A teenager rushes out into the street in the dead of night to throw stones at Israeli soldiers who have invaded his refugee camp. An armored jeep stops and a soldier shoots him dead. Hamza al-Ashqar is the fifth resident of the Askar camp to be killed in the last year
Haartez | Gideon Levy & Alex Levac | Mar 25, 2023
His dad shows us the video clip that memorializes his son’s last moments. Blood is streaming from his nose and mouth. He’s trying helplessly to say something, until he fades into oblivion, his head drooping to the side. Then there is the image of the body on the father’s cellphone, the face covered with blood. The father draws our attention to the fact that the boy is raising his finger. Muslims who are about to die customarily point their index finger skyward when they recite the verse, “There is no God other than Allah,” before passing into the next world. The finger continued to point even after Hamza al-Ashqar died.
He was a refugee kid of 16, from the “new” Askar camp – founded in 1965 on the former UN camp at that site – northeast of the city of Nablus, a densely populated place crisscrossed by narrow alleyways. On the way to the camp we traversed the city from west to east. It’s a bustling, traffic-clogged place that’s been battered by the Israeli army’s recent violent incursions and by the activity of the homegrown Lion’s Den militia. This and the Jenin refugee camp to the north are now the bastions of Palestinian resistance in the West Bank.
Strawberries from the Gaza Strip are on sale in Nablus’ produce market, the neighboring town of Hawara is again under a form of curfew, the Balata camp is nearby and Amman Avenue leads us to the Askar camp.
The narrow lanes of the camp are adorned with a sea of memorial notices for those who have been killed: five residents in the past year alone. Abdelaziz Ashqar, a 61-year-old employee of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency, was killed in late February, two weeks after Hamza; Alaa Zaghal, Hamza’s friend, was killed a few months before him.
Amjad al-Ashqar’s ring, bearing the image of his late son Hamza. A Palestinian detainee heard the soldier who did the shooting boast that he killed a “black Arab.”Credit: Alex Levac
Narrow stairs slick with rain lead to the second-floor home of Hamza’s family. The door opens onto a small living room that is as well kept as the family’s meager resources allow, with striped sofas and a large, well-designed poster of their dead son on the wall. Buchi, the family’s Persian cat, its light-colored fur thick and soft, is curled up in the arms of the bereaved sister Sadeel, who’s in seventh grade. She wears a necklace with a pendant bearing the likeness of her dead brother.
The parents, Liana and Amjad, both 45, are sitting below the poster of their son. An image of the son has also been etched on Amjad’s silver-gray ring. They have another two sons and four daughters. The father works for the Palestinian police, after years in which he was employed by a lighting manufacturer in Holon. The family originally comes from Yazur, today the Israeli town of Azur, near the Holon industrial zone where Amjad worked.
Hamza left school about a year ago and started to work every day in the date-packing house of one of the settlements in the Jordan Valley, near the Adam Bridge, once a crossing point between Jordan and Israel. He would leave home at 5 A.M. and return at 3 P.M., earning 90 shekels (about $25) for a day’s work. His parents say he liked the job, which he got thanks to a Palestinian contractor who also picked some other young people from the camp. Before that, Hamza had only worked in the packing house during school holidays. On February 6, he felt tired and didn’t go to work.
On that last full day of his life, Hamza got up at midday and recited his prayers. His parents offered him breakfast but he made do with coffee and asked them to keep the food for later. He left the house at around 1 P.M. That evening he still hadn’t returned. At 11 P.M., Amjad got up to use the bathroom and was astonished to discover that his son still wasn’t home. He asked his eldest son, Yusuf, 22, who was sitting in the living room, to call Hamza and tell him to come home immediately. A few minutes later, Amjad overheard Hamza speaking to his brother in the living room and he went back to bed calm and reassured. “I was sure that after he came back, he wouldn’t go out again,” Amjad tells us now.
At 3:30 A.M., Amjad’s phone rang. The caller was his brother, Majdi, a house-painter. He started to shout, “Amjad, Hamza! Amjad, Hamza!” “In my mind I thought that Hamza had been killed,” Amjad says. Majdi, who lives near the square where Hamza was shot and who knew his nephew was dead, only told the father that Hamza had been wounded. Amjad refused to believe it. He still hoped that his son was sleeping on the living room sofa – after all he’d heard him return home at 11.
But Hamza wasn’t at home. At around 2 A.M., he read reports on the camp’s social media that the Israeli army had invaded the refugee camp and was making arrests, which actually seem to be more like kidnappings. Hamza apparently ran downstairs and walked a short way to greet the soldiers with stones. They shot him to death.
Upon receiving the news from Majdi, Amjad woke his wife and they rushed to Rafadiya Hospital, where their son had been taken. He was already dead when they got there, having breathed his last in the private car that had rushed him to the hospital. In a voice recording of his friends in the car, they are heard crying out, “Hamza, don’t die, don’t die!” One of them tells him to recite the special verse from the Koran and then a groan is heard, Hamza’s death rattle.
The bullet had slammed into his left side and slashed up toward the teenager’s throat, where it lodged. The investigation conducted by Sala a-Deb’i, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who accompanied us to the camp together with her colleague Abdulkarim Sadi, revealed that Hamza had gone with friends to a square in a Nablus neighborhood that is close to the camp.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers were plowing through the streets with their booty: three or four detainees, at least one of whom has since been released. About 10 young people were in the square, throwing stones. Deb’i discovered that Hamza had also thrown an iron rod at a military vehicle. The jeep stopped and a soldier inside fired three or four bullets at Hamza, one of which struck him. A detainee inside the jeep, who is from the al-Shubaqi family in Nablus, afterward told Hamza’s father that immediately afterward, he heard the soldier who did the shooting call his mother or possibly his girlfriend, to boast that he had killed a “black Arab.” The soldier was about 15 meters from Hamza. According to Deb’i’s inquiry, the jeep waited a few minutes to ascertain that the youth had in fact been hit – and then sped away.
A circle of stones marks the spot where Hamza fell. It’s located in a large square that the locals dub “Frosty Square,” after the shop with the pink door there that sells frozen shakes. The vegetable stand in the center of the square was covered this week with a huge Israel Discount Bank poster.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated this week, in response to a query from Haaretz: “During activity by forces of the IDF in Nablus, suspects threw stones, [explosive] devices and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. In addition, armed persons began to shoot at the force, which responded with fire. An armed person was identified as having been hit, and afterward his death was reported.”
Two photos were appended to the army’s written statement, showing Hamza holding a rifle in a gung-ho pose. One of the pictures was probably taken in a photography studio – many Palestinian youngsters have swaggering images of themselves printed; the second is the image featured on the memorial poster, with Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background.
“Be happy, Hamza. Alaa is waiting for you in heaven,” shouted the masses of armed and unarmed young people who escorted the stretcher bearing Hamza’s body at his funeral, held the following day in the refugee camp. They were referring to Hamza’s friend Alaa, who was killed four months before him.