Two Bystanders Killed, a Dubious ‘Bomb Factory’: Evidence Casts Doubt on Israeli Account of Nablus Raid

Three weeks have passed since the Israeli army’s and police’s incursion into Nablus’ Old City that left five Palestinians dead. Evidence collected by Haaretz shows a grave breach of protocol by Israeli forces that left two civilians killed, PA forces attacked, and a reported ‘safe house’ that was in fact well known

Ali Antar, a 26-year-old single man, liked to ride motorcycles and was a barber by profession. Hamdi Sharaf, a 36-year-old father of two, was also a barber. Neither of them were armed nor connected to the Lions’ Den, but were killed nonetheless by Israeli forces in two different locations in the West Bank city of Nablus. Their sin was being on the street during the night of 24-25 October where a combined force of the army, the police, and the Shin Bet invaded Nablus and encircled it’s Old City.

The IDF’s spokesperson later released a statement naming their primary target, 31-year-old Wadi al-Hawwah, who was killed in the operation.

Some Israeli media reported that in addition to al-Hawwah, four other Palestinians were killed in ‘exchanges of fire.’ But according to eyewitnesses, both Antar and Sharaf weren’t caught in a crossfire, but were shot by Israeli snipers.

Almost four weeks have passed since, but an armed incursion like that leaves deep impressions on Palestinians and therefore it merits even such a tardy report.

The IDF and police’s joint statement with ‘unattributed’ leaks reported shortly after the incursion were accepted in Israel as the omniscient narrator’s description. In the competition with such initial, quick and barebones reports, the IDF always wins, and anyone who wants a fuller picture is at a disadvantage: They have nothing to do but to collect eyewitness statements and pose questions. We’ll start with these.

‘Safe house’

According to the IDF spokesman, Israeli forces found al-Hawwah in what it reported was his “safe house.” The apartment he had been staying in belongs to the al-Hawwah family and is situated off the courtyard (‘Hosh’ in Arabic) of arched stone homes more than a century old. Everyone knew the apartment belonged to the family and some knew that it had recently been renovated in the hope that Wadi would soon marry. The floor under the apartment belongs to the Atout family and serves as a diwan, a room for family gatherings.

After inquiring, the IDF spokesman referred Haaretz to its police counterpart who didn’t explain why the apartment had been called a “safe house.” In response, they said that “Yamam [counter-terrorism] operatives together with the IDF and the Shin bet and additional Border Police forces acted to eliminate an infrastructure of violent terrorism in Nablus. The security forces coordinated fully in the operation and accordingly fired at armed men who posed a danger to our forces.”

Bomb factory

The IDF spokesman said that the “safe house” served as a bomb factory, which “our forces blew up.” The apartment, as it appeared October 30, showed clear signs of an attack from the outside by several Matador rockets, as was reported: Broken furniture and windows, detached metal and iron hinges, damaged and melted television and computer screens, torn upholstery, signs of gunfire on the walls, remains of drones and computer drives strewn about.

But if explosives had been detonated then the damage would most likely have been much worse, if not to the house’s thick walls, then to the apartment itself. Yet no signs of fire from explosive material detonated inside the apartment were evident. In the Hosh itself, the complex of adjacent stone buildings where the apartment is located, there were no obvious signs of damage that would indicate an explosive charge.

Was there perhaps another apartment that served as an “explosive materials factory” that was blown up and this reporter doesn’t know about? The police spokesman was asked but failed to respond.

Entry of soldiers

According to several Israeli media outlets – but not according to the IDF spokesman’s statement – Israeli infantry entered the “safe house” and detonated the explosive material found in the ‘bomb factory.” According to Palestinian residents of the neighborhood, soldiers and the Border Police’s Yamam unit never entered the apartment. The police spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the presence of soldiers or Yamam police officers in the apartment.

Another apartment

According to neighbors, infantry raided a second apartment in the Old City, on Nasser Street, north of the al-Hawwah family’s apartment. One neighbor said the apartment was uninhabited. It was a recent and less solid addition to an older stone structure. Nevertheless, there are no evident signs of an explosion, so it’s unlikely that the “explosives factory” was located there either. Neighbors were under the impression that the army and police had set up their headquarters there. The police spokesman didn’t respond to inquiries.

