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Posted on Fri, Feb. 14, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Slain mother personifies fighting's toll on innocents

Inquirer Staff Writer
Saed Abu Hijleh, 36, of the West Bank town of Nablus, stands beside the grave of his mother, Shaden Abu Hijleh, 61, who was shot to death on the front steps of her home when Israeli soldiers opened fire. Inquirer photograph by Michael Matza.
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Saed Abu Hijleh, 36, of the West Bank town of Nablus, stands beside the grave of his mother, Shaden Abu Hijleh, 61, who was shot to death on the front steps of her home when Israeli soldiers opened fire. Inquirer photograph by Michael Matza.

It happens every day.

Sometimes Israeli soldiers are killed. Sometimes, Palestinian fighters. Many of the casualties, however, are noncombatants: innocent Israelis killed by Palestinian attackers; innocent Palestinians felled by Israeli military fire.

"The army killed my mom," Saed Abu Hijleh, 36, reflected this week, observing the start of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, with a ritual visit to his mother's grave. "Why did they kill my mom?"

A graduate of the University of Iowa who lived in the United States for 10 years and now resides in Nablus, Hijleh, a politics professor at a Nablus college, speaks angrily in fluent English about Israeli army practices that, he says, "encourage soldiers to be trigger happy" and a "culture of cowardice" that rarely metes out discipline.

In a conflict that cuts lives short every day, the killing of Shaden Abu Hijleh, 61, a Palestinian social worker from a prominent family, stands apart for its power to shock, and because the family who loved her (two members of which are American citizens) has the influence to let the world know how she died.

Saed, who was wounded in the neck by flying glass in the shooting that killed his mother on Oct. 11, says she was seated on her doorstep, doing needlepoint in the fading sun, when two Israeli army jeeps pulled up 100 feet from the house.

Saed's father, Jamal, 65, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, sat beside her, sorting spices. Saed said he was looking out from the glass-enclosed porch when a soldier in one of the jeeps raked the house with rifle fire, leaving at least nine jagged holes in the door and walls. It is not clear why the shots were loosed at the Hijlehs.

Jamal Abu Hijleh was grazed on the head and arm, apparently by ricochets; a single shot tore through his wife's left side, killing her instantly.

Akiva Eldar, a veteran Israeli journalist who is following the case, has said its outcome could force the army to reexamine its policy on opening fire.

"This should be a turning point," he said in an interview published last month. "Sometimes people become symbols after their death to make sure it doesn't happen to others."

The United Nations has heard testimony about the case in the context of a resolution on Middle East violence. President Bush reportedly has raised it in conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In October, before Sharon went to the United States to meet with Bush, American ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer delivered a letter from Washington to Jerusalem expressing concern about the number of Palestinian civilians being killed in Israeli military operations, according to Israeli sources.

Meanwhile, the Hijleh family has created a Web site,, and hired a lawyer to sue Israel for her wrongful death.

A preliminary army report said she was killed by a stray bullet. Top brass insisted on more investigation.

An army spokesman said yesterday that the inquiry was being conducted "in the most thorough way possible" by military police. Their report will go to the judge advocate general of the army, who will decide whether to press charges that could result in a court-martial. There is no time limit to complete the work, the spokesman said.

Lana Abu Hijleh, 39, Shaden's only daughter, works for the U.N. Development Program in Jerusalem as a civil engineer. The educational and other advantages that she and her brothers have had, she said, give them tools to press their mother's case without losing sight of common connections.

"We all lose in the same way," she said yesterday, feeling her mother's loss acutely as the end of the holiday neared. "The vacuum inside us is the same. I cannot believe that an Israeli who loses a son in Tel Aviv would not feel the same pain. We are the same, so we have to be treated the same. We have to get the same kind of justice."

For now, the Hijlehs grieve and wait.

"Sometimes I go downstairs and cry by myself. Sometimes I see my father crying," Saed said.

And sometimes, he said, he finds himself talking to a portrait of his mother, telling her about a petition drive for justice in her name, or the Eid holiday, which feels less festive now.

"Like any feast, in any culture, families get together to reestablish their ties," Saed said. "For me, my family is everything. My parents, my brothers and sister."

The four-day holiday, which ends today, was particularly hard, he said, because his mother, a community activist, provided money and gift baskets for the needy at that time.

As Saed spoke about his mother's death, he fingered the embroidery she was working on, now stained with her blood.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2405 or
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