Palestinian father mourns 'beautiful' four-year-old daughter killed at Israeli checkpoint

There has been a surge in violence in the occupied West Bank since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7

Ruqaya with her 11-year-old sister Ghazlan Jahilin (wearing the purple hijab).
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In a family video, three-year-old Ruqaya Jahilin determinedly picks up a kid goat, staggering slightly under the floppy-eared creature’s weight. She wears a little striped black and grey jumper, a red scrunchy in her hair, and a slight frown of concentration on her face.

A year later, she would be dead, shot and killed at the Israeli checkpoint leading to her home village of Beit Iksa, north-west of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

“She was the most beautiful thing I had, the dearest person to my soul,” her 38-year-old father Ahmed Jahilin, a labourer, told The National in a phone interview this week.

I cannot go there and imagine that Ruqaya is not going to be there, opening the door and saying, ‘Daddy is home!
Ahmed Jahilin, Ruqaya's father

As the death toll among children in Gaza rises above 10,000, Ruqaya’s killing highlights the parallel worry of threats to children in the occupied West Bank. Tensions have been higher and Israeli security controls stricter there since Hamas’s October 7 attack and the subsequent Israeli military response.

According to the UN, 85 children have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since then – the highest number since the international body started records in 2005.

Last Sunday, Ruqaya was travelling back to Beit Iksa with her mother Ayesha, 39, after visiting relatives.

The girl was travelling in a minivan that passed through the Ras Bedu checkpoint at the entrance to Beit Iksa in front of another vehicle. For unknown reasons, the second car did not stop at the inspection point, according to five people briefed on the incident.

When Israeli security personnel opened fire on the second car, bullets hit the van in which Ruqaya was sitting. One hit her in the back, the interviewees said.

“Ruqaya was with her mother in another car, so when they [Israeli security forces] started shooting towards the car that didn't stop at the checkpoint, Ruqaya sustained a gunshot in her back and she died as a result of shooting randomly towards the two cars,” Ayed Abu Eqtaish, a director at Defence for Children Palestine, a children’s rights organisation, told The National.

Israeli police CCTV footage seen by The National shows the van passing through the checkpoint. A few seconds later, a second vehicle veers into the control area towards Israeli security personnel without stopping.

Two guards appear to start shooting, although the bullets are not clear in the video clip. Their identities are unclear although human rights organisation B’Tselem said that the checkpoint is managed by Israeli border police and private security companies.

An Israeli ambulance took Ruqaya’s body the 40 metres back to the checkpoint, along with Ayesha, who was unharmed, and called Ahmed, who rushed to the scene.

An Israeli doctor pronounced Ruqaya dead at the scene, Ahmed said.

“She was bleeding for 18 minutes,” he recalled.

The Magen David Adom Israeli ambulance service said it attended to a 20-year-old woman with mild injuries on the evening of the incident – likely to be a reference to an Israeli guard injured by the second car.

It did not publish details of Ruqaya’s death and did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Saturday – six days after the shooting – Ruqaya’s body had not been returned to the Jahilin family by Israeli authorities, who took it on Sunday evening.

Ahmed understands that it has been retained for a post mortem examination, but he and Ayesha do not know where her body is, when it will be returned, or when they will receive a death certificate.

A Palestinian official familiar with the case and Ahmed’s brother, Mohammed Jahilin, confirmed his account.

“I don’t know anything – when they will return it, the authorities co-ordinating with the Israelis phone, say this and that [ …],” Ahmed said. “They don’t give any information – we are just sat waiting.”

Ruqaya’s death has devastated the Jahilin family, leaving them with a list of unanswered questions about the checkpoint officials’ behaviour that night.

“It is either a form of disrespect, or are these people’s lives are so cheap to them, or they are vengeful,” said Mohammed, 40, a livestock herder.

In a statement, Israeli police said that officers responded with gunfire to the vehicle that failed to stop after it struck security personnel on duty.

The police described the car as involved in a “vehicular terror attack” and said its occupants were “neutralised”.

Israel’s police are conducting an investigation into what else happened that night.

“Preliminary examination suggests that during the rapid response of the officers towards the terrorists' vehicle, the vehicle with the child may have been affected,'' their statement read.

Israeli officials did not respond to a request for comment over the return of Ruqaya’s body to her family.

The Ras Bedu checkpoint is one of various restrictions placed on Beit Iksa’s 2,000 residents, according to human rights monitors, residents, and local officials. The village mostly lies in West Bank Area C, meaning it is under Israeli control. It is surrounded by both the Separation Wall, built in 2005, and Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal internationally.

“Only the residents of Beit Iksa and people with Jerusalem IDs can enter the village – no one else,” mayor Murad Kiswani told The National.

“Of course, the checkpoint has a large effect on the village – goods coming through are banned unless there is prior co-ordination.”

Observers are worried about the soaring number of children killed in the West Bank in recent months.

“Eighty-five children have been killed in the West Bank since October 7. This is very concerning because it is more than double the number killed in the whole of 2022 – 37,” said Jonathan Crickx, Unicef Palestine communications chief.

He said 2023 was the deadliest year for children in the West Bank since 2005, when the UN began recording casualties.

According to Ayed Abu Eqtaish of Defence for Children Palestine, tensions have led to more shootings of Palestinians by Israelis in the West Bank since Hamas’s attacks.

“Any mistake from any Palestinian person near a checkpoint or where the Israelis are crossing the street or whatever, it could cost them their life,” he said. “For example, they open fire – this is the first reaction. This was not the situation before.”

For now, Ahmed is staying at his parents’ house. He cannot bear the thought of returning to a home without Ruqaya.

“I cannot go there and imagine that Ruqaya is not going to be there, opening the door and saying, ‘Daddy is home!’”

She would have been five years old next month.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 9:12 AM