Alone between the Lines: Reporting the Death of Shifa AI-Makussi
It was a Sunday morning in September 1991, when the telephone on my desk rang. As usual at this time of the week, it was my editor on the other side of the line. "Did you read the news about that 15-year-old Palestinian girl, who was murdered by another inmate in her cell in Jerusalem's Russian Compound, where Palestinian detainees are interrogated?" "Yes," I said, I vaguely remembered something. "Well, Shosh, the police reporter, has all the details. I want you to do a magazine piece about it. Who she was, who the murderess was, how the police found out, their families, you know the kind." "Sure," I said. "No problem. Thursday morning?"
It seemed the usual Intifada-kind-of-story, which we were doing a lot of at the time. Palestinian-prisoner-killed-in-Israeli-police-detention, poor Palestinians, bad Israelis. You know the scheme; you just have to fill in the details. But once I got to thinking about it, I suddenly realized this was a different story. Here the Palestinian girl was killed by another Palestinian, not by an Israeli. What did that mean to me? It was the kind of story I had never done before.
In the meantime, the subject of the killing of collaborators has become quite prominent. Palestinians talk about it. B'Tselem has published reports about the subject. At that time, though, it was almost taboo and, suddenly, I had to decide for myself how to deal with it. What do I, as an Israeli, have to say about a Palestinian killing a Palestinian? Could I say: "Leave it alone; it's an internal Palestinian story; I have no business writing about it"? That did not seem a defensible moral position, surely not from a journalistic point of view. So I thought I would go ahead and deal with the questions as they came along - and they did. Years later, it still seems to be the one story into which all my dilemmas as an Israeli journalist covering the territories were condensed: questions of identities and loyalties, on both the personal and professional levels, were mixed with dilemmas of cultural values, power relations and ideological conflicts. And it all happened within three intensive days, whose memories still haunt me at times.
At the beginning, however, it seemed rather straightforward: the first thing I did was call the police spokesperson and try to set up an interview with the investigator who had solved the case. I was not sure how she would react - usually the police are not very happy about journalists trying to pry into the happenings in their detention center (the Russian Compound). Surprisingly enough, though, she was more than willing to help, and immediately agreed to let me talk to whomever I wanted. It was only the next day, when I got to the station, that I understood why: the police were very proud of having solved the case, and were expecting a PR boost for their station in the local paper, saying what a smart team they were. I, of course, knew from the beginning that this was not what they were going to get, but as journalists usually do, I did not wish to interfere with their assumption.
As were many others of my colleagues at that time, I was walking a thin line: being an Israeli journalist made access to Israeli power positions much easier than it was for Palestinian journalists. However, this assumption of "being one of the gang" had its limitations: Israeli journalists, especially the ones writing about human-rights violations in the territories, both belonged to the "right side" or "our side," and they also didn't - because they were human-rights advocates, because they sided with the Palestinians who were the enemy. And this "in-between" position also pertained to our relationships with our readers. We were Israelis, we were "of their flesh and blood," but we also sided with the "others." How to keep the balance, being true to our moral positions, on the one hand, and not alienating our readers by being stamped as "traitors," on the other?
It was a thin line to walk, and I was measuring it as I was sitting in that small office in the police station with Kamel Saba, the investigator who had solved the case. The fact that he himself was a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship made the situation even more complex. How was I to relate to him? Should I see him as an Israeli citizen, exercising his right to freedom of occupation? Or should I view him as his prisoners might - a "traitor" to his people, working in the Israeli police force against what was supposed to be his own cause? Who was I to judge what he should or should not do?
I left it an open question, and just sat there, writing down the story from his point of view. He was telling me about Shifa El-Makussi, or "the deceased" as he soon came to call her, using the formal police jargon. She was arrested on a Wednesday, he said, after having thrown a stone at an Israeli car in the middle of the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. That was quite unusual, as Palestinians usually attack Israeli cars passing through their own streets, so that they can disappear into hiding right after throwing the stone. But El-Makussi, apparently, did not plan to escape. She was from a village near Hebron, he said, but the three days prior to her arrest she had spent in Tel Aviv, where she had gone with some boy she knew. This, of course, was unacceptable in the village society she came from. And during her interrogation, when asked why she had done what she did, she explained that she had meant to be caught because becoming an Intifada heroine was the only way she could think of to escape her family's wrath. After what she had done, an Israeli prison seemed a safer place than her home.
