‘Can’t stop’: US teen’s family seeks elusive justice in West Bank killing

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Ajaq's older brother, Amir, comforts his mother Mona in the village of al-Mazra'a ash-Sharqiya in the occupied West Bank [Nasser Nasser/AP Photo]

US has been accused of failing to hold Israel accountable for the killings of its citizens, despite mounting pressure.

The trip was meant to be a homecoming: a chance for Tawfiq Ajaq, a 17-year-old born and raised in the United States, to connect with his Palestinian roots.

Instead, his family’s ancestral village of al-Mazra’a ash-Sharqiya became his final resting place. On January 19, Palestinian officials say Ajaq was fatally shot after an off-duty Israeli police officer and an Israeli settler opened fire.

Ajaq is one of the latest victims of the soaring violence perpetrated by Israeli security forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank, following a Hamas attack in southern Israel last year.

His uncle Mohammad Abdeljabbar told Al Jazeera that his family holds out hope that some justice may yet be served.

They seek any recourse that could “avoid this happening again in the future, whether or not they’re a US citizen, so nobody else is killed unjustifiably”, Abdeljabbar said. The family has also called on the US to “put enough pressure on Israel” to see that through.

Still, he acknowledged that justice for Americans killed in the Palestinian territories is often nonexistent, with the US historically unwilling to assert leverage over its “ironclad ally”.

Already, he said, “we feel abandoned by our government”.

Tawfiq
The truck in which 17-year-old Tafiq was killed is seen in al-Mazra’a ash-Sharqiya in the occupied West Bank [Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press]

‘Paradise’

Ajaq‘s family had settled near New Orleans in the southern state of Louisiana in the early 1990s. There, they built a sprawling family business that included real estate and sneaker shops.

For most of his life, Ajaq lived just blocks from his father’s seven siblings and more than 40 cousins. He loved watching American football, attending New Orleans Saints games and indulging in the city’s renowned culinary offerings.

A high-performing student, Ajaq planned to follow his older brother to the University of New Orleans, Abdeljabbar said. Ajaq was still wavering over what he wanted to study: business or engineering.

At 32 years old, Abdeljabbar was closest in age to Ajaq of all his aunts and uncles. He remembers the teen as “just a funny, goofy kid”.

“He was just a kid you could never take serious, always laughing, joking, smiling,” Abdeljabbar said.

Ajaq often enjoyed summers in the West Bank, his family’s ancestral homeland, but last year, before the war in Gaza erupted, his parents decided it was time for the children to spend more time there.

They hoped a year or two would allow the kids to “get in touch with our ancestors, to learn more about the culture, the language and the way of living out there”, Abdeljabbar explained.

“Tawfiq was very excited for it. He loved it. He loved the lifestyle,” he continued. “It’s kind of paradise. Apart from the violence and the wars going on, it’s still a beautiful lifestyle.”

Tawfiq with family
Tawfiq Ajaq, second from right, is seen with members of his large family [Courtesy of Tawfiq Ajaq‘s family]

But the occupied Palestinian territories have never seen the level of violence that they have in recent months.

On October 7, tensions flared when the Palestinian group Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people.

Israel responded by declaring war and opening a bombing campaign against Gaza, a small Palestinian enclave nestled against the Mediterranean Sea.

To date, more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children. Rights groups have said the Israeli operation bears the hallmarks of a genocide.

The occupied West Bank also experienced its deadliest year on record, amid near-daily Israeli raids and settler attacks, particularly in the wake of October 7.

In 2023, at least 532 Palestinians were killed in the territory, according to local authorities. The United Nations human rights office said approximately 300 of those deaths took place after the war began.

Between October 7 and December 27, Israeli security forces killed at least 291 Palestinians in the territory, and settlers killed eight. The losses include at least 79 children under the age of 18.

So far in 2024, more than 50 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank, Ajaq among them, according to Palestinian authorities.

Deadly attack

According to Ajaq‘s family and Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), a West Bank-based human rights monitor, the teen had been in a truck with a friend near a highway when shots rang out.

The gunfire was coming from an Israeli settler in a vehicle about 100 metres (328 feet) away. Ajaq and his friend attempted to drive away. The gunman followed.

Then an Israeli military vehicle “appeared from the opposite direction” and began shooting from a distance of about 50 to 70 metres (164 to 230 feet), according to documentation collected by DCI-P.

As Ajaq lay bleeding, DCI-P said Israeli forces prevented emergency responders from reaching him for about 15 minutes. An ambulance then transported him to a hospital in Silwad, where he was pronounced dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

It remains unclear which gunman fired the killing shot. Israeli police told the Associated Press (AP) and other media that both an off-duty police officer and a civilian had opened fire, and they had begun an investigation.

The police also claimed they were targeting individuals “believed to be throwing rocks along Highway 60”, according to the AP. The family has rejected the allegations, saying Ajaq and his friend were planning to have a barbecue.

Israel’s national police and military did not respond to a request from Al Jazeera for an update on the investigation.

In a chilling video of the truck Ajaq was killed in, provided to Al Jazeera by his family, bullet holes can be seen in the back window. Blood was pooled on the floor.

US support for accountability ‘hollow’

Earlier this week, the US State Department called on Israel to conduct “an urgent investigation to determine the circumstances” of the killing, adding the agency was “devastated”.

Officials from the US office of Palestinian affairs also visited Ajaq‘s family and promised to pressure Israel “to do a full and transparent investigation and bring the killer to justice”, Abdeljabbar told Al Jazeera.

On Thursday, Congress member Rashida Tlaib pushed the US State Department to launch its own investigation “into the murder of another American by the Israeli government”.

“Tawfiq deserved to grow old,” she wrote on X. “The collective punishment of an entire people must end”.

But historically, the US has been reticent to hold Israel, its ally, accountable for the killing of its citizens abroad, according to Josh Reubner, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the US-Israel relationship.

“Israel has killed and gravely injured many US citizens over the past two decades,” he said. But the lack of “accountability emboldened Israel to continue to kill US citizens with impunity”.

Reubner cited several examples. In 2003, peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar bulldozer. And in 2010, Turkish American teen Furkan Dogan “was executed at point