Suchitra Vijayan

"I lay between the soldier's big boots, and he took out his knife...He raised the knife with his two hands high over his head and plunged the knife down until it stopped just an inch from my forehead. I screamed and screamed, and so did he."
                   - Narrated to Rädda Barnen, (Swedish Save the Children) in "The Status of Palestinian Children During the Uprising in Occupied Territories" report, January 1990.

I arrived at the West Bank village of Ni'ilin on the day of ten-year-old Ahmed Mousa’s funeral. On July 29, 2008, Ahmed was shot in his head by an Israeli soldier with an M16. He was killed in the area where the demonstration against the illegal Israeli apartheid wall was ongoing. The shot to his forehead fractured Ahmed’s face into pieces, and his head was “pretty much blown off.” 

Ni'lin is less than two miles from the Green Line and an hours drive away from Jerusalem. It is a village with around 4500 inhabitants. In the summer of 2008, the people of Ni'ilin were protesting the construction of the illegal apartheid wall on their land. Since 1948, Nilin has lost close to 90% of their land to Israel and its illegal settlements. If the wall is completed, Ni'lin would lose over a third of its current land holding.

The Israeli Apartheid wall is ubiquitous in the West Bank and the occupied territories. It twists, turns and meanders unlawfully into Palestinian land. Its ugliness is only fractionally bearable by the art; slogans and graffiti that the Palestinians have drawn on the wall as acts of protests. The wall is the outline of a penal colony, a vicious carceral being that runs viscerally through everything—the Palestinians, their land, their dreams and their lives. The wall designed to colonize Palestinian land has turned every village on the other side of the green line into a camp. The wall subverts their reality, lays siege on their history, their time and the truth of their dispossession. It has made Palestinian life unbearable, miserable and futile by restricting people's access to their land. In Palestine, where farming is essential to their livelihood, it means preventing people from reaching and working in their fields.

The people of Ni'ilin have been protesting the wall since 2004. When the bulldozers first came to Nilin, the villagers protested daily. Camping out for more than a month they prevented Israeli forces from building on their land. It was a spontaneous uprising and the unrelenting protests prevented the army from building the wall for almost four years.

These early protests in Ni'ilin had been enormously successful. Becca Wolf, of the Palestine Solidarity Project, in an interview soon after Ahmed's death said that Ni'ilin was the site of one of the most successful demonstrations she had witnessed in the last five years. “Ni'ilin has become not only a symbol of Palestinian resistance but a rebirth of the kind of popular resistance that has been successful in the past. And so it has become incredibly dangerous in some ways to the Israeli military and the Israeli government as a whole.” 

However, in May 2008, the bulldozers and trucks returned with a vengeance. They arrived to build the wall that would take away their land, their livelihoods, their homes and their history. Every day, they saw their olive groves and houses being uprooted by construction crews protected by the Israeli army. Non-violent demonstrations took place up to five times a week for several months with young men, elderly, children, international activist, and protestors. 

Every week they came chanting with their flags, and banners. The construction site was their frontline, and they had nothing except sticks and stones, to fight an apartheid army that was annexing their land. Protesters non-violently blocking of bulldozers were met with tear gas and targeted shooting. The curfew and crackdowns were brutal, but the protests continued. 

These demonstrations were about a sense of being alive, of being a people, and doing the only thing that made the most sense to them to protest and to resist. Even if it meant dying, they were fighting for their land and freedom.

The International Court of justice, in its advisory opinion in 2004, had already ruled the wall and settlements as illegal, that "the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law." It had unequivocally stated that "Israel cannot rely on a right of self-defense or on a state of necessity to preclude the wrongfulness of the construction of the wall."

But rulings had not changed the reality of their dispossession. The law did not bring them justice. The wall's construction continues unabated. They fought for what was legally theirs, non-violently, against an occupying army without any weapons. 

Ahmed was ten years old when he shot and killed. He was an unarmed child, and his great crime was being Palestinian. On the day he was shot, Ahmed was with his friends in the area where the protests took place. Everyone I spoke to that day repeated that Ahmed was spectator. The Al-Haq report that investigated the killing later confirmed this in their statement. 

"On Tuesday, 29 July 2008, at approximately 6 pm, a peaceful demonstration consisting of roughly 50 children and 50 elderly Palestinians left the center of Nilin village and began walking towards the intended demonstration site near the Annexation Wall. The organizers deliberately decided to hold the protest at 6pm because they knew that Israeli soldiers and construction workers would not be present, and it would, therefore, be relatively safe to allow children and the elderly to demonstrate. Upon the group’s arrival, an Israeli Border Police vehicle rapidly deployed to the site. The demonstration organizers quickly began to lead the children and elderly to safety. Ahmed Husam Mousa, a 10-year-old child, hid in an olive grove. A member of the Israeli Border Police saw Ahmed, left the Border Police vehicle, aimed his rifle and fired a live bullet. Shot from a distance of 50 meters, the bullet entered Ahmed’s forehead and exited through the back of his skull. While two of the demonstration’s organizers attempted to carry Ahmed to safety, they were fired upon by the Border Police. They succeeded in carrying the child to safety, but he was already dead."

Ahmed was standing by an olive tree with three others when a border police jeep drove by and stopped. The driver of the vehicle, along with another soldier jumped from the back door, and unprovoked, they fired their M-16s simultaneously. The shot was fired from a distance of 50 meters, and Ahmed was killed immediately. 

Ahmed's friend Saeed Amireh who tried to pick him up saw Ahmed’s brain fall out of his broken skull.  In an interview with Electronic Intifada, Saeed described the killing: “I was close to him at the time [the army shot him]; I was 16 and a half years old. When I carried Ahmed to the ambulance, his brain fell out of his head onto my hands, and then I fell down [out of shock].”

Saeed was sixteen when he saw Ahmed's murder. 

No child should ever witness this unthinkable, unseeable act of violence. But these children have grown up bearing witness to the ugliness of occupation and the grotesque ways in which Israel rules with impunity as its weapon. 

In 2008, Ahmed was the youngest to lose his life to the illegal apartheid wall. His death had unnerved everyone. The pain and the ugliness of the violence had stirred the entire village. In his funeral shroud, Ahmed looked really small. Made smaller by the Palestinian flag that now covered him.

His skin had started to gray. I had never seen the body of a child this young, die so violently.  

When Ahmed's body was released from the hospital in Ramallah, he was placed in an ambulance and driven to Ni’lin. Along the way, hundreds of protesters followed the ambulance in cars, taxis, pickup trucks, and busses. By the time the funeral procession reached Ni’lin, the IDF had already set up its perimeter around the village. 

Expecting protests, the IDF had blocked all vehicle access to Ni'ilin and had placed soldiers on the roofs of Palestinian homes and building overlooking the roads that led to Nilim. OC Central Command Gen. Gadi Shamni had ordered a permanent  Border Police station, on the outskirts of the village which angered the villagers further. 

The cars, trucks, and taxis stopped a mile leading up to the village, and everyone heading to Ahmed’s funeral jumped on to the street and joined the funeral procession. I could see IDF soldiers in shooting positions lording over the masses from with their M16s. 

The crowds became dense, and it was hard to see what was in front. I was now part of a seething wave of humanity chanting slogans and marching towards Ni'ilin. The slogans, the chanting and the marching in unison were cries of the human anguish. Resistance is the first principle of freedom, it is fundamental to all laws that claim to be humane and ethical. Resistance is also the first principle of human rights and our humanity. These protests are integral to the Palestinian liberty and their freedom. 

The momentum picked as I got closer to Ni'ilin. I walked a little faster, and the chanting became louder. And then the rising wave of marching people stopped. There was a loud scream, and we scattered. I stepped back, and I quickly moved to the side. Tear gas had been thrown at the protestors half a mile ahead. I couldn't see what was happening, but the noise of the commotion traveled back. 

The tear gas was never a weapon of crowd control; it is a banned weapon of torture. People here were intimately familiar with its cruelty. Over the years they had learned ways of navigating and negotiating with these lethal chemical weapons. Before I left for Ni'ilin, a Palestinian friend made sure that I carried milk cartons, and masks in my backpack. He showed me a tear gas canister he had picked up when he was eighteen. It was a morbid souvenir from the insides of an inferno, he had held on to it and carried it with him everywhere. The outside cartridge read “Made in the USA.” 

The tear gas canister used in Palestine was later used in Tahrir square in Egypt and by the police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. 

“Take all the precautions,” he had said, “Run against the wind.” But the gas, like the occupation, found its way inside everything. I had missed the teargas this time, but I could smell something rancid and rotten. 

As the funeral procession marched towards the mosque, the children stood on the side of streets, and where houses had balconies, the women stood huddled together, holding each other looking onto the street. When Ahmed’s body passed them, women began to cry. 

After a few minutes, another tear gas landed. This time closer to where I was, and the crowd scattered again. I walked to the side and stood for a few minutes. My eyes were beginning to itch, and the vileness, the visceral hate and the ugliness I had witnessed just over the past two weeks choked me. For a minute, I couldn't breathe. I closed my eyes and took long deep breaths. 

When I opened my eyes again, I saw the tiny bubbles floating in the air, and disappearing into the crowds. As I followed its trajectory, I saw a young boy of five in his bright yellow shirt, blowing bubbles. With the evening sun turning color the bubbles flew into the crowd in purple, blue and pink. It is a sight I have never forgotten. 

At the heart of every occupation are crushed childhoods and broken homes. I saw boys as young as five on the street waving Palestinians flags twice their size chanting freedom songs and slogans. A graffiti along the apartheid wall said, “When they leave my home, I will put the stones down and return to my swings.” Children had become the beating heart of this resistance, and it's biggest victims. Where everyday intifada had become the norm, a boy blowing bubbles had become surreal. 

When I saw him first, I smiled. The more I watched the little boy in the mustard shirt, my momentary happiness turned into dread. He stood by the large window, blowing his bubbles. Right next to his widow stood a half-built house and on the roof of this incomplete house stood an Israeli soldier, just a few feet away. His M16 casually and dangerously pointing in the direction of the boy. Some of the little bubbles he blew landed on the soldier's face and disappeared. Every time he blew his bubbles the soldier got more and more annoyed. 

The chanting picked up the pace, its rhythm now poetic and my hand clapped in unison with others. It was hypnotic. The boy smiled a big bright smile, and with as much air his little lung could hold he blew again. All the tiny bubbles now landed on the soldier's face.  The unknown soldier was now annoyed, his face menacing he walked toward the boy in a quick stride. 

The boy froze. I stood still, and a chill passed through the crowd. 

The Israeli soldiers had killed for less. They killed children for being children. 

They had just shot a ten years old Ahmed in the head. His face was gone, the back of his head blown away. A month before the same IDF unit had held a young man and shot him in his leg, while he was blindfolded. Two weeks before I had seen "Gas the Arabs" graffiti in Hebron, and a soldier casually pointing his gun at a group of school children crossing the checkpoint. The week before in Jerusalem, I had heard an Israeli soldier from “Breaking the Silence” repeat a catalog of violence they had committed or witnessed during their deployments. Palestinian minors are regularly held in Israeli prisons as security detainees, criminal offenders and prisoners. 

The first lesson I learned by seeing in Palestine was this. Palestinian lives, their time, their freedom and their dignity was disposable. And a crime as great as this was defended with hate and bigotry, not by monsters but by ordinary people both within and outside Israel. 

It would take very little to kill this boy. 

And as I saw the soldier move towards him, a silence fell over the crowd right below his window. The soldier reached the edge of the roof pointing the gun at him. At that moment his mother screamed, grabbed the boy by his waist and run into their house. The soldier still holding the gun pointed at the gun at the crowd briefly and stepped back. The haunting silence that followed the horror I had witnessed was broken by another round of tear gas. 

I did not know that it was tear gas first. 

What I experienced was an odd mix of confusion and pain. My skin burned, my eyes felt like it was on fire. This was my first tear gas. The canister landed 50 feet away, and the plumes spread quickly. I gasped for air, and fire in eyes had now traveled to my mouth, and my throat felt parched. My could taste my tears, and it burned my lips more. I coughed, but I couldn't scream. My eyelids snapped shut and when I finally reopened my eyes the world around me had gotten blurry. The crowd that had scattered started marching again. 

Emotions have smells; occupation is olfactory. I had seen so little of Palestine, but I could feel a slice of its terror in all my senses. From that day on dread to me smells like tear gas. Having experienced it, it never left me. If a cursory encounter with Palestine had made it hard for me to breathe, I wondered how their worlds were rendered smaller by each encounter with this violence. How vast and expansive would their world be if they were not restricted by id cards, checkpoints, tear gas, violence, and funerals? 

Before I left Ni'ilin that day, I tried to see the boy again. When I finally found his home, I was told that the boy in the mustard shirt had gone with his cousin to Ahmed's family graveyard. As I left his home, I could see him at the other end of alley walking towards his house. 

This boy had lived that day. But another boy hadn't. Seventeen-year-old Yousef Amira died that day on the other side of the village.  

After Ahmed’s funeral, around 6.30pm, the demonstrators who had attended Ahmed's funeral were hit with the tear gas and rubber bullets again to disperse the crowd. Yousef Amira was hit with two rubber-coated steel bullets on his head. Six other young men were also shot at and injured by rubber-coated steel bullets.

Yousef was taken to the Ramallah hospital where he was pronounced brain dead upon arrival, but he was kept on life support. For the next four days, his family waited and watched him die slowly. Yousef's face had been disfigured. Those who saw him at the hospital could not recognize him. 

His friend Hindi Mesleh in an interview later said that “He looked different. Two bullets in—they’ve exploded his head.” 

They went from one funeral to another. Wondering who would be next. Willing to be the next. 

For ten years I wondered how to narrate a fraction of the hubris I had witnessed. But the boy with the mustard shirt never left me. He has remained a memory varnished over by many other moments of anguish I have seen. 

I have often wondered where that little boy is now. I imagine him alive and fighting. On the road to their long march to freedom. When their freedom comes, I want him to take a hammer to that wall. Like the bubble he blew at the soldier, I want him to break down the barrier that stole their land, consumed their history and broke their bodies. 

In 2012, the Israeli soldier, Omri Abu, who admitted to firing two rounds of live ammunition that killed Ahmed Mousa was acquitted by an Israeli Court. Abu was indicted in the Ramle Magistrate's Court in May 2010 for "causing death by negligence." Abu had initially lied to the police, claiming he hadn't fired his weapon. He had ejected the cartridge from his rifle to destroy the evidence. 

During his testimony, at the court, he said that “not firing back at those who hurl stones at the army is considered weakness; therefore, I opened fire.” 

“There was concern that the incident would escalate,” he said. “Even in a bulletproof car, you have to respond. If they see you don't respond, it can be perceived as weakness.”

Despite multiple eyewitness accounts and local reports that prove that Omri had shot Ahmed, and was responsible for this death, the judge claimed that “it was not proven that the bullets fired by the soldier led to the death of the child.” 

The court ruled that Abu had opened fire when his life was not in danger and thereby violated the police's rules of engagement. Abu was only convicted of misusing his weapon and was just sentenced to three years. 

Illustration by ©Suhail Naqshbandi, a painter and graphic designer. He is an editorial cartoonist and art director at Greater Kashmir.

Suchitra Vijayan is a writer, photographer, lawyer, political essayist, lecturer and a political analyst. She is the founder of the Humanities Collective called The Polis Project