World News

An Israeli Settler, a Dead Palestinian and the Crux of the Conflict

Posted December 22, 2017 4:54 p.m. EST

QUSRA, West Bank — It started as a bar mitzvah hike through rocky, biblical terrain. It ended with a Palestinian man shot dead and 20 traumatized Israeli schoolchildren sheltering in a cave from Palestinian stone-throwers.

The Palestinian man, Mahmoud Zaal, 48, was from Qusra in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and his widow has since added a sobriquet to his name: “Habib al-Ard,” Arabic for lover of the land.

During a confrontation — how it started is a matter of dispute — Zaal was most likely shot by a parent escorting the school group, according to local residents, legal representatives and Israeli authorities.

This is the story of one Palestinian village and an adjacent settlement in the hills south of Nablus — formerly friendly communities now tinged with hostility and suspicion. The deterioration reflects the broader strife from a volatile mix of populations, 50 years of Israeli occupation and a competition over the same land that is only intensifying.

The bar mitzvah party set out from the settlement of Migdalim on the morning of Nov. 30 to celebrate Avitzur Libman, 13, whose family moved there a few years ago. Most of his classmates came from other settlements nearby, like Yitzhar and Itamar. Two fathers accompanied them, armed with an M16 rifle and a pistol. The father suspected of shooting Zaal is a senior officer in Israel’s military reserves.

Igal Kassus, a longtime resident of Migdalim, ran into the celebrants before they left and warned them to avoid Qusra. They said not to worry — they were heading to the hilltop outpost of Kida, through the valley and up the steep inclines dotted with olive groves.

Belying its pastoral setting, the area has long been a trouble spot. Settlers who believe the land was promised to them by God walk through it to assert their presence and claim ownership. Local Palestinians view such hikes as a provocation and they have led to violent confrontations.

The area has also been the scene of horrific violence. Two Palestinians stabbed five members of a family to death in their beds in Itamar in 2011. Four years later, a deadly arson attack by Jewish extremists in the Palestinian village of Duma, visible from Zaal’s land, killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents.

Zaal had been waging his own, quiet campaign to defend his land. He had planted 6 acres with pistachio, fig, apricot, apple and olive trees, vines and berries for the birds. “He worked his land in an attempt to stop the settlers moving in,” said Mahmoud Odeh, a cousin. “He turned the whole area into a paradise.”

That November morning it was stained with his blood. There seems to be little doubt that Zaal was killed after the settler armed with the M16 opened fire. The settlers have hailed that man as a hero, saying he fired into the air to save the children’s lives as Palestinian youths pelted them with stones.

Residents of Qusra, including Zaal’s oldest son, Awad, 23, who was with him at the time, insist that the stone-throwing started only after Zaal had been shot.

Both sides agree, more or less, on these facts: To protect the children, the two fathers pushed them into a cave. Palestinian youths blocked them from leaving, continued to throw stones at them, and robbed them of wallets, snacks and cellphones. Two older Palestinian men worked to calm the situation and prevent the violence from getting worse. Israeli soldiers arrived about 40 minutes later and extricated the group. The man suspected of shooting Zaal was treated at a hospital for a superficial head wound.

The Israeli military’s investigation concluded that the Palestinians had attacked the settlers first and that the escorts had opened fire in self-defense. It criticized the settlers for not coordinating their hike with the army in advance. The organizers said they had sent an email describing the route to the local command but had not received a reply.

The Israeli police have also been investigating the escorts, as is routine in such cases, looking into whether the shooting was justified or whether they caused the death by negligence. The escorts were questioned but were not arrested. On Wednesday, the police said their investigation had so far backed up the settlers’ version: that the Palestinians attacked first and that the hikers found themselves in a life-threatening situation.

But Awad, Zaal’s oldest son, said there was nothing random about the shooting and insisted that his father had posed no danger. Sitting by his grieving mother at home recently, he said his father had gone out to farm alone, but had called him around 10 a.m. and asked him to come quickly because a settler was approaching.

The settler, carrying an M16, ordered them off the land, Awad said, but they refused. The settler shot once in the air, repeated his demand then fired once more, hitting his father in the upper body, Awad said, before fleeing downhill.

“I saw his face and I saw him pulling the trigger,” Awad said. “He could have shot me instead of my father.”

Zaal’s widow, Manal, 46, is now seeking help to finish a house he had started building closer to their land. “Our God will not forget,” she said. Another son, Ahed, 18, said of the settlers: “We don’t go there. They come to us.”

The adult escorts have not been identified in the news media for their safety. When the name and photograph of the main suspect was posted on a Qusra Facebook page, it drew death threats against him. Honenu, a right-wing legal aid organization, asked the police to order the posting removed. It has since been taken down.

Adi Keidar, a Honenu lawyer representing the escorts, said Awad’s version did not fit with any other testimony he had heard. Keidar suggested that because of the rough, steep incline of the land, it was hard to see what had been happening and where people had stood.

“If they had panicked there would have been a disaster,” he said of the parents. “They remained coolheaded.” The children, he said, “saw death before their eyes.” Eran Schwartz, a spokesman for Honenu from Yitzhar, and others briefed on the details of the episode, said the man suspected of shooting Zaal was unaware that he had hit anybody at the time.

Qusra has since been seething with clashes between Palestinians, Israeli forces and settlers who have tried to revisit the cave. One of Zaal’s cousins said with a hint of sarcasm that the settlers now considered the cave a holy site. The path below it is now planted with tiny olive saplings and strewn with bullet casings.

One night the army raided Qusra and arrested 22 residents suspected of involvement in the recent disturbances. At dawn on Dec. 8 soldiers closed off the village while the settlers recreated the bar mitzvah hike as a “positive experience,” accompanied by some right-wing politicians.

This week the Israeli military announced that one of those arrested, Muhammad Wadi, was being charged with attempted murder after he hurled rocks at the head of one of the adults inside the cave.

Qusra residents remember when things were different. Migdalim was established in the 1980s as a secular settlement, and residents would shop in Qusra, running up monthly tabs at the grocery store.

Four years ago a group of religious, more nationalistic settlers moved into some empty houses there and quickly filled a new neighborhood of trailer homes. Migdalim has now doubled in size, from about 40 families to more than 80. The once-popular Balaclava pub, which used to operate over the Sabbath, has closed. A synagogue has been built.

Amir Odeh, 19, one of two young men from Qusra who were shot and wounded during the recent skirmishes, was working on house renovations in Migdalim. He calls the original residents “the Jews” and the newcomers “the settlers.”

“All the problems started since they came,” he said. Mor Shoshani, 27, who was born and still lives in Migdalim, bemoaned in a Nov. 30 Facebook post what he called a “takeover” of the settlement by religious extremists.

One of the religious newcomers, Rivka Harel, 34, who moved into a cramped trailer with her family three years ago, said she hoped the good relations with Qusra would continue.

Kassus, 62, an artist and a building contractor who moved to this windy hilltop more than 20 years ago, employs workers from Qusra, speaks Arabic and maintains friendly relations with all the surrounding villages.

“I was naïve,” he said of when he first arrived. “I thought it was a matter of talking to people and building trust.”

Having become more religious a few years ago, Kassus has welcomed the influx of new families.

But ultimately, he said, the newcomers’ more radical outlook is that “the Arabs have plenty of places to go,” and “all this land should be Jewish.”