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Ha’aretz: Twilight Zone / Deer hunters

By Gideon Levy

Dec. 30

After a night of rain, the sun broke through the clouds. Two brothers and their brother-in-law decided to go for a hike in the wild, through the spectacular valley of olive trees, west of Ramallah in the West Bank. Around midday they suddenly noticed a herd of deer descending pell-mell into the valley. They stood and watched, certain that in the wake of the frantically fleeing animals, other people would appear. And, in fact, a few minutes later they spotted a group of soldiers slowly making their way into the valley.

The three young Palestinians stood on the ridge of the hills that overlook the valley, a few hundred meters from the soldiers as the crow flies. Suddenly, according to the testimony of one of them, without any prior warning, the soldiers fired bursts of bullets at them. Firas Kaskas, 32, an unemployed gardener from the village of Batir, near Bethlehem, who had come to visit his brother-in-law in his new apartment, fell to the ground. He died of his wounds the next day. He left a young wife and three daughters, of whom the eldest is four.

This week the sun poured down again on the beautiful valley. We went there with Jamil Matur, the victim’s brother-in-law, who was with him on that brilliantly bright, but grimly dark day. We stood exactly where the three had been when Firas was shot and killed. Here, this is where Matur was standing; Kaskas was here, and his brother, Baha, was standing there.

A shepherd gathered his flock in the valley below, making strange groaning noises that carried a long way. In contrast, the tinkling of the sheeps’ bells was sharp and pleasant to the ears. A great calm descended on the valley, on whose stepped terraces are a number of ancient ruins. On the ridge across the way are the houses of the Mustaqbal neighborhood. The way to the valley also cuts through A-Tira, a prestigious neighborhood on the western slopes of Ramallah, a city which is today experiencing a building boom and economic prosperity. A few weeks ago, the members of the Kaskas family – Firas, his wife Majida, and their three little girls – visited Majida’s brother in A-Tira. He had just moved in, and the family went to see the new place and spend a peaceful weekend together.

On that Sunday morning the family had a late breakfast and lounged on the porch of their house. Firas suggested a walk. Majida wanted to visit another brother in nearby Bitunia; Jamil, Faris’ brother-in-law, suggested that they go into town. Finally, they decided that Majida and the girls would go to Bitunia and the three men – Jamil, Firas and Baha – would go for a little hike. Leaving their neighborhood, they walked along the ridge above the wadi. Near one concentration of ruins they stopped to watch the deer. Ramallah residents like to come here on weekends to spend some time in nature, to barbecue meat, smoke a nargileh and enjoy the view.

The three men were standing a few meters apart from each other when they noticed a group of soldiers descending into the wadi. They were about 300 meters away, as the crow flies, the valley separating them. The soldiers stopped next to the ruins on the slopes of the ridge opposite them. Jamil counted seven or eight soldiers. Then, suddenly, without any prior warning, Jamil relates, the soldiers opened fire. It came in one or two bursts, he says. Jamil immediately took cover behind a boulder, Baha lay down supine behind him, while Firas stood out in front, exposed to the gunfire. Jamil managed to call to Firas to take shelter behind the boulder, Firas turned toward him – and then collapsed.

“Are you hit?” Jamil asked in a panic.

“It’s nothing, just a rubber bullet,” Firas replied.

Jamil and Baha moved cautiously toward Firas, who was able to stand up. They supported him for a few steps, and then he fell again. Foam gathered on his lips and he gasped for breath. Jamil stripped off his brother-in-law’s clothes and saw a few drops of blood on his underpants and small holes in his lower stomach and lower back. Leaving the wounded man with his brother, he ran to the nearest house to summon help. He also waved his hands toward the soldiers, so they would not shoot at him, too. They stood mute. Employees from an ironworker’s shop and a few neighbors rushed over. They carried Firas to a private car and called a Palestinian ambulance. They met the ambulance up on the road and transferred Firas to the vehicle.

“Firas, are you alive?” Jamil asked his brother-in-law.

“It’s nothing,” Firas replied.

In the emergency room of the government hospital in Ramallah, he was still able to resist having his pants removed, but finally agreed and was taken immediately to surgery.

From the medical report: “The above-named man was brought to the government hospital in Ramallah on December 2, 2007, after being hit by a bullet, which penetrated behind the stomach region and exited in front. The patient was operated on urgently and it emerged that the small intestine was torn. Part of it was removed and the other part was stitched. It also emerged that there was heavy bleeding as a result of a torn central artery in the hip region. The bleeding was stopped and the arteries were connected. After the operation the patient was placed in intensive care. After the surgery the stomach bleeding began anew. The patient was taken to the operating room. It turned out that there was bleeding of all the stomach tissues.”

Firas died at five the next morning.

The Israel Defense Forces spokesman informed us that after a preliminary investigation, it transpired that soldiers at an army observation post had spotted three Palestinians who were behaving suspiciously.

“The three, who were identified as being busy on the ground for quite a few minutes, were suspected by the force of planting a bomb,” the statement said. “A force … was rushed to the site and launched a pursuit of the suspects, during which they called on them to stop and also fired into the air. When the calls were ignored, the force opened fire at the suspects.”

According to the IDF, “the incident was investigated at all levels of command, and the lessons will be learned and applied. The findings of the investigation will be conveyed to the Mili-tary Advocate General’s Office.”

Antigona Ashkar, from the human rights organization B’Tselem, who also investigated the event, wrote to the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Liron Liebman, saying: “The soldiers opened fire at Jamil, Baha and Firas suddenly, with no prior warning. The three were sitting on a boulder and looking at the view, and did not endanger anyone. They were surprised by the emergence of the soldiers from between the trees and remained where they were until the soldiers started shooting at them.” B’Tselem requested a Military Police investigation of the circumstances of the killing.

The B’Tselem field-worker in the Ramallah region, Iyad Hadad, said this week at the site of the killing: “It was a hunt. Those soldiers went on a hunting expedition. They killed Firas the way you hunt a deer or a stag. They couldn’t have had any other reason for shooting him.”

Jamil added: “What did the soldiers see in his hand? What did we do? Did they see a weapon in his hand? Was there a demonstration going on? Did we throw stones at anyone? They just shot us without batting an eyelash.”

In the village of Batir, Firas’ widow, Majida, in black mourning clothes, sits in her small, simple home. She is holding her infant daughter Sadil. At three months, Sadil’s father has been taken from her. The other two girls – Latifa, four, and Naama, two and a half – wander restlessly about their meager living room, blowing soap bubbles, until the whole room is filled with them.

Majida waited and waited in her brother’s home in Bitunia for Firas to arrive that day, as he had promised, after the hike. But Firas did not arrive. Not until the next day did her father come and tell her, “Firas is dead.”

Now Majida, her voice broken with crying, says: “I want to ask you and the whole world: What did he do? What was his crime? What was he guilty of? The father of three little girls – I want to know, why was he killed? Because I don’t know.”