This, then, was how Shifa El-Makussi had come to the Russian Compound, and in the four days she spent there, Saba said, the girls who were her cellmates said she was very frightened; she cried a lot and told them she was afraid of her uncle, who she was sure would kill her if only he could lay his hands on her. On the following Sunday afternoon, she was called to the interrogation room, and when she came back, May Walid Ghassin, another inmate of the cell who was held there awaiting her own trial for having stabbed an Italian tourist a few weeks before, asked her whether she had been told to collaborate with the police. Shifa El-Makussi, a naive village girl, with little or no political background, told her that she had. She also said she had agreed, as she had been promised better conditions if she would collaborate. May Walid Ghassin later admitted she had decided to kill El-Makussi, in order to prevent her from harming other Intifada fighters. She had, Saba said with appreciation, acted as a full professional murderer; it was hard to believe a 17-year-old could act so coolly and relentlessly.
Ghassin, he said, was epileptic, and every day she would get certain pills which were prescribed for her by the doctors. She knew, apparently, that if taken more than one at a time, these pills would cause the patient to fall into a deep sleep. For some reason or other, she had kept aside a few of her pills, and during the night, when Shifa was crying, she offered her a glass of water in which she mixed them. Then, when El-Makussi and all the other girls in the room were fast asleep, May Walid Ghassin climbed into the "traitor's" bed, and strangled her to death with a scarf. "We have the autopsy results. Everything fits with the story," Saba said proudly. Out of the other 11 cellmates, he had from the beginning suspected her of being the murderess: "There was something in her eyes," he said, "her pride, the arrogant way she had refused to answer questions." So he took her for a special interrogation, and finally, when faced with his version of the story, she broke down and confessed. He was obviously proud - a policeman's professional pride at having solved a difficult case.
What did it mean to him as an Arab? I didn't ask; it did not seem appropriate. He was an Israeli police officer. "And she did it for national reasons?" I asked. "Just like that, killed another girl?" Saba said one could never know. National reasons were often the cover for other things. The crazy thing is that May's story is not very different from Shifa's. She also comes from a very poor family; her parents are divorced; her father lives in the States; her mother is remarried. When she stabbed the Italian tourist, it was a few weeks after she had been refused a visa to the US, where she was hoping to join her father. The American Consulate in Jerusalem had turned down the request, claiming her father did not have enough means to support her. In her despair, she had stabbed the tourist, "to show everyone how angry she was."
So this then, was the story: two extremely unhappy girls, unhappy for personal or family reasons, for whom becoming national heroines seemed the only way out of some private misery. This was the basic situation, and into it stepped the Israeli police, using despair to win new collaborators, sending the newly recruited 15-year-old back to a cell of committed nationalists. Saba, of course, could see nothing wrong in that: the police had done their job, in the interest of the State of Israel. I was Israeli; I saw it differently, but I still belonged where I belonged, and this became clearer the next day, in the offices of the Palestinian press office with which I had, for the last three years at that time, done my work in the territories.
It was not the first time I had worked with this office: my Arabic is poor, and in any case, as the Intifada progressed, it became less and less advisable for Israeli journalists to travel alone in the territories. So Ahmed or Nasser or Hakam or Nabil would come with me, set up the interviews, introduce me as a "good" Israeli, and translate the stories. As we had spent many "territory days" together, we became quite well acquainted and we visited each other's homes. I suppose I was accepted as an Israeli because I supported their cause, but, this time, Nabil, who scheduled to go with me to Beit Oula to visit Shifa's family, was suddenly suspicious. "Why are you writing about this case?" he wanted to know. I was an Israeli, and I was intruding on a sensitive Palestinian problem, the one of dealing with the collaborators who were creating mistrust and betraying their national cause. It was the occupation, the Israeli government who were responsible for that state of things, and what right had I to tell the Palestinians how to deal with that question?
This was what Nabil meant when he asked me why I was writing about it, and there was only one answer I could give: "Because a girl got killed and I want to understand why," I said. "I do it when a child gets killed by the soldiers, and I am doing it now, that's all." Nabil listened, but he didn't seem convinced. "Didn't the Palestinian papers write about it?" I asked. For the other stories we did together about Intifada victims, he always quoted the details from the Arabic press. But not this time. "There was a little notice about it, three lines that said she had died, that's all," he said. And then he remained somehow sulky and unfriendly during the drive, which made me feel uncomfortable as well.
