I did not expect my son to participate in a protest: father of Palestinian teen shot by Israeli soldier

Soul searching and grief in the West Bank after the killings of two Palestinian boys in Nakba day demonstrations. Orlando Crowcroft reports from Ramallah
Mohammed Salaheh, 16, lying on the ground after being shot by Israeli forces during clashes following a protest outside the Israeli-run Ofer prison on May 15, 2014. Abbas Ninabu / AFP Photo
Mohammed Salaheh, 16, lying on the ground after being shot by Israeli forces during clashes following a protest outside the Israeli-run Ofer prison on May 15, 2014. Abbas Ninabu / AFP Photo

RAMALLAH // In the top drawer of his desk, Richard Zananiri has an unopened envelope. Inside is a certificate made out to one of his students, Nadeem Nawara. It is a commendation that his 17-year-old student will never receive.

Nadeem was killed outside Ofer Prison on May 15, alongside another Palestinian, Mahmoud Salameh, 16, during a protest on the 66th anniversary of Nakba, when millions of Arabs were displaced following the establishment of the Israeli state. Nadeem’s friend, Mohammed Aziz, was also shot but survived.

Nadeem and Mahmoud were both killed with what Palestinian medics claim were live rounds but the Israeli authorities maintain were rubber bullets. On May 28, an Israeli soldier was suspended for firing the lethal shots, after CCTV videos and pictures refuted claims by Israel that a Palestinian sniper was to blame.

All that appears academic walking around the St George’s Greek Orthodox School in a leafy suburb of Ramallah and hearing Mr Zananiri talk of a student who had shown little interest in politics before his death. The smart building is a far cry from the shabby refugee camps of Kalandia and Al Am’ari, set up to take in thousands of refugees displaced following the Nakba. It is a middle-class school in a wealthy neighbourhood.

“Nadeem was always talking about something: music, football and girls. He was like Don Juan — all the girls loved him. He was always smiling. I didn’t notice that he was a person who wanted to protest,” says Mr Zananiri, who was Nadeem’s head teacher for just over a year since the teenager joined the school in 2013.

Nakba is always a big event in the West Bank, and this year a huge march was organised in Ramallah. Mr Zananiri, however, did not want his pupils to take part as — in his experience — children in previous years just used the holiday as day off rather than to commemorate the Nakba.

Instead, he had organised a party, and Nadeem had been one of dozens of pupils to spend the previous day getting the building ready, even climbing on to the roof to put up a canopy to shade the playground from the sun. It was for his help that day that Nadim was to receive the certificate that still sits in his teacher’s desk.

At 11.45am on May 15, Mr Zananiri took a walk around the halls and saw Nadeem chatting with his history teacher. He had heard that some of the students were thinking about going to Ofer, but did not think that Nadeem would be one of them.

That was the last time he would see him alive.

At the Nawara family home a few streets away, Siam Nawara sits in an armchair, dark rings around his eyes. He has become accustomed to journalists asking him about his son’s death, but that does not make recalling it any easier. Behind him, a huge photo printed on canvas of Nadeem dressed in his trademark backwards baseball cap and a kaffiyeh — taken the day he was killed — rests on the mantelpiece.

“I did not expect my son to participate in a protest. That was not the Nadeem that I knew,” he says.

In fact, father and son had argued about the protest that very morning. Nadeem’s brother and sister had told Mr Nawara that their brother intended to go to Ofer with his friends. Before he left for school, Mr Nawara had pleaded with him not to go. He had called him again at 1.15pm, and again asked him to come home; Nadeem had laughed and said that he would. Within an hour he would be dead.

Photographs and CCTV videos taken that day show Nadeem on the ground, school bag on his back, writhing in pain before he is carried to an ambulance. By the time his father was called at about 2pm and told that Nadeem was injured and taken to hospital his son had died.

Mr Nawara says that one of the saddest aspects of Nadeem’s death was that he was only now coming to know his son, through the videos recorded by his friends. He takes out his mobile phone and plays a video in which Nadeem fights with a friend over a band that they disagree on, and clips of his son slam-dunking on the basketball court. “I never knew he was so active in sports — since his death I have learned so much about him,” he says.

A religious man, it is now for Nadeem’s friends that Mr Nawara prays. He and Nadeem’s younger brother, Daniel, don his baseball caps for a photograph and then the young boy turns and puts his arms around his father’s neck. “I never hugged my sons enough,” Mr Nawara says quietly, and then to Daniel: “You are my eldest son now.”

Mahmoud and Nadeem were not the only boys shot that day.

A third young man, Mohammed Aziz, 15, was also at the protest. Sitting at home in Al Bireh, on the other side of Ramallah, Mohammed recalls the moment he saw the Israeli soldier pull the trigger.

“The protest wasn’t so big when we got there [at about 10.30am], there were only around 70 boys and four soldiers who were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. When we went to the front, everyone was moving fast and throwing rocks. I was looking directly at a soldier under the vine tree and I wasn’t moving,” Mohammed recalls, sitting next to his father in their detached home.

“Then I heard the sound of the rifle. I thought it was a rubber bullet but then I felt something burning inside me. I started running with some of the other guys and they told me that I had been shot in my back. Some people picked me up and carried me to the ambulance.”

Mohammed does not remember the ride to the hospital. His father, who was at work when he heard about the shooting, remembers seeing his son on a hospital gurney and knowing at once that he would live. But then he saw Nadeem, who had just been brought in with a gunshot wound to the chest.

“When I saw Nadeem, I was seriously worried. I knew that he wouldn’t live and I imagined my son in his place,” Mr Aziz says.

For both Nadeem and Mohammed, this was their first protest. Indeed, Mr Zananiri, the head teacher, has heard from friends of Nadeem that another boy had to show him how to tie his kaffiyeh around his face. Nadeem wanted to be a basketball player and Mohammed, a circus performer — he currently studies at the Palestinian circus school.

Like Mr Nawara, Mohammed’s father had not expected his son to go to the protest at Ofer.

“I am not mad [at Mohammed] because we taught our children to love Palestine and to resist the occupation. But I don’t agree with the way that they do it. It is not a fair fight. The kids with their hands and soldiers with guns,” Mr Aziz says.

Mr Zananiri agrees. “I saw Nadeem’s corpse, and I hope to forget that ... but [the Israelis] have to know that there are hundreds of people who are like Nadeem. If I thought my son was not like that, I would throw him out of the house.”

For Mr Nawara, who has lost a son, such political considerations are a luxury, and Nadeem’s absence hangs over the family home like a shadow.

If there can be anything positive about the snuffing out of a young man’s life, it is the love and support his family has received from neighbours, friends and strangers, Mr Nawara says. Thousands lined the streets for Nadeem’s funeral and no less than 16 journalists have visited him since to learn more about his son.

“The response of the people since Nadeem’s death has been great,” he says. “It gives me a strong push to understand what it means to be a community, a town and a nation. I feel like I belong more and more to my people.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 31, 2014 04:00 AM

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