For Palestinians, a Rush to Claim ‘Martyrs’ Killed by Israel

When Hisham Abu Naise arrived at the morgue to bid farewell to his son Muhammad, hours after he had been killed by Israeli troops, he was in such a state of shock that he didn’t notice the black flag of Islamic Jihad draped over his body.

Mr. Abu Naise kissed the forehead of his 27-year-old son and whispered, “I’m here, my son, I’m here,” unaware that the armed Palestinian group had already claimed him as one of its martyrs — even though he wasn’t a member.

Outside the morgue, he said, a representative of Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, pulled him aside, and asked: “Do you want to keep him Islamic Jihad or do you want him to be Fatah?”

Mr. Abu Naise, 48, was shocked. “‘My son wasn’t Islamic Jihad or Fatah,’” he told the man.

This year has been the deadliest ‌for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank since 2005, ‌with at least 166 killed. Of the Palestinians killed, the majority ‌have been civilians, according to the United Nations and Palestinian human rights groups. Israel stepped up its military raids in the spring when Palestinian assailants killed 19 Israelis and foreigners, most of them civilians, in five attacks between March and May, the worst spate of killings in years.

The high Palestinian death toll has cast a fresh light on the practice of armed and political Palestinian groups claiming as members or publicly honoring all those killed by Israel, one that blurs the distinction between civilians and armed fighters. It is a tradition that some families object to, saying they don’t want loved ones used for political purposes.

Mr. Abu Naise said he raised his two sons to stay away from the armed Palestinian resistance groups fighting against Israeli occupation. His eldest, Muhammad, spent his days working as a civil servant in city government and nights as a barista, to support his wife and two young children.

Now he was dead, killed on the street by Israeli troops conducting a raid in Jenin, according to the Palestinian authorities.

“The Israeli army doesn’t distinguish between civilian or fighter. This year we’re all at risk of a bullet striking us,” Mr. Abu Naise said.

A funeral for four Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in Jenin on Sept. 28.Credit…Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Every Palestinian killed by Israel is considered a martyr by the community, reflecting a widespread view that each Palestinian is part of a resistance to decades of occupation by Israel. But the rush by armed groups to claim those killed as martyrs worries some Palestinians, who feel it is being used by Israel to justify raids even when civilians are the victims.

“Israel could use what is essentially a community and political practice to shroud the fact that they are killing Palestinian civilians,” said Yara Hawari, a senior analyst at Al Shabaka, a Palestinian research group. “It allows Israel to kill civilians with impunity.”

The Israeli army said its security forces took significant measures to reduce harm to civilians and “use live fire after all other options are exhausted.”

In claiming the dead, the armed groups raise their flags during funeral processions, make posters with their logos and the image of the person killed, organize mourning halls and often offer financial support to families.

Some Palestinians view the practice as a way to honor martyrs. Others call it a blood trade and a way for armed groups vying against each other to bolster their reputations by claiming association with Palestinians killed by Israel.

“How does one measure the work of every armed faction? By the number of martyrs and the number of prisoners they have,” said Mohammad Al-Sabag, a member of Fatah in Jenin. “Unfortunately, the measurement is the cost that is paid.”

Abdaljawad Hamayel, a professor of Palestinian politics at Birzeit University, said the groups made little distinction between civilians and fighters when honoring martyrs. “Especially when Israel calls everyone a terrorist,” he added.

In Israeli military news releases there is little acknowledgment of the civilian toll from its raids into Palestinian areas this year, with the word “civilian” never used in reference to Palestinians. The military generally acknowledges that a Palestinian was killed simply with the phrase “a hit was identified.”

In response to questions about the number of Palestinians killed by its forces this year in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said “the vast majority” of Palestinian deaths were “individuals involved in terrorist activity that directly threatened human life.”

The grave of Mahmoud al-Saadi, second from left, who was killed at age 17 in late November by Israeli troops.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Many of the Palestinians killed this year have been in Jenin, where Israeli raids have become frequent and happen at all hours. Now an alarm sounds to warn residents of military incursions.

“We’re living in a state of fear at all times wondering, ‘Whose turn is it to die?’” said Hannah Abu Naise, 45, Muhammad’s mother. “Every time the army raids, a martyr falls.”

Mohammad Abu Naise was one of four Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in Jenin on Sept. 28, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Two of those killed were Islamic Jihad members, the group said.

Mr. Abu Naise had texted his wife, Kareeman, 28, to let her know he was on his way back from work. She urged him not to venture home. “‘Don’t come, there are snipers,’” she told him.

He didn’t heed her warning. He was shot and killed while walking home.

“Muhammad had nothing to do with politics or the resistance,” his mother said. “His life was from home to work and work to home.”