The strange feeling grew as we arrived in Beit Oula, Shifa's village. The El-Makussi family, as we learned from the passers-by, lived more or less outside the village, in a small house reached by a narrow dirt road. There were only a few children playing outside in the dirt, and the sights I had grown to expect in the home of a shaheed, a martyr of the Intifada, who had died a few days before, were missing: there were no pictures of the deceased in the entrance, no visitors paying their condolences to the mourning family. But it was not only the outer signs of a community paying respect to its hero which were missing. In the house itself, there were no signs of mourning or of any emotional expression, neither was there any weeping. Life was going on as usual, and the family seemed somewhat surprised at our arrival.
They were willing to talk though, or mainly the uncle was - the same person who, as I knew from the police investigator's story, Shifa was most afraid of, convinced that he would kill her if she ever came back home again. It seemed he was the head of this family; the father was sitting in the corner and hardly said a word as the uncle was telling the El-Makussi's version of the story.
"Last week," the uncle said, "Shifa did not come back from school, which was very unusual for her, as she normally was a very good girl." They started asking around, and the other girls told them she had been picked up by someone in a car on the way home. "We are sure she was kidnapped, she never would have done it of her own free will." And later Nabil explained, "He cannot say that she did it freely, that would mean she had willfully dishonored her family." They didn't know where to look for her, the uncle said, but then two days later, the mukhtar of the village told them he had received a phone call from the Tel Aviv police. As it turned out, Shifa was detained there, after having been arrested for staying inside Israel without the necessary permit. The mukhtar also said she had been caught in the company of one Mussa El-Khatib, of whom, the uncle claimed, he had never heard before. In any case, it was clear something bad had happened and, as Nabil later said, in such a village, if the mukhtar and everyone knows that your daughter has been caught in Tel Aviv with a man she is not married to, there is only one thing you can do to redeem your honor: she must be killed. So the uncle and the father went looking for Shifa; they got a permit to go to Tel Aviv, but by the time they arrived, she had been released.
She didn't come back home, though. They were worried and called the police again. They got a message she had been arrested in Jerusalem, after having been caught throwing stones in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo. So they asked for another permit to visit her at the Russian Compound detention center, but by the time they reached there, she was no longer amongst the living.
The father was told this in a very crude way: "But she's dead," the guard had told him upon asking to visit her. Then, he said, he went back home, and that was that. "This guy, Mussa, I sent word around, I told friends to bring him to me if they found him," the uncle said in a way that left little doubt as to his intentions should the meeting indeed take place. Then the mother suddenly interrupted and wanted to know if we had any information about the girl who killed her. "She's crazy, isn't she?" she said hopefully. We said we didn't know, and she seemed disappointed. "It is very important for us to know," she said, "because if she was that, we can tell it to the people in the village." As it turned out, word had gotten to Beit Oula that Shifa had been murdered because she was a collaborator, and nationalist graffiti referring to this fact had already been drawn on the fence of the El-Makussi family. "They call me names in school, saying my sister was no good, she had relationships with men and she was a collaborator," the sister said. People from the village also made it clear to them that they did not want Shifa buried in the village cemetery. All that would change, of course, if it came to be known that the murderess was insane, and that seemed to be their only hope. "Let us know if you hear anything about it," the mother said before we left, and we promised we would.
The whole atmosphere was very strange. Somehow, something was missing, and it was not only the external signs of a family in mourning. Nabil confirmed my suspicions. "They are relieved that it happened this way. I am absolutely sure they would have killed her had she come home. This way it was done for them." From my subjective point of view, such terms as the honor of the family, which is irreversibly hurt when a girl goes out with a boy, are utterly foreign. Killing a 15-year-old for going to Tel Aviv is unthinkably cruel and unjust. But are my values really universal - as I would like to think they are - or is my expectation that everyone live up to my standards another example of "Western imperialism"? Was I imposing my values on a society I did not belong to, that I did not know and, being an Israeli, had no right to criticize?