Shots fired at Palestinian police

According to Israeli media, the IDF notified Palestinian security forces of their incursion “at the start of the operation” – so that they withdraw to their headquarters. But there was no need for such a notification since Israeli special forces already had made their presence known by firing at and injuring Palestinian security personnel stationed at Martyrs Square.

At least five Palestinians were injured at the square by Israeli fire – two of them members of the Palestinian security forces and two from military intelligence, as well as a man who tried to come to their rescue.

Shooting at Palestinian security personnel stationed at coordinated locations known to the IDF violates the terms of the joint security arrangements between the two sides. Did the IDF, police and Shin Bet decide in advance to endanger the lives of Palestinian security personnel (and some of the basic rules about informing the Palestinians before entering the Area A)? Or were the troops that shot at them unaware of the rules or didn’t know that the Palestinians were stationed at their regular posts? The police spokesman’s office refused to answer.

Five locations

Israeli forces were in Nablus for four hours, leaving behind five dead and thirty injured in five different locations, with eyewitnesses in every area. Some of them were precise in their descriptions while others apparently mixed in accounts they heard from others or supplemented what they forgot with assessments and interpretations.

This is the picture that emerges from their accounts:

Before midnight, Israeli forces – police undercover units and perhaps soldiers as well – had positioned themselves on the roofs of two buildings – the Al-Rif and Beirut buildings on the “North Mountain” (on Mount Ebal) overlooking the city. A., one of the tenants, who had returned home five minutes before midnight, told Haaretz that when he parked his car “they aimed a [rifle-mounted] laser [pointers] at me and sent a drone in my direction. I thought there must be soldiers, but I still didn’t know where they were.”

The drone hovered between the building and the Old City, A. recounted. He and the building’s other tenants only realized that the soldiers were on the roof of their building and the one adjacent when police or soldiers fired in the direction of the Old City and the streets surrounding it.

He estimated that the distance between his building and the Old City is about a kilometer and a half. Elsewhere in Nablus, people spoke about several other buildings where undercover units were positioned and later began firing from. One of them was a large commercial center in the Martyrs Square.

Several businesses in the buildings surrounding Martyrs Square, including several shops and restaurants, were still open in spite of the late hour. H. was among a group of young men aged 18 to 30 who were chatting, smoking hookahs, having a late-night snack or cleaning up for the next day’s work.

On the square, several armed Palestinian security personnel were standing under palm trees as they regularly do, day and night at their posts. When no one is there, Nablus residents assume that the Israeli army has notified the security forces of a planned incursion and that they returned to headquarters.

“It was about 12:30 in the morning, or 12:15,” H. told Haaretz. “Initially we heard a large explosion and then we heard a lot of gunfire. I peeked out the window and saw a Palestinian security officer firing into the air. They weren’t aiming at anything in particular because they didn’t know from where the fire was coming.’

H. realized that several people had been hurt by Israeli fire with one of them taking shelter in the shop where. H. was, and then helped the man into an ambulance that had succeeded in reaching the area. H. estimates that Israeli soldiers or police were shooting from the city’s commercial center.

F. is a volunteer with one of the medical rescue teams, and his brother was one of the four Palestinian security personnel injured that night. F. spoke with Haaretz regarding his brother’s account of events saying a civilian vehicle pulled up alongside the Palestinian officers in order to warn them the Israeli “special forces” were in the area.

“The driver didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence before they began shooting,” F. said. “The Palestinian security officers fired into the air – at that point they didn’t know where the shooting was coming from. Then they fled.” He said the shooting came from both the commercial center and from the makeshift positions set up on the buildings on the Northern Mountain.

The first big explosion that F. and his medical team heard came from the Ras al-Ain neighborhood south of the Old City. It later emerged that the blast came from a car belonging to Hamdi Qayyim, who was later identified as a Hamas supporter and a member of the Lions’ Den. It was also reported paramedics later recovered his charred body from the car.

Was he on his way to the center of the Old City? Was a bomb he was carrying in the vehicle set off by itself or by shots fired at his car? It’s not clear. At about the same time, explosions were heard in the Old City center. Some residents said that the first blast that was heard was not that of Qayyim’s car but by the missile hitting the apartment where al-Hawwah was staying.

People in distant neighborhoods were awakened by the explosion and the ones that followed. As the gunfire increased, ambulance sirens multiplied, people began sharing information and rumors as fears intensified.

