest of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, it was a routine if unpleasant stop on the brothers’ weekly commute — and on any journey between the north or center of the West Bank and the region’s south — one of many humiliating reminders that their land, and much of their lives, were not their own.

From left, Anas al-Atrash's uncle, brother, mother, and father.

When it is not clogged with weekend traffic, the Container checkpoint is a desolate spot: a lonely stretch of asphalt, four dingy tollbooth-like structures painted white and green, a few bored Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles. That night, Ismail immediately noticed that the soldiers seemed agitated. They had stopped the car in front of him and were subjecting its passengers to an extensive search. One of the passengers stood with his hands up, waiting to be frisked. A red dot of light bounced around the al-Atrash’s front seats as a soldier pointed the barrel of his weapon, and its laser-guided sight, at the two brothers. Anas, Ismail said, was still sleeping, his face in the palm of his hand: “He must have woken up confused and not known what was going on.”

As Ismail told the story, his father, unshaven like his son, stared blankly at a point perhaps a foot above the coffee table. He closed his eyes.

Without a word, Ismail continued, Anas opened the door and stepped out of the car. Ismail called his brother’s name. Anas didn’t have a chance to walk away from the vehicle, he said: “By the second time I called him, the soldier had already shot him.”

I asked Ismail if the soldier had said anything to him first.

“No,” he said.

I asked if Anas had anything in his hands.

“No,” he said. “Nothing.”

Ismail’s mother, her face swollen with grief, reached for a tissue.

When he stepped out of the car, Ismail said, three soldiers ran up to him. “One put the barrel of his gun here, one here, one here.” He indicated his head, his back, his hip. “They pushed me down on the ground,” he said, and cuffed his hands behind him. He turned to look for his brother on the other side of the car. “I kept calling his name, ‘Anas, Anas,’ and I saw them dragging him away.” He yelled out, asking his brother if he was okay.

An ambulance arrived. “They put him in the ambulance. I thought maybe he was injured in his leg. I kept calling for him. A soldier came and pressed down on my shoulder with his boot and told me that I’m not allowed to say anything.”

The father sighed. The room went silent except for the clicking of the uncle’s prayer beads. A 12-year-old boy opened the door — Anas and Ismail’s youngest brother, Mohammed. He sat beside his uncle and tucked one foot beneath him. Ismail continued: an agent from the Shabak, Israel’s internal intelligence service, appeared beside him. “Your brother?” he asked. Ismael said yes. The agent left and returned few minutes later. He asked a strange question: “Why is Anas so upset?”

“He’s not upset,” Ismail recalled answering. “He’s in a good mood.” They had been joking around all evening until Anas fell asleep. The Shabak agent asked if he was sure, if Anas hadn’t maybe had a fight with someone, perhaps a friend or a girlfriend, if maybe he was in love with someone who didn’t love him back. Ismail told him no, nothing like that had happened.

Another strange question: “He said, ‘Is he the kind who would carry a knife?’ I said, ‘No, he’s not. We don’t have any problems with anyone or any reason to carry a knife.’”

A third: the agent asked if Anas belonged to any of the Palestinian political factions, to Hamas or Fateh. Again Ismail answered no. The family steered clear of politics he said, “We’re just busy with our work.”

The Shabak agent left him. Two policemen arrived with two men Ismail believed were high-ranking Shabak commanders. They convened behind the ambulance with the others. Eventually one of the two commanders approached Ismail, sitting on the ground beside him. “What happened?” he asked. “Did he have a knife?”

Ismail told him no, that Anas got out of the car and a soldier suddenly shot him. The commander, he said, gave him water to drink and a cigarette to smoke. “Then he went like this,” Ismail said, smacking his forehead with the heel of his palm. Ismail asked the commander how Anas was doing. The commander stood and walked away.

When he came back, he uncuffed Ismail’s hands and re-cuffed them in front of his body. He sat down across from him. “Please,” Ismail said, “Can you just tell me how he is?”

“He’s okay, thank god,” the commander said.

“Thank god,” said Ismail.

“If I told you Anas had a knife,” the commander asked, “What would you say?”

“I would say you’re a liar,” Ismail answered. There’s no knife in the car, he told him. “You can search it — you’ll find tomatoes, lemons, oranges, cucumbers, and potatoes, some clothes, nothing else.”

“He said, ‘You’re sure he didn’t have a knife.’ I said, ‘I’m sure.’”

The commander led him to a spot on the pavement a few meters away. A knife lay on the asphalt. “It wasn’t even the spot where Anas was shot,” Ismail said. “He said, ‘This knife, have you ever seen it?’ I said,  ‘No.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I’m sure. I’ve never seen it.’”