It was not an easy question, and it was not the only one I was left with. There was also the question of the way collaborators were treated, the village people who had used the painful opportunity to smear the house of the bereaved family. All those signs of collective responsibility were incomprehensible to me. I was in a foreign world, and again I did not know how I should write about all that. Part of my role as a journalist, as I understood it, was to try to "humanize" the Palestinians in the eyes of my Israeli readers. But wouldn't this story achieve the opposite, strengthening old prejudices and stereotypes? And, on the other hand, supposing it did, could I ignore it? It was really all very complicated, and it grew more so the next day, in the last encounter I was to hold for this article.
It was Wednesday, I had one more day before the story was due, and there were still two links missing: May Walid Ghassin, the suspected murderess, and Mussa El-Khatib, the lost boyfriend. I asked Nabil to inquire with their man in Deheisheh refugee camp if he could find him and set up an interview. Later he said the man had left him a note, but there was no response. I surmised he was in hiding and would not show up, so I spent the day trying to understand May Walid Ghassin. I visited her school and her family. They were all shocked; nobody believed she could have done such a thing. Here was a question of what it is that makes a girl like that suddenly want to become a national heroine. Again, what kind of society it was where murdering another girl was supposed to make one a heroine and in what way Israel was responsible for the situation. I tried to think about that, and I also tried to see the story from another angle: that of the police officer who arrested Shifa El-Makussi after she had thrown the stone in Gilo.
A young woman in her twenties, she remembered the incident very well. Shifa was with a young man, but it was obviously she who threw the stone, making every effort to be caught. According to eyewitnesses, he tried to stop her, and when she was arrested, he was very worried about her, the police officer said. "Did they seem to be in love?" I asked. "Maybe," she said. "He seemed to really care about her." So was her family wrong by claiming she had been abducted against her will? Did she go with El-Khatib because she wanted to? It was hard to know. I was feeling more and more confused. By now, it was Wednesday evening, and I thought I should go home, start writing and organize my thoughts somewhat. But it was not to be.
Around nine o'clock in the evening, just as I was about to sit down in front of the computer, the phone rang. It was Mussa El-Khatib, the lost boyfriend, who had received the note and wanted to tell his version of the story. He was in a shop in the Mahane Yehuda market. Could I pick him up there? I said I would.
He seemed quite frightened when I found him, and very distraught. He was a thin, boyish-looking 20-year-old in jeans and T-shirt, who spoke fluent Hebrew and, once we started talking, did not seem to be able to stop. He had been in hiding for the last two weeks, he told me. Shifa's family were after him; he didn't know where to go and what to do; they wanted to kill him, and he couldn't understand Shifa was dead. He was very confused, and so was I. I was under time pressure. I had till morning to write the story, and here was this desperate young man, who clearly needed some help, but was I the one to give it to him? Or was I committed to the paper, the job, my readers? He wanted to talk, but at times I had the feeling he was not aware of the fact that he was talking to a journalist, and that supposedly everything he said was going to go into print and become public knowledge 24 hours later. Should I stop him and tell him that? Should I let him talk and abuse his desperate condition? And if I couldn't use what he was telling me, shouldn't I go back home and finish the story on time?
I didn't know. I somehow couldn't leave, so I stayed and listened, trying to make sense of the confused facts he was pouring out. He was the son of a poor refugee family. When he was 15, he was caught in some petty thievery and the police had promised to let him go if he agreed to collaborate. So he became a collaborator, not a very important one: he was part of a scene of drug dealers, petty thieves and the like, and that is also how he got to know Shifa. Her uncle, apparently, was also a collaborator and they had some business together. So he met Shifa a few times in her home and took an instant liking to her. He said they had exchanged a few sentences, and then that day, two weeks ago, as he was going again to see her uncle, he saw her on her way home from school and, on an impulse, had offered her a ride.
Now for a girl to go with a strange man in his car was no simple business, that much was clear to me by now. But Shifa had somehow decided to go for it. Maybe she, too, fancied him; maybe she was tired of her bullying uncle and her boring life at the outskirts of that forlorn village. She had never been to Israel, she told Mussa when she climbed into his car, and he, wanting to show off, suggested they go. And they did.
