March 23, 2014
I met with fugitive Hamza “Hamzi” Abu al-Haija around two weeks ago, at his home on the slopes of the Jenin refugee camp (“Twilight Zone,” March 7). Hamzi didn’t act like a wanted man. He was spending the day in his family home, acting normally; he wasn’t armed nor did he betray any signs of the nervousness typical of men on the run that I’ve met over the years. Wearing sweats, he was playing with his little niece and joined the conversation we were having with his mother. He smiled a lot and said he was not afraid.
He told us that on the evening of December 18 soldiers had come to his home to arrest him while he was celebrating the birth of a nephew with friends. They heard suspicious noises from the street and at first thought it was a force from the Palestinian Authority, which has also been trying to arrest Hamas men in the camp. Only when he and his three friends ran to the roof and looked down did they realize it was the Israel Defense Forces.
Hamzi managed to escape by fleeing over the roofs and through the alleys, but his friend, Nafaa Saidi, was shot and killed by the soldiers. In the three ensuing months, no one tried to arrest him and Hamzi continued with his routine; during the day he would stay in his family’s home, but at night he would sleep elsewhere. He explained that he had studied hairstyling and that a few weeks earlier a Shin Bet man who called himself Shalom called to tell him, “I will be coming to get you soon. We need to finish the story between us.”
So early Saturday morning the story was finished. According to eyewitnesses at the camp, Hamzi was with a few friends in a house at the top of the hill on which the camp is situated. At around 3:00 A.M. soldiers stormed the house while firing at it. Hamzi, who was armed, returned fire, but when his ammunition ran out he came out toward the soldiers, who shot him to death. That was the story going around in the Jenin refugee camp Saturday.
But the more serious story going around was about the circumstances under which the other two men with Hamzi were killed: According to these testimonies, they were killed as they were carrying Hamzi’s body to his family home, which is a distance from where the gun battle had occurred. Sharpshooters in the camp killed them, even though they were not armed.
Hamzi was the youngest son of Sheikh Jamal Abu al-Haija, the former head of Hamas in the camp, who was sentenced to nine life sentences for his role in sending a suicide attacker to the Meron junction in August 2002 to carry out an attack that killed nine Israelis. Sheikh Jamal has been incarcerated for 12 years and Hamzi had not seen him since his arrest. He told us that he barely remembers him.
I first met Hamzi in June 2003. He was 11, with both parents and his oldest brother in jail, and the five remaining children, all of then young, were forced to fend for themselves. I described Hamzi then as a scared and quiet boy. His mother, Asmaa, was placed in administrative detention (arrest without trial). She spent nine months in prison, all the while suffering from a brain tumor. The family home was destroyed in 2002 by a missile fired by an Apache helicopter, but was rebuilt and is now roomy, pleasant and well-tended, with pictures of the father and his sons on a large poster in the living room. Two of Hamzi’s brothers, Abed and Amad, are also imprisoned in Israel.
Ater hearing that her son had been killed Saturday, Asmaa was hospitalized. When we parted from him two weeks ago and told him to take care of himself, he told us, “There’s nothing to worry about.”