Qarawat Bani Zeid, occupied West Bank — The day Fatima Hjeiji, 16, was shot dead by Israeli forces was the fifth day of her hunger strike in solidarity with an estimated 1,600 Palestinian prisoners on strike, her family told Mondoweiss.
The 16-year-old, a poet, activist and stellar math student, approached a group of five Israeli forces in Jerusalem on Sunday allegedly carrying a kitchen knife with the intention of attacking the fully armed border police officers.
The officers, apparently seeing the situation as a threat to life, lifted their guns and shot the teenage girl between 10 to 20 times. Witness at the scene reported that as the girl lay motionless on the ground Israeli forces continued shooting.
The 16-year-old girl “approached Israeli police and border guards stationed at the site, drew a knife, and tried to attack them while calling out ‘Allah Akbar’ in an attempt to hurt Israeli forces, who determinedly and professionally neutralized her,” a police spokesperson told Ma’an News Agency.
After investigating the incident, Israeli rights group B’Tselem on Wednesday condemned the killing, stating that Fatima “who stopped several meters away” from officers, “did not pose a danger” to police.
“The police – who were standing behind a metal barrier, were armed and wearing protective gear – could have subdued Hjeiji and taken her into custody without resorting to gunfire, certainly not lethal gunfire,” the group said in a statement. “Instead, they shot and killed a 16-year-old girl who, as stated, posed no danger to them.”
The incident was not the first time Fatima had been accused of attempting a knifing on Israeli forces. She was detained at the Zaatari checkpoint in Nablus almost exactly one year previously after Israeli forces found a knife in her possession, her family explained. Fatima was held in Israeli detention for ten days, during which Fatima’s mother, Dareen Hjeiji, said she was physically and psychologically tortured.
“After the torture she experienced in prison she became even more political, and became very concerned with prisoners rights,” her mother told Mondoweiss, sitting in a small room of a relative’s family home, surrounded by other mourning relatives.
Bloodshot eyes filled the room, as women, fighting back tears, took turns sharing small bits of information about the slain teenager.
Tahani Hjeiji, Fatima’s aunt and a psychologist from the village told Mondoweiss that she had spent a lot of time with Fatima after she was released from prison, speaking to her niece about her feelings and thoughts.
“She came out of the prison very active,” Tahani said. “She saw how the prisoners suffered and she made friends there, so she was very concerned about the conditions the prisoners she left behind were living in.”
“She was looking for ways to channel this energy, she started going to political activities more, she made political posts on Facebook, she even picked up singing as a way to share the Palestinian’s message with the world, she was very excited to discover that singing could be a way to transmit Palestine’s message.”
Fatima’s ideology was shaped by her life in the occupied West Bank, her mother explained. Night raids, the arrest of family members, and the killing of loved ones by Israeli forces lead the teenager to become politically minded.
In 2002, Israeli forces shot and killed Dareen’s brother, Fatima’s uncle. Fatima was only a year old at the time, but she grew up hearing stories of his “martyrdom.”
The earliest memory Fatima’s mother has of her daughter being severely affected by the occupation was in 2008 when Fatima was around 7 years old.
“Israeli forces stormed our house to arrest my other brother,” Dareen said. “They came here in the middle of the night and broke into the house in a very violent way — they are always raiding the village — Everyone started to scream and shout and Fatima woke up very scared. She went to get her younger siblings to protect them. The soldiers came and gathered us up in one room while they took my brother away. It was very traumatizing for the children.”
Fatima was known for being a politically charged youth, but her family had no idea she had planned to travel to Jerusalem on Sunday. Some family members denied that Fatima could have been carrying a knife, but Fatima’s mother told Mondoweiss that she felt her daughter had wanted to be a “martyr” for the Palestinian cause.
Fatima’s family is hesitant and unsure of what to say about the 16-year-old’s actions. Confirming that she was carrying a knife could be dangerous for them, denying she had any intention to attack Israeli soldiers could be misinterpreted as shame for her alleged actions, which is the last thing the family feels.
Love and pride for Fatima are infused in the way they speak about her.
Down the street from the gathering of mourning women in Qarawat Bani Zeid, Fatima’s hometown, men gathered across the street from the community’s mosque.
Fatima’s grandfather, Jawat Hjeiji, spoke about Fatima’s character.
“Even though Fatima was a young girl, she had a very strong personality — very strong. She was a strong patriot and she was always talking about freedom for Palestine,” Jawat said. “We consider her very lucky because she was martyred in Jerusalem. Ever since she was a little kid she was always carrying the Palestinian flag, speaking about Palestinian land. She went to Jerusalem to be in solidarity with the prisoners, she went to Jerusalem for Palestine.”
When asked how Fatima could have gotten to Jerusalem by herself, illegally, since the teenager did not have permission to cross through checkpoints, Jawat said he was not aware of the details of her trip, since no one knew she was going, but she was a resourceful girl who did not shy from challenges.
“A strong person can figure anything out, where she wanted to go she could figure it out, because she was strong,” he said.
Filisteen Rabee, a classmate of Fatima’s, said the teenager’s interests did not stop at politics, she was also the best math student in her class.
“She won the math contest at our school, and she had a chance to go to Malaysia to compete in the second round,” Rabee said, though whether Fatima would have been allowed to travel outside of the occupied West Bank after having spent time in prison is unknown.
“She was so smart, she used to say that she knows she’s a young girl, and that she understood she couldn’t beat the occupation with violence, but I thought she could beat them with intelligence,” Rabee added.
Rights groups have slammed Israeli forces’ killing of Fatima. Defence for Children Palestine told Mondoweiss in a statement that the Israeli government’s handling of such incidents gave a message to soldiers that such actions are approved by the government.
“Israeli security forces routinely use intentional force against Palestinian youth,” Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability programme director at DCIP, said. “Such excessive force, without a modicum of accountability, signals tacit approval for killing children with impunity.”
In their report released after the group’s investigation, B’Tselem added that the lack of accountability for such incidents shows a gap between the official rules of engagement and the reality on the ground.
“The continued policy of fatally shooting Palestinians who do not pose a mortal danger illustrates the manifest discrepancy between the recognized and accepted principle that prohibits such use of gunfire, and a reality in which shoot-to-kill incidents are a frequent occurrence and are encouraged by senior officials and wide public support.”
Fatima was the seventh minor to be killed by Israeli forces in the first 18 weeks of 2017, and the 20th Palestinian in total, making the average rate of Palestinians killed at the hands of Israeli forces more than one per week since the start of the year.