“During those four hours we couldn’t sleep. It felt like we were in the middle of a war, and we were scared. It was as if we were back in the days of the second intifada,” one resident of a neighborhood west of the Old City told Haaretz. On top of all that, some of the city experienced a blackout.

At about 12:40 in the morning, scores of army and police vehicles began pouring in openly through four through four of Nablus’ entrances – Tel, al-Tur, Huwara and Asira al-Shamliya. The young and the bold responded to calls by the Lions’ Den to come to the Old City and obstruct the incursion by throwing stones and burning tires. This reporter does not know how many of them were injured by IDF fire, and how many of the wounded who reached the hospitals were armed and engaged in exchanges of fire with the Israeli forces.

No safe place

Four days after the mass funeral for the five dead, al-Hawwah’s family began speaking with the media. They said they had spoken to friends of Wadi who were with him in the apartment that night and based on their accounts they could reconstruct the raid that killed him. Not everything from those second-hand accounts is clear.

What emerges from them and from other accounts however, is that there was no attempt to arrest al-Hawwah and his friends. The Israeli forces came with the intent to kill.

According to his friends, several surveillance drones were flown into the apartment through its northern window, taking them by surprise. Family members said they were told that al-Hawwah fired at the drones.

At the same time, Matador projectiles were fired into the apartment from the south while one drone or some were emitting tear gas. Paletinian medical personnel said that al-Hawwah was killed by five bullets that hit him in the chest apparently fired from a position outside the apartment, Palestinian medical services said. One of the al-Hawwah’s friends, Mishal Baghdadi, was badly wounded and died on his way to the hospital. F., who had arrived with his medical team at a square next to the Nasser Mosque, said he heard the sounds of six powerful explosions.

F. said the Israelis fired at his ambulance when it sought to reach several of the wounded. “The driver and I were forced to leave the ambulance and hide in order to avoid getting hurt,” he said. Other medical teams also reported being fired upon by Israeli forces, making them take detours and arrive late at the scene. The police didn’t respond to the accusation.

Hamdi Sharaf, the 36-year-old barber, was at his in-laws’ house with his wife and two children. When rumors reached them that “the army was in the city,” Sharaf and another family member wanted to find out what was happening. But other family members convinced them not to. Then they heard an explosion and insisted on going out to learn what was happening. They wandered around a little, left the Old City, didn’t see any armed men or undercover Israelis, and decided to return back to the house.

Both were shot next to his in-law’s home. They were not armed, there was no exchange of gunfire in the area. According to accounts reaching Haaretz, the shots were done with silencers. A little after 1 A.M., the Palestinian Health Ministry pronounced Sharaf dead.

At midnight, the barber Ali Antar was still sitting with friends at Cafe Z’abub in the Bassatin (gardens) neighborhood outside the Old City, and just a few blocks west of Martyrs Square. In the evening, when the cafe is filled, customers often take chairs out onto the sidewalk in front of a clothing store that closed for the day. Antar was there with his friends when the first explosion sounded. Everyone dispersed. Antar, as can be seen in the cafe’s security camera video, paid his check before leaving.

Three days after the incursion, his best friend R. told Haaretz what happened next. “I live a few-hundred meters from the cafe on al-Fatimiyyeh Street [which stretches west of the Old City]. After hearing the explosion, we decided that it would be safest that the friends who live in more distant neighborhoods come to my place,” he said.

R. got into a friend’s car while Antar mounted his motorcycle, taking a friend with him. “We stopped in front of the house and suddenly we heard gunshots,” he recounted. “We didn’t know if it was from the army or the Palestinian Authority. My friend and I took cover behind the car, kneeling down, while the gunfire continued. I thought to myself, The PA can’t want to kill us.’

“At that point, I didn’t know it was the army. Suddenly, something hit the back of the car. We didn’t know what it was. We fled to my parents’ apartment without looking backward.

I saw death. I crawled I crawled up the stairs, trembling. I had a nervous breakdown, the day after the funeral I also ended up in a hospital,” said R., who added that his friend, who drove the car that night, suffered even more severe trauma. He’s unable to talk. It’s now clear that what hit the car was Antar’s motorcycle. The friend who was with him was injured but succeeded in taking cover afterwards.

‘Someone at the other side of the road saw Ali lying on the asphalt. Ali started to rise, and was shot again. That guy tried to cross the street to save Ali, but the Israelis fired at him. They shot at anything that moved. All we wanted to do was get to a safe place. But no place was safe.’