Naledi Lester: Bethlehem Focuses on Modern Martyr

By Naledi Lester

This Christmas, Bethlehem’s celebration of its most famous son is giving way to veneration of a new local martyr. Away from the perfunctorily-decorated Manger Square, signs of Christmas are hard to come by. The town has suffered a series of blows since its last merry Christmas in 1999: the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000; the construction of the separation barrier which cuts it off from Jerusalem; and the economic sanctions that have left public workers unpaid since Hamas won the elections nearly a year ago. The town’s Christian population is dwindling, leaving fewer and fewer residents directly motivated to celebrate the birth of Christ.

But if Bethlehem is struggling to celebrate its world-famous son, it has a newer martyr to focus on. While Christmas decorations are few and far between, walls, shop windows and billboards all display posters of Thaer Ahmed Hassan, the 27-year-old Palestinian buried under the rubble of his home at the end of a 24-hour operation by the Israeli military, on 4th November 2006.

The process of glorifying Thaer Hassan began in the rubble of his home in Al Saf Street, a few minutes south of the town centre. His father, Ahmed Hassan, sits in front of the local school, from which there hang cinematic posters of the dead young man. Hassan faces the partial shell of one house, and next to that, the spread of rubble that was once his home. Black Islamic Jihad flags flutter from several points on the buildings.

Ahmed Hassan says two things in his first breath  – that he wishes his son had not been killed, but rather tried in court, and that none of this – everything that is around him – has anything to do with religion. He says the Q’uran says it is haram  – forbidden – to kill. He refers to the Christian neighbours who have helped them, and his Jewish in-laws in America.

But Hassan’s person and beliefs seem dwarfed by the joint impact of two phenomena – the Israeli occupation, and one of the factions fighting against it. In front, he is stared at by a huge portrait of Fathi Shaqaqi, who interpreted the Q’uran to distinguish suicide from martyrdom, thus opening the door on suicide bombers. Above him, his son, glorified in memoriam.

Thaer Hassan had been a marked man for the last six years of his life. At 1am on the night of the 3rd of November, his and his neighbours’ homes were surrounded by an estimated 150 Israeli soldiers, and 24 hours later he was dead, either from a fall, his gunshot wounds, or being crushed by the walls of his house.

According to Ahmed Hassan, the soldiers announced they had come for Thaer, and ordered the nine families living in two adjoining three-storey houses to get out immediately. The soldiers then separated the men from the women. They made the two dozen men strip, and  handcuffed and blindfolded them. Throughout the night and day, various methods were used to determine that Thaer was in the building, and to force him out. These included gunfire, explosives, and the sending in of dogs. Six hours after the siege began, a bulldozer arrived. It uprooted trees, knocked down walls around the compound, and started making holes in the neighbours’ house. The work continued until eventually, the neighbour’s house was half pulled down, Thaer’s house was completely demolished, and Thaer lay beneath its rubble.

Nobody denies that Thaer Hassan was a member of the military wing of Islamic Jihad. What activities he actually carried out under the Quds Brigade banner are not so clear. A statement issued by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that Thaer was killed in a joint operation by the army, the ISA [Israel Security Authorities] and the Special Police. The statement describes Thaer as a senior commander of Islamic Jihad who had been wanted since 2001, and asserts he was ‘involved in extensive terrorist activity in recent years, and in particular in the dispatching of various terror attacks, including shooting attacks at the Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhood of Gilo and an attempt to bomb a vehicle laden with explosives in the area of the Tunnel Road, which connects Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc.’ The statement adds that Thaer ‘was involved in recruiting of suicide bombers, procurement of weaponry and planning of future terror attacks.’

These allegations may or may not be true – certainly they will never be tested in a judicial process. But both the Israeli authorities and Islamic Jihad will be happy to let these purported activities be how Thaer is remembered.

To some, the Israeli government, Thaer’s death is the justified elimination of a terrorist, while to others it is the heroic end of a short life devoted to freedom fighting. This dichotomy is so well-known as to be mundane, but the reality on the ground reveals that the two ideologies are effectively allies in a process that perpetuates the cycle of violence. While the Israeli authorities’ version condemns and Islamic Jihad version glorifies, the views of each converge in having defined  Thaer Hassan’s life and death – and in making a martyr of him.

Thaer’s father says he did not know whether his son was in the house or not at the time. But the longer the siege went on, the more he was convinced Thaer was not inside. ‘They threw in gas, and fire, and dogs. I didn’t think he could survive all that and not come out.’ 

He looks to the prayer beads in his hand and says that if he’d known Thaer was inside, he might have tried to persuade him to come out, if it could have saved his life.

Issa Zawahreh sits next to Hassan. He is in his 40s, and wears dark, pressed jeans, a thick woollen jumper and a sleeveless parka jacket. He makes steady eye-contact through metal-rimmed glasses and the bottom of a floppy mid-parting. He looks more like the local councillor he is than a wanted member of Islamic Jihad, which he also is. He states he has been a wanted man for 11 years. It’s not clear how someone learns that they have become a wanted man, nor what, exactly, leads to such a status. Zawahreh explains it thus: ‘In the West Bank, if you are active, you are under focus. At a certain point, you are wanted.’

Zawahreh also says he did not know if Thaer was in the house or not, but he does not say it might have been better for him to come out. ‘Do you remember the siege on Jericho prison? All those men, who came out, with no clothes and their hands in the air? We don’t believe in that. Thaer would not have wanted that.’ 

These two attitudes to Thaer’s death come from the two men who are likely to have been Thaer’s two father figures – his real father, who now sits in the deceptive stillness of grief, and his mentor and friend, who displays a deeper calm about the loss of the young man he helped guide. They have Thaer in common, and they have a shared hatred of the Israeli occupation. But where Ahmed Hassan is experiencing the ultimate loss, Zawahreh is, in the twisted scheme of things, having a field-day.

While measures such as restrictions on freedom of movement and the strangulation of Bethlehem’s economy provide reason enough to oppose the occupation, the dramatic killing of a popular young man; his lionisation; and the opportunity to provide support to the bereaved families, all dovetail into the perfect campaign to strengthen Islamic Jihad’s support in the area.
The two men sit in what is left of the neighbours’ house. The first-floor living-room now gives straight onto an expanse of rubble. A curtain hangs in the air  – the window and wall are gone. Below, what seems like a pointless ploughing of wreckage is in fact a painstaking search for both specific items and anything salvageable – clothes, toys, anything. A bulldozer is scooping up rubble and dropping it in piles for people to search. Among the specifically-sought items is a collection of gold jewellery bought by Thaer’s cousin for his wife, as part of the gifts for their recent wedding. It seems impossible that anything could be located in the debris, but over the course of the afternoon, two one-hundred-dollar bills are somehow withdrawn intact. Later, there is a short burst of jubilation as a man holds some papers aloft – it is Musa, Thaer’s older brother, and the papers are proof of his medical qualifications.

Issa Zawahreh says, ‘I am here to help them. We are organising, going to talk to people so that everyone helps these families. First we have to arrange apartments for them, and collect donated furniture. Hopefully, eventually, we will rebuild their homes.’

Islamic Jihad, represented by Zawahreh, is also responsible for the bulldozer. This,’ says Zawahreh, spreading his hands around the activity of the place, ‘this is nothing for Thaer.’

Issa Zawahreh says that around midnight, shortly before Thaer tried to climb out of the house, he spoke to someone on the phone, (‘we have ways of connecting’) and said ‘I am going to paradise soon.’ Held inside in nearby buildings, Thaer’s family heard shots around 1am. The army then asked Hassan to identify the body. It was only when he saw his son’s body in the rubble that Hassan realised Thaer had been in the building all along.

Zawahreh takes up the mantle of bringing Thaer to life. ‘He was handsome. He had long hair for a boy here, very shiny, and he was always asking, “Issa, how is my hair?” He played football. He was the best in Bethlehem. Even after he became wanted, he always had a football with him. His whole family has always been into football.’ In 1998, Thaer was among a number of Palestinian club players taken to watch the World Cup in France.

Although it appears from the possibility of being wanted for years on end that life can carry on as normal unless or until action is taken, Zawahreh says that this was not the case for Thaer. For one, Thaer was keenly aware of his mortality. ‘“I don’t want to die”, he used to say to me.’ For another, he wanted a normal life and couldn’t have it. ‘He was not married. He was really looking for a wife. But families were scared, because he was wanted.’ Looking around, it’s easy to see why a family would not want their daughter to marry a wanted man. ‘And you know, life here is not like in Europe or America. Girls and boys don’t go out together. So you know, he was a virgin.’

Hassan, for his part, takes no part in glorifying Thaer. ‘Of course I am proud of my son. But I would have liked to be happy for him, to see him in another setting. Like any father, I wish he could have had a family, a good life.’

Instead, Thaer Hassan is fast becoming Bethlehem’s most respected martyr. Back in the  town centre, a local explains who the young man in the poster is. ‘Thaer Hassan. Did I know him? A little. Now, everyone knows him.’

– Naledi Lester is a British writer currently based in Jerusalem.

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