Eleven-year-old Mohammed al-Alaami of the West Bank village of Beit Ummar had an uncle, Amjad. Soldiers shot him in the head and killed him in March 2002 when he was standing in the doorway of his family home. He was 20, a press photographer.
“He wasn’t taking part in the fighting,” the website of the rights group B’Tselem states dryly. Soldiers killed Mohammed as well, on July 28, 2021, while he was riding in his father’s pickup truck.
The al-Alaami family home is in the Asida neighborhood, next to the main north-south highway in the area, Route 60. It’s a relatively new neighborhood, from the ‘70s. As the village became congested, vineyards and groves gave way to homes.
But some olive trees remain, grapevines and figs still grace the neighborhood, and the approaches to the homes are full of plants – including the four-story home where Mohammed’s parents and siblings, uncles’ families and grandparents live. Their neighbors also belong to the al-Alaami clan.
It’s important to remember that this is a residential neighborhood that cars and pedestrians would enter and exit before an intimidating army pillbox was placed there after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Mohammed’s father, Muayyad al-Alaami, drives back and forth there in his pickup several times a day. Even if the soldiers aren’t always visible, everyone knows they’re there.
The Asida neighborhood sprawls along the foot of a hill. A side road leads from the top of the hill to Route 60, but access to the highway is cut off by concrete blocks. At the other end of the access road, just before it merges with the village’s main street, it’s bordered by a rocky mound covered in thistles.
In the large rock is an opening to a cave where villagers bury fetuses and newborns who didn’t survive. The villagers block the entrance to the cave with smaller stones, clear them away when necessary and put them back in place. It’s a custom in Palestinian villages to bury the bodies of newborns separately.
This burial site has been there for many years, long before the permanent army position was installed. When the residents realized around 20 years ago that the army planned to build a pillbox right on top of the burial cave, they explained to the local commander that this would destroy the cave, one resident recounted. So instead, the army built the intimidating observation tower at a lower point on the road leading into the village. Since the end of 2000, soldiers have been stationed there around the clock.
In May this year, the army put up another small concrete guard post right above the cave. If, over the years, the commanders had passed on the information about the small burial site from one to another, the soldiers stationed there in July wouldn’t have been so lethally suspicious of the small group of people who approached the cave.
The soldiers would have known that the four or five villagers – who arrived at around 2 P.M. and cleared away the stones at the cave’s entrance and then replaced them – were a grieving father and relatives of a grieving mother who had just lost her baby daughter. The soldiers wouldn’t have been suspicious of the residents when they openly buried something in the light of day. The soldiers wouldn’t have exhumed the tiny body, then left it in the sun for more than an hour.
The army’s initial statement after the killing claimed that the soldiers thought the truck that approached the access road was driven by the person who had buried the baby. The army didn’t explain why it considered the driver a suspected criminal. But since the soldiers were already in alert mode, when al-Alaami’s pickup showed up and then backed up a bit, they ran up the hilly road and chased the vehicle.
‘Mohammed asked me to return to the village’
The father said the family had planned an outing for that day. “We had planned to go on a picnic in a grove,” said Muayyad, now dressed in black with a short beard and red eyes.
“The children are shut in the neighborhood and village all the time. I got home at 6 A.M.; I had worked at night in the Tel Aviv area. I do tarring for a Jewish contractor from the Castel,” he added, referring to the town of Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem.
“Before going to sleep, I promised the children that we would do something fun together in the afternoon, all five of us – my wife Samar, 10-year-old Anan, 5-year-old Ahmed, 11-year-old Mohammed and me.”
Mohammed, who was due to celebrate his 12th birthday in September, would go up and down the access road several times a day, readily doing errands for his mother and grandmother. Like any Palestinian child, he was aware from early age of the soldiers’ presence in the village and neighborhood.
On Wednesday July 28, while his father was sleeping, he walked to the nearby grocery store to buy dairy products for breakfast. “He stayed here for nearly 15 minutes,” the woman who owns the grocery recalled.
“And he bombarded me with questions, curious as he was. He asked what would be good for his 2-year-old cousin and bought her cookies. Then he asked about the cream – how long it would keep and what its production date was.”
She used the Hebrew word for cream but the producer is the Palestinian company Juneidi in Hebron. “I told him he had gotten thinner,” the grocery owner said, while the father was clinging to every last memory of his son. “Mohammed explained that he was helping his uncle in his pepper garden.”
At around 1 P.M., Muayyad woke up, and at 1:30 he put his children in the pickup, Ahmed in front, Anan and Mohammed in the back. They then set out on their journey. They visited their aunt and then their grandmother on their mother’s side, who gave them date-filled cookies for their picnic.
“At their grandmother’s, Mohammed poured me and himself some coke, even though he didn’t usually drink it,” Muayyad said. After such a sudden death, every such moment, totally mundane, takes on importance. At the big supermarket they bought paper plates, bottles of juice, frozen okra and “some other stuff, I can’t remember what,” Muayyad said.