His story of the days they spent in the big city was very romantic. I didn't know whether to believe him. Nabil had also said he might have forced her to go with him, but now his version was the only available one. He told of how they confessed their love to each other, how they slept on the beach and were happy - they did not sleep together though, he said. It was important for him to stress that. He loved her and that was how an Arab man shows he loves a girl - he does not sleep with her. (This, I remembered was confirmed by the autopsy report: Shifa died a virgin.) Their happy time, though, was short-lived. On the second day, they were arrested for being illegally in Israeli territory. And although she had begged them not to, the police insisted on calling Shifa's family - or rather the mukhtar of their village - to inform them of her whereabouts. For her, she knew this was tantamount to a death sentence and, three days later, when they were released together, she said she could not go home because her uncle would kill her.
He suggested they get married right away, but she didn't think it was possible. They had nowhere to go live together. She said the only escape for her was an Israeli prison, and that was how, in a final act of desperation, she threw the stone at the car and got herself arrested. He tried to visit her, but they wouldn't let him, in spite of his collaborator's "certificate." On the third day he went, but they told him she was dead, and he has been on the run ever since.
I thought how this could have been a romantic Romeo and Juliet story - it also had all the necessary tragic parts to it. But, instead of being set in romantic Verona of Italy, it was the down-and-out areas of Beit Oula and Tel Aviv, among the underworld of the collaborators and petty thieves that this love story - if indeed it was one - had developed. And into the confusion of human relationships, again the political reality had brutally stepped in. Had El-Makussi and El-Khatib been some "normal" Israeli teenage lovers who had gone on a trip without their parents' permission, the story would have ended differently, remembered in years to come as a youth adventure to be laughed at. But they were Palestinians, they had crossed the occupation line, their tradition line, the Green Line. The police interfered, the mukhtar suddenly had an unplanned part in their story. Then came Shifa's second arrest, the offer of collaboration and the tragic meeting between May Ghassin's need to be an even greater Intifada heroine, and Shifa's naiveté, for which she paid with her life. And, now, the boy in front of me was left with it all alone, on the run, desperate.
By the time he finished telling his story, it was midnight. He was crying. I wanted to help, but I didn't know how. What I did know was that if I did not get home and start writing right away, I would never get the story ready by morning. So I took him back to his hiding place. He was staying with some friend who was sleeping in a shop in the Jerusalem market. I left him there and I thought that was it, but half an hour after I got home, he was on the phone again, saying that members of her family had been waiting for him when he got back. They wanted to kill him, he didn't know what to do, and could I help him? I will not go into the details of that unbelievable night - I told him to go somewhere else; I had an article to write. I felt I was being drawn into this story against my will. My "safe" position as a reporter, one who supposedly looks at things from the side and takes down notes before going back home to the computer, was deteriorating at a faster rate than I could handle. My phone (and home) were now invaded by this desperate young man, victim of all possible systems - the Palestinian tradition, the Israeli occupation. They were all after him and, for some reason, he expected me to be his savior. He kept calling me every half hour, weeping, talking about suicide. Finally, at four o'clock in the morning, he rang again. He was in some public toilet and he had drunk ammonia and he was dying, he said.
My story was there on computer, half-written, but, at that point, it seemed quite irrelevant. I drove to where he was, took him to the hospital, all the time afraid he would die in the next seat. But he didn't. We reached Hadassah Hospital. He had his stomach pumped, and all the while he was crying and dictating his farewell to his mother. He loves her and begs her forgiveness. I found the paper in my notes while writing this story now. By half past seven, I gathered courage, called the editor at home and told him I had no story because the guy had tried to commit suicide at night. I must have woken him from his sleep, because he said: "What? You're still at the hospital with him? Go be a social worker. You're not a journalist. Anyway, you're fired."
Well, that seemed to be a fitting ending to the melodrama, but in reality it wasn't. The editor later came to his senses. I left the by-then recovering Mussa in hospital, went back home and wrote the story as simply as I could. I had no time to think about anything, so I reconstructed the last week in Shifa's life according to the different versions gathered. I had two hours to do it and I did. But the dilemmas were left unanswered, and going back to that story now, years later, I still feel at a loss. The professional "in-between" position, neither here nor there, comes out very clearly in that story. But perhaps it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps this is the meaning of being a journalist covering the conflict, trying to do justice to all sides. You are inevitably left alone, between the lines, on your own. <