Beside him, Ismail’s mother covered her face and wept into her hands.

Again, Ismail said, he asked the commander, “Please, tell me what’s happening.”

“God willing, he’ll be okay,” the commander responded, and left Ismail again. He craned his neck to get a look at the ambulance. “All of a sudden I see them taking his body out. They put him down on the ground and put a sheet over him. I started going crazy and screaming and hitting my head on the ground. I don’t remember what happened afterward.”

Ra’d, the oldest of the al-Atrash brothers, opened the door. He poured unsweetened coffee into small paper cups while his mother, Najah, recalled that late that night her nephew’s son called the house. She picked up the phone. He asked if Anas and Ismail were home. She knew something was wrong, but he wouldn’t say what it was. Her husband, Abu Ra’d, was in his workshop downstairs, so she went out to bring him the phone. A car pulled up in front of the house filled with Anas’s friends. They asked where Anas was — they had heard on the radio that something had happened.

“That’s when Abu Ra’d sat down on the ledge and started screaming to god. The guys got out of the car and surrounded me. All the neighbors came out of their houses. I was walking in the street and I didn’t know where I was going.” Another car pulled up. She got in and told its driver to take her to the hospital. “Something happened to my son,” she said. They told her to get out of the car, that he wasn’t in the hospital, but she refused. Abu Ra’d got in the car too. “They started driving around and the whole time I was asking them, ‘Would someone please tell me what happened to my sons?’ I kept asking them. I kept begging them to tell me.”

By morning, Israeli newspapers had published the official version of Anas al-Atrash’s death: A 23-year-old Palestinian had rushed a checkpoint soldier with a knife. The soldier fired once in self-defense, killing him. It wasn’t much of a story, just another anonymous incident, one of a series of apparently uncoordinated assaults on Israeli security personnel in recent weeks. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told me that checkpoint security camera footage that might shed light on Anas’s death would not be made public. “There is no investigation under way,” he wrote in an email.

The following week I interviewed two men, one in Hebron and another near Bethlehem, who said that they were stopped at the Container checkpoint at the same time as the al-Atrash brothers. Both spoke on the condition that their names not appear in print. Both of their accounts, in outline and in most details, mirrored the story told by Ismail al-Atrash. The man in Hebron was about 30 feet from the brothers’ car, he said, when he saw Anas open the door. “He got up and stretched his arms and was just shot.” There was nothing in his hands, he said. The soldier who shot Anas was, he said, “to exaggerate, two meters away.”

The man I interviewed near Bethlehem also said that Anas had barely stepped from the car, and that his hands were empty and raised above his head when he was shot. He added that he was detained by police following the shooting and, when he protested to a police commander, was told that he would have to remain at the checkpoint until he could be transported to Jerusalem to provide testimony about what he had seen. He told the commander, he said, that he hadn't seen anything. The commander responded, he alleged, “You saw a guy attack a soldier with a knife.” In the end, he said, police left the scene without recording his or anyone’s testimony.

The day after I first interviewed them, the extended al-Atrash family drove in a caravan of cars to the northern West Bank city of Jenin for a memorial gathering there. They passed through the Container checkpoint, where Anas had been killed, without incident.
 

The family stops just past the Container Checkpoint.

A little further north, they reached the Zatara checkpoint, outside Nablus. Another young Palestinian man had been killed there just hours before Anas was shot. When the al-Atrash cars stopped, Israeli soldiers tore commemorative photos of Al-Atrash from their windows and detained the family at the side of the road for several hours.

The family confronts soldiers after they rip pictures of Anas off of their car.

Ten days after his son’s death, Abu Ra’d al-Atrash left Hebron for Tel Aviv. He had business to attend to — in addition to the shops he owns in the West Bank, the elder al-Atrash distributes shoes in several Israeli cities — and planned to meet with a lawyer to discuss filing a lawsuit. He didn’t expect justice, only that the state would be forced to reveal the circumstances of his son’s killing. When he reached the checkpoint to cross into Israel, he was told that his permit had been revoked. (Palestinian residents of the West Bank cannot enter Israel without a permit issued by the Civil Administration.) Al-Atrash, who has been routinely issued work permits, he says, for more than 20 years, estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of his family’s income derives from business conducted inside Israel. His permit was revoked, according to Civil Administration spokesman Guy Inbar, “for security reasons.”

¤

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors and Ether and is LARB's correspondent in the Middle East.

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