Then they visited the neighborhood grocery. Its surveillance camera shows Mohammed during the last half hour of his life, bending at the shelves, putting something in his basket. “We bought some potato chips, tomatoes, bread and cheese,” his father said.
From there they started their trip back home. At the top of the hill leading down to their neighborhood, “Mohammed asked me to return to the village because we forgot to buy something,” Muayyad said. “I asked him if he was sure, and he said he was.” The soldiers, six in number, the ones who were suspicious of the body of a 1-day-old baby, were still there, near the open cave.
“I started reversing, turning the pickup to the west toward the village. Mohammed didn’t even manage to say what we forgot, when insane shooting started. I yelled at the kids to keep their heads down. I stopped after going a few meters. I looked back and saw Mohammed leaning on his sister.
“I drove a bit further and turned around, saying, ‘yalla, let’s get out of here,’ but then I saw Mohammed’s eyes turning upward. His sister told him to get up but he didn’t answer. I realized he was dead and I passed out, losing control of the car. Just in front of me was a small funeral procession of an older woman from the village. I almost crashed into it. My cousin was there. He ran toward the truck and stopped it. ‘They killed Mohammed,’ I told him.”
At some point, his wife phoned. “She heard the gunfire and wanted to make sure everything was all right with us. ‘They killed Mohammed,’ I told her,” Muayyad said in her presence. She confirmed his words with her eyes, remaining silent.
Witnesses and two surveillance cameras describe what happened. The armed soldiers near the burial cave saw the pickup backing up, and four of them ran “like a rocket” up the side road toward the village’s main road, as one witness described it. Four soldiers ran up a side road toward the main road. There was some unclear shouting and one soldier fired two shots in the air.
Immediately, a soldier next to him fired right at the moving pickup. One burst, a pause of a few seconds, then another burst. After the two bursts, the soldier who fired into the air went over to the other soldier and struck him.
“He hit him hard, enough to make him drop his two-way radio,” a witness said. A third soldier nervously demanded that villagers standing nearby go back home.
Tear gas grenades during the mourning
The pickup now stands on a side street. On Monday, the items bought the previous Wednesday were still there, scattered on the back seat and floor. The bread, soaked with Mohammed’s blood, was buried with him.
A large hole in the back seat shows that the lethal bullet entered his back. The windows in the back and right side of the truck are shattered. Bullets also hit both sides of the chassis, as indicated by the holes. The front windshield is intact, further proof that the soldiers fired at a vehicle moving toward the village, away from them.
Muayyad says he never heard the soldiers’ shouting. At the section of the road where the bullets struck them, a carpentry shop is on one side and a stone-cutter’s on the other. Their machines drowned out any other sound.
“If I had heard them and realized they were telling me to stop, I definitely would have,” Muayyad said. “After all, soldiers in our midst aren’t a new phenomenon for us.”
A place for men to mourn was opened at a boys’ high school in the village. It quickly became a house of mourning for another victim. He was Shawkat Awad, one of the pallbearers carrying Mohammed’s body. He too was shot by soldiers, who opened fire during the funeral. Their presence there provoked the youngsters, who threw stones and burned tires.
Grieving women gathered at the family home.
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The army sent armed soldiers to a balcony across the street from where they threw tear gas grenades from time to time, burning the eyes and throats of the mourning women.
From the wide balcony of the al-Alaami family home, you can see the ever-present pillbox rising high. On Monday, friends, neighbors and relatives still gathered on the balcony, giving their condolences. Mohammed’s brother and sister, not saying much, sat among the adults.
“Ahmed wakes up at night screaming – keep your heads down, soldiers are shooting,” an aunt said. “Anan clutches her pillow with all her might, trembling.” Mohammed’s mother, Samar, sat silently, her eyes dry. Only when the conversation turned to school did she smile faintly, saying: “Mohammed dreamed of working for NASA. He loved everything connected to the stars.”
At midday Monday, Muayyad’s colleague phoned, telling him that the contractor had learned that Muayyad’s work permit had been revoked. For 15 years, the Shin Bet security service did not approve an entry permit into Israel for Muayyad because soldiers killed his brother Amjad. Five years ago this “security-related prohibition” was rescinded. Now the Shin Bet is rescinding the permit because soldiers have killed his son Mohammed, not yet 12 years old.
The Israel Defense Forces’ Spokesperson’s Unit said that a Military Police investigation had been launched “following the incident involving the death of a Palestinian minor” and that the results would be sent to the Military Advocate General’s Corps.
The unit added that “the incident is under investigation, with the circumstances being examined by senior command levels as well.”
Regarding the deploying of soldiers near a house where people were mourning and the throwing of tear gas grenades, the IDF said that on the Thursday and Friday after Mohammed’s death, “hundreds of people disturbing public order threw stones and incendiary devices at soldiers and Border Police officers, who responded with crowd-control measures. The forces were deployed at fixed locations needed for preventing stone-throwing at vehicles moving along Route 60.”