An Islamic Jihad spokesman confirmed that Mr. Abu Naise was not a member of their group and said he had not been claimed by it, just mourned along with the three others killed.

The Israeli military said in a statement that day that it had killed two suspects wanted for alleged involvement in shooting attacks. It made no mention of Mr. Abu Naise.

When asked about his death, the military referred questions to the Israeli border police, who referred back to statements that day saying that “a number of terrorists” had opened fire at Israeli forces “who responded by shooting and a number of other terrorists were hit.”

Days after Mr. Abu Naise’s death, Islamic Jihad members dropped off a sign to be hung outside the family’s home which reads: “Islamic Jihad and its military wing Saraya al-Quds honor the heroic martyr Muhammad Abu Naise.”

Mr. Abu Naise’s father didn’t want the sign and it sat in the family’s living room for a month.

“Because of these words Israel might use the excuse and say, ‘We didn’t kill a civilian,’” he said.

But he later relented after his wife and other family members convinced him Islamic Jihad could help financially support his son’s children.

Kareeman Abu Naise at home with her daughter in Jenin. Muhammad Abu Naise, Kareeman’s husband, was shot by Israeli troops, Palestinian officials say.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The reasons behind this tradition of claiming Palestinians killed are complicated, but money often plays a role — both for the political and armed groups and the families, who in many cases have lost a breadwinner.

For those claimed by Fatah, family stipends come from the Palestinian Martyrs Fund. These stipends have been criticized by the United States and Israel, who contend that it motivates Palestinians to commit attacks like suicide bombings.

The United States suspended some financial aid to the Palestinian Authority over the stipends and in 2018 Israel began withholding a portion of the monthly transfers of tax revenues it collects on behalf of the authority to penalize it for paying out the money.

The authority has defended the stipends as a form of social welfare.

An Islamic Jihad spokesman, Daoud Shehab, said the group only financially supported the families of its members. Islamic Jihad is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

With local armed resistance groups emerging as younger Palestinians eschew affiliations with groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, they too are vying for clout by claiming martyrs.

On the night of Nov. 22, 15-year-old Ahmed Amjad Shehadeh left his family’s home in Nablus to play pool with friends. Hours later he was near Joseph’s Tomb, a site in the Palestinian city venerated by many Jews, where the Israeli military was carrying out an incursion in order to escort Jewish worshipers.

During the incursion, the Israeli military said, “Armed suspects endangered the soldiers’ lives. The soldiers responded with live fire. Hits were identified.”

Local armed groups including the Lion’s Den said they had targeted the soldiers with bullets and explosive devices.

Ahmed was shot in the heart and died hours later, according to the Palestinian health ministry. The Israeli army said it had launched an investigation into Ahmed’s death.

It’s not clear why the teenager was near the tomb but his father said his son had no affiliations or involvement with armed groups.

That didn’t stop the Lion’s Den and Fatah from claiming him.

“Before we knew it they brought the headband and the flag to the hospital,” Ahmed’s father, Amjad Shehadeh, 53, said of the Lion’s Den. “I said ‘no’ a hundred times. But they said, ‘It’s a must for the funeral procession to proceed.’”

A banner with a portrait of Ahmed Shehadeh outside the family’s shop in Nablus.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The Lion’s Den took over his son’s funeral procession and Fatah organized the mourning hall.

Now in Mr. Shehadeh’s home goods shop in the Old City of Nablus, multiple posters from both groups hang from the walls.

In Jenin, such posters have multiplied in recent months.

Fatah put up posters on one apartment building honoring a “high school senior and only son” — Mahmoud al-Saadi, 17 — who was killed in late November by Israeli troops, according to his family and Palestinian officials. The Israeli military said the circumstances of Mahmoud’s death were being “examined.”

The family said they had not been consulted about the posters.

During his funeral procession his body was covered with a Palestinian flag and on top of it the gray school backpack he was carrying when he was killed.

“If my son was carrying a rifle and was resisting, I would say he was resisting. But why should I lie?” said Mahmoud’s father, Abduljaleel al-Saadi, 45. “You are helping the occupation when you turn a child into a fighter.”

On the second day of the three-day mourning period, a member of Islamic Jihad came to Mr. al-Saadi inside the mourning hall and showed him posters the group had made for Mahmoud.

Mr. al-Saadi told the man to burn them.

“My son is not for sale,” said Mahmoud’s mother, Amna al-Saadi, 40. “Maybe you want to get more support, but not at the expense of my son.”

She said she had sent her son and three daughters off to school on the morning of Nov. 21, not knowing the army had just launched a raid. Minutes after her children left, the siren warning of the raid sounded. She frantically called her children to make sure they were safe.

The first two times she called Mahmoud he answered, assuring his mother he was fine and had gotten close to his school, a 10-minute walk from home.

The third time she called, he didn’t pick up.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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