The More Israelis Breathe, the More Palestinians Choke: IDF Soldiers Kill Autistic Man For No Discernible Reason

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 Remembering the victims. AFP photo

In a grisly reminder America's not the only home to state racism and deadly abuse by those wielding its power, Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem's Old City shot and killed at point-blank range Iyad Khairi Halak, a severely autistic, 32-year-old Palestinian man - to his father, "a sick boy" - as he cowered on the ground, bleeding, terrified and uncomprehending, behind garbage cans. Halak was walking as usual to the Elwyn school for people with disabilities, when Border Police confronted him; afraid of the police as he was of all strangers, Halak began running in panic towards his beloved school, at which point the soldiers gave chase yelling "Terrorist!" and "Where is the pistol?" - though he had nothing in his hands but COVID-mandated mask and gloves - and opened fire. Hit in the foot, Halak limped to a nearby garbage nook. Hearing the noise, his caregiver Warda Abu Hadid ran to him along with three soldiers, and for roughly five minutes shouted to them in both Arabic and Hebrew, "He's disabled! Check his I.D! He's disabled!" In response, one soldier fired at least three shots from his M-16 at Halak at close range, hitting him in the chest. Afterwards, the soldiers failed to give Halak medical treatment; instead, they held a gun to Hadid's head, hauled her to the police station, ripped off her head covering, and eventually took her to a notorious prison for a three-hour interrogation, after which she was released “shivering and in a state of hysteria."

Meanwhile, Israeli forces raided the Halak home, where they assaulted family members and searched the house. Iyad's relatives only learned of his death when one of the soldiers asked when they planned to hold the funeral. Halak's parents and siblings had devoted their life to his care. His mother Rana described him as "a gentle soul" with the mind of a toddler; at the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum, he was intensely shy, unable to make eye contact, and afraid of loud noises, blood - she shaved him each morning - and the soldiers all around him. He liked to watch old cartoons in his small neat room, and he loved attending the Elwyn school, where he volunteered in the kitchen making meals for his fellow-students, and which he'd learned to walk to alone after much coaching. "32 years, I raised him, step by step," his mother told Israeli journalists. "Everyone who took care of him said there was no Palestinian who was looked after like him. But your people think he was garbage. That's why he was murdered." Though Israel has withheld surveillance video of the scene, the military report said officers "neutralized" Halak. Lawyers for the shooter said he fired "because he felt his life was in danger, based on information (given) to him by the competent authorities...suspicious indications in the field, and a movement that looked like preparation for drawing a weapon.”

The killing has sparked widespread outrage, with both Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party and the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq denouncing it as a "war crime" to U.N. human rights experts. “Is there anything lonelier than an autistic person cowering and trembling in fear in a garbage shed, not understanding what is going on and why, while policemen empty a magazine of bullets into him,” wrote Haaretz columnist Rogel Alpher, the parent of a grown autistic child. “Good God, they executed him." Halak's murder came two weeks after Israeli soldiers killed another Palestinian with mental illness lying on the ground - just two of at least 11 recent Israeli killings of people with disabilities, including a double amputee sitting in a wheelchair. The shooting has also inspired angry demonstrations and comparisons to George Floyd's death among both Jews and Arabs in a country where police violence against Palestinians eerily mirrors U.S. violence against blacks, as does the response by those in power: Even as U.S. police rioted, Israeli police arrested a number of protesters while the shooter cop remained merely under house arrest. "The (Israeli) border police are no less brutal or racist than the police in the United States,” wrote Gideon Levy in Ha'aretz. “There, they shoot black people, whose blood is cheap, and in Israel they shoot Palestinians, whose blood is even cheaper. But here, the killing puts us to sleep; there, it sparks protest." The parallels even extend to the metaphor of breathlessness for Palestinians under the Occupation and black Americans under systemic racism; says a French filmmaker on the subject, “We live in a reality where the more Israelis breathe, the more Palestinians choke."
 
While Israeli leaders invariably turn away from the Occupation's abuses, the killing of a helpless, wounded, severely autistic Palestinian was so egregious that even the shameless have been shamed. Netanyahu called Halak's death "a tragedy," Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said the family "deserves a hug" (really), and an apologetic Defence Minister Benny Gantz said the “subject will be investigated swiftly and conclusions will be reached. He thus promised what a spokesman for rights group B’Tselem called “the first step of (a) whitewash“ by an occupier that denies millions of people their human rights through perpetual state violence, in a country where investigations into IDF killings of over 200 Palestinians have resulted in the conviction of just three soldiers. Halak's grieving parents, meanwhile, are under no illusions about the odds of those responsible for their son's death being held accountable. Though Iyad never differentiated between Jew or Arab, says his father Khiri, “If an Arab killed a Jew, what would have happened? They would demolish his home and arrest all of his family. That is the difference...Whenever a person is martyred here, we say that we hope for change. Where is the change?” Iyad's mother similarly dismisses the murmurs of apology from the powerful - “Sympathy is temporary and then ends” - in a culture of such deep-seated impunity: “We are convinced that those who killed him will not be punished. Justice does not exist.” Then, she speaks the bitter truth. "They killed him like he was a fly," she says. "My son was a fly."

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Iyad's home town. Photo by Alex LeVac

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Iyad's mother in his room. AP photo

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Local mural showing Halak with a cactus he planted during the coronavirus lockdown. It's based on the last photo his family took of him.

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