Dusty Trail to Death

On Sunday morning of last week Mahmoud Shawara, a laborer, mounted his mule and set out from his home in the village of Nuaman to look for work in the neighboring village of Umm Touba. At about 9 A.M., he was arrested by a Border Police unit that detains workers who do not have an entry permit to Israel every morning.

The Border Police ordered Shawara to get into their jeep. He refused. He did not want to leave his mule unattended. At 9:30 his brother saw him for the last time, healthy and sound. At 4 P.M. a resident of Umm Touba named Mohammed Hamadan noticed a mule galloping toward the village and dragging something behind it. From a distance, Hamadan thought it might be scrap metal. As the mule came closer, Hamadan saw that it was dragging an injured, battered man. The mule, he says, was galloping down the slope and looked frightened. He stopped the animal and then discovered that the person being dragged across the ground was Mahmoud Shawara, from the neighboring village, whom he knew well. Shawara`s left hand was roped to the mule`s neck. He was unconscious and barely breathing. His skull and face were smashed on the left side and blood was pouring from him. He managed to utter a few broken, unclear words or parts of words and then stopped breathing.

Hamadan untied Shawara, laid him on the ground and pressed on his chest to restart his breathing. He then summoned an ambulance from the clinic of the Meuhedet health maintenance organization in the village. Shawara was taken to Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, where he was admitted to the neurosurgical section of the intensive care unit. At the end of the week, during which he did not regain consciousness, Shawara died of his wounds. He was 43, a laborer and the father of nine children, who went to look for work in the neighboring village.

How was Shawara killed? Did the Border Police ab use him physically and tie him to the animal and then spook it, bringi ng about his death from blows to his head from rocks as the animal lurched down the hill? Was he beaten and then tied to the mule, which was then sent on its way? Or is the Justice Ministry`s Police Investigations Department correct in claiming that this was a riding accident–Shawara tied himself to the mule, fell off it and was seriously injured.

People in Nuaman told us this week that the Border Police regularly tie people who are `illegally present` in Israel (shabahim) to their animals. We will cite the testimony of another Palestinian worker who was tied to his donkey by Border Policemen a few weeks ago as he lay on the ground, face down, with his hands tied behind his back and a cinderblock on his back, placed there by the Border Police. Between Nuaman and Umm Touba, two peaceful villages above a spectacular valley, lies the dragging strip.

Close-up of the horror: the face of the dead man is smashed. Shawara`s body lies on the floor in his house, cove red by a Palestine flag and a sheet from Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem (even though he died in Hadassah). The house–an `illegal structure`–has no roof, lest it be demolished by Israel. A blue canvas covers the home to protect against the elements.

It is afternoon, a few minutes before the funeral procession is to begin, on Sunday of this week. Someone places a Hamas flag on the deceased, over the Palestinian flag and the Shaare Zedek sheet. The women of the family are crying inconsolably; the firstborn daughter, Kauther, 24, is about to faint. Before the body is taken from the room, the face is–unusually–covered, in order to conceal the injuries. The governor of Bethlehem, Salah Taamri, is standing outside with all the local dignitaries. The funeral is restrained, difficult. There is only one extremist outcry: `Ya, Jew, ya pig, we will stomp you underfoot.`

The villagers are convinced that Shawara was killed by the Border Police. But when a Border Police jeep suddenly shows up in the middle of the funeral, f or a quick, provocative look, the restraint is maintained. This is the way of the hill people: they are sparing of speech and very apprehensive. Nuaman lies on the open road to Jerusalem, between Bethlehem and the Israeli capital, east of the Har Homa neighborhood, in a place where the separation wall has not yet been completed. The Border Police are here every day and people are afraid to talk.

Exactly a week earlier, Shawara set out from his home for the last time. His brother, Daoud, left his home at about 7:30, on foot, making for Umm Touba, which lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, and where there is sometimes work to be had in construction or farming. Daoud relates that after a short time, a Border Police jeep arrived and arrested him and the other laborers, six in all, who had set out from the village. None of them had a permit to work in Israel. Not long afterward Mahmoud arrived, too, riding his mule. He too was on the way to look for work, as was his daily custom.

The Border Police detained him, too. They confiscated the orange ID cards of everyone in the group and ordered them to go to the police station in Talpiot, in the southern part of Jerusalem. After some negotiation, Daoud says, the Border Police took them to the station in the jeep. Mahmoud refused to get into the jeep, saying he could not leave the mule by itself in the open. An argument broke out, but the Border Police did not use violence against Mahmoud, says his brother Daoud. Daoud was taken away in the jeep and his brother remained behind with the mule and the Border Policemen who stayed with him. After a brief interrogation and after signing an undertaking not to enter Umm Touba again, Daoud and the others were taken to the new Rachel checkpoint–at Rachel`s Tomb, by the entrance to Bethlehem–and sent on their way.

Daoud never saw his brother alive again. Arriving back in the village at about 12:30 P.M., he was unable to find Mahmoud. It is a small village of 170 residents, one fatality until l ast week, stone houses on the edge of a spectacular valley in the east, the Har Homa settlement in the west. They are Bedouin, members of the Taamra tribe.

At 4 P.M. Mohammed Hamadan saw the galloping mule, leaving behind a cloud of dust. It was making its way along the trail that goes down to Umm Touba, which is flanked on both sides by piles of garbage. We are now walking along the path from Nuaman to Umm Touba, a trail which the mule followed, at least in part. It is a rocky trail. A few hundred meters separate the place where Shawara was arrested from the place where he was discovered tied to the mule. Six and a half hours separate the time at which Shawara`s brother saw him alive and well and the time he was discovered tied to the mule. No one knows what happened in those hours.

Hamadan is now looking for signs of blood on the trail followed by the mule, but the rain has apparently washed everything away. He saw no wounds on Mahmoud`s body, only on the s hattered left side of his head. He was tied to the mule by a rope of black cloth. Here is where he stopped the mule, grabbing its reins, on the slope. The workers in the adjacent warehouse for construction materials also saw the event. The owner of the business, Ahmed Abu Their, was the one who called the ambulance. He says that he saw Mahmoud tied to the mule but was afraid to approach.

The men, their faces grim, are sitting on the ridge and waiting for the ambulance to bring the body from Hadassah. The women, in black, are sitting in the shadow of the dead man`s home and keening. Young people fly Palestinian flags on the roofs of the houses and on the fence of the cemetery that lies below the village.

The convoy is approaching from the valley, the Palestinian ambulance in front with red lights blinking. An Israeli army jeep watches from afar, parked on the security road that was paved along the separation wall that is being built as the `Jerusalem envelope .` No one in the village knows where the border lies here between `the territories` and `Jerusalem.` When the wall is completed, it will all become clear. In Nuaman only one resident has a Jerusalem ID card (blue); everyone else is `territories.` Neighboring Umm Touba is `Jerusalem` but not all its residents have blue cards, either. A man next to me wipes away a tear. The body is taken from the ambulance into the house. Inside the deceased`s face is uncovered, the face of a peasant, mustachioed and wounded–and is immediately covered.

The village`s lawyer, Daoud Darawi, who works in the Palestine branch of Defense for Children International (DCI) in Ramallah, is demanding an international investigation of the circumstances of Shawara`s death. `They did to him what the whites did to Indians in America,` he says. He tells about two similar cases. In the nearby village of Dar Salah, Border Police in a jeep struck a donkey on which Walid Amiya was riding, knocking him to the ground. He survived. In nearby Wadi al-Humos, they tied Maamoun Abu Ali to his donkey and tried to send the animal on its way. He too survived. (We will come back to him later.)

According to attorney Darawi, the Border Police have been in the area for about a month. Since their arrival, cases of abuse of laborers looking for work in the neighboring village have increased. `Come one day at 5 A.M. and you will see what goes on here every day with the Border Police,` the lawyer says. Mahmoud Shawara`s family filed a complaint with the Police Investigations Department (PID).

The Justice Ministry spokesman, Yaacov Galant, said this week on behalf of the PID, `Our best investigations, which we conducted from the moment the complaint was received until last Friday afternoon, indicate that there is no connection between the activity of the Border Police and the injury and death of the individual. Apparently he was warned about the mule, told not to ride it. It was a wild mule. Apparently he mounted it, rode it and also tied hims elf to it.` Has the investigation been thoroughly concluded? Galant pr omised to check and get back to me. A short time later: `At the moment there is nothing new. We have not gotten one testimony that would connect the Border Police [to the event]. We will be happy to receive other testimonies. In the meantime, no one can point to a specific connection between the Border Policemen and the case.`

Maamoun Abu Ali is a construction worker on a building that is going up in the Doha neighborhood in the southern section of Bethlehem. We tracked him down on Tuesday of this week. A smiling bachelor of 20, he still carries the scars of his encounter with the Border Police in the valley below Nuaman. Abu Ali is from the neighboring village of Abadiya. About two months ago, during Ramadan, he was riding his donkey on the way to nearby Wadi Humos to buy a chicken for the break-fast meal at Shahar`s butcher shop. It was slightly after midday. Suddenly a Border Police jeep pulled up next to him. `Where are you going?` Abu Ali was asked, and he repli ed, `To buy a chicken.` The Border Police checked the items the donkey was carrying and then examined Abu Ali`s papers. A shabah. Bingo.

With the animal`s reins they tied Abu Ali`s hands behind his back and made him lie on his stomach on the ground, face down. The Border Police like to `punish` the shabahim they catch. Abu Ali relates that they placed a cinderblock on his back and then whipped the donkey to make it walk. Abu Ali`s donkey is old and stubborn, or maybe he only obeys his master–whatever the case, it refused to budge. Abu Ali says he also pulled with his bound hands, so the donkey would not move. It is not difficult to guess what would have happened if the donkey had panicked and started to gallop, with Abu Ali lying face down, hands tied behind his back to the animal. At one point one of the Border Policemen also stood on Abu Ali`s back, one foot on him and one foot on the cinderblock, to put pressure on him.

The abuse went on for about a qua rter of an hour, Abu Ali says. Finally the Israeli troops gave up tryi ng to make the stubborn donkey move and ordered Abu Ali to get up. They spoke Arabic. Abu Ali says that one of them covered his eyes with his hands and another struck him once in the face with a stone. He still has a scar on the right side, below his lip. They threatened him, saying that `if he wandered around here again, he would be killed.` They then sent him on his way. Abu Ali did not file a complaint with the Police Investigations Department. He wanted to complain to the Palestinian police and have them pass on the complaint, but was dissuaded from doing so by the policeman in his village, who told him, `People are getting killed here, so be thankful that you`re alive and healthy.`

`Let us tell the world what they are doing to us, about the disgusting occupation we live under,` the elderly Mohammed Abu Ranar Adum, one of the village headmen, says in his eulogy. The funeral is about to disperse in silence. In the shade of the olive trees, at the edge of the villa ge, on the brink of the valley, stands the mule, tied to a tree. A brown, strong animal. When we approach to take its photograph, the mule shows signs of panic, turns its head aside and tries in vain to break loose.

GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz.