Sun Feb 16, 2003 | Updated at 04:11 PM
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Feb. 16, 2003. 01:00 AM






Not just another civilian victim
World watches Israel's probe of Palestinian death MD's `blessed' wife shot as she sat sewing on veranda


NABLUS, West Bank—The square of unfinished checkerboard embroidery trails off in tragedy, stained with splashes of its owner's blood.

Though the last stitch was made more than four months ago, when Palestinian peace activist Shaden Abu Hijleh, 61, was cut down on her West Bank veranda in a hail of bullets, the demand for answers grows with each passing day.

Israeli human-rights groups want answers. American diplomats want answers. By some accounts, even U.S. President George W. Bush wants answers.

The exact circumstances of Abu Hijleh's killing on Oct. 11 — while she sat sewing on the steps of her home in the upscale Nablus neighbourhood of Rafadiyeh — are the subject of a continuing Israel Defence Forces' inquiry.

The army will say nothing other than: "The investigation continues."

But as the probe drags on, the Abu Hijleh tragedy is emerging as an international cause cιlθbre symbolizing Palestinian civilian deaths since the intifada began in September, 2000.

Dozens of Palestinian witnesses confirm the arrival of an IDF jeep late that Friday afternoon, describing how it came to an abrupt stop just 30 metres from Abu Hijleh's door.

Though a dawn-to-dusk curfew was in effect, the Abu Hijlehs felt safe on their veranda, taking in the last of the afternoon sunshine.

Shaden was absorbed with her embroidery. Jibril, 65, her husband of 40 years and a renowned Nablus doctor, sat alongside, sorting through a batch of thyme from the family herb garden.

Their son Saed, 36, a geography professor, was in the house, just about to join his parents on the terrace.

And then the bullets came. A slow and devastating volley of semi-automatic machinegun fire, as many as 15 rounds, ripped into the family's veranda.

The shooter, witnesses say, was an IDF soldier leaning out of the back door of the jeep, which then sped away.

Jibril, grazed from a ricochet to his scalp, ran inside the house to help his screaming son, whose neck was filled with shards from the shattered glass door.

Doctor and son then raced outside, from whence no sound came. Shaden had taken a bullet through the heart. She died instantly.

In the chaotic aftermath, neighbours rushed to the rescue, whisking the popular grandmother's body to hospital. Saed, stripped to the waist and bleeding from the neck, ran into the street after them.

There, he found himself facing the same IDF jeep, which had looped back from its patrol along the dead-end street.

"I stood there with no shirt on, screaming at them, `Why? Why did you kill my mother?'" he says.

"One of the soldiers stepped out and pointed his gun at me and said, `Get out of the way or I'll shoot you, too."

At least 1,829 Palestinians and 705 Israelis have been killed since the start of the intifada.

When Israeli innocents are killed by suicide bombs, a manhunt ensues, often ending in arrests and military justice or, as in the case of West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, a high-profile civilian trial.

` My mother dedicated her life to peace, to fairness, to justice'

Abu Hijleh, son of slain Palestinian woman

But when Palestinian civilians die, investigation is entirely in the hands of Israel's occupying authorities and an ambiguous protocol that Palestinians say is designed to countenance murder.

The Abu Hijlehs, however, are a family to be reckoned with. Popular, prominent, peace-seeking and articulate, the victim's four children are all graduates of the University of Iowa and two hold U.S. citizenship.

Within days of her death, they decided as a group to mount a campaign on their mother's behalf.

An Israeli lawyer was hired; a Web site was constructed (; the U.S. embassy, the International Red Cross and Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem became involved.

The army's initial investigation concluded that a stray bullet had hit Abu Hijleh during rioting. But as the groundswell of attention grew, the IDF chief of staff turned aside the findings and called for a more thorough probe.

An IDF source says the military police investigation is proceeding in its search for the truth with "full independence" and will not hesitate to recommend charges if it concludes the soldiers are culpable.

"There is no interest in sweeping this under the carpet. The judge advocate-general will make the decision on whether to indict," the military source said.

"If that's where the truth is, that is what will happen."

Some Israelis, however, remain doubtful the probe will set such a precedent.

"The real question is about an atmosphere where some soldiers believe they can get away with murder, literally," says Akiva Eldar, a journalist for the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz who has written extensively about Abu Hijleh's death.

"You must remember that the fist thinks from its head. And many IDF commanders have said publicly that their strategy is to punish all Palestinians, even innocent ones, in order to convince them to vomit out the militants in the population.

"But part of the atmosphere is that some soldiers are trigger-happy and they know it has no cost. The subtext the soldiers receive is that there is a free lunch — that they can shoot with impunity."

The Abu Hijleh family, meanwhile, says growing international support gives them confidence that justice will be served.

"I think my mother was blessed," says Saed Abu Hijleh. "People all over the world are responding, adding their voices to our petition."

On the first day of the Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) festival, when normally the family would be gathered around his mother's table, Saed stoically shows the house, which remains just as it was the day of the shooting.

The breeze presses through an arc of eight bullet holes in the glass doors leading to the veranda. The checkerboard embroidery is in plain view, the victim's blood now faded to a deep brown.

The lone addition is a wreath in a sitting-room corner, donated by the Nablus branch of the Social, Cultural and Charitable Society, of which Shaden Abu Hijleh was a board member.

The organization had undertaken non-violent protest in the months before her death, marching to roadblocks to present IDF soldiers with flowers.

"Peace be upon you, jasmine flower. Peace be upon you, mother of the poor," reads the Arabic text.

Saed expands on the sentiment represented in those words.

"My mother dedicated her life to peace, to fairness, to justice," he says. "She worked for the poor, she worked for the status of Palestinian women, she worked with orphans.

"I think maybe, even in death, she carries on this work. We know nothing will bring her back to us. Israel must understand that if they kill people like her, whom will they make peace with?

"So this is our cause. If our efforts will make the next soldier hesitate a little bit before pulling the trigger and killing another mother, then she will not have died in vain."

Additional articles by Mitch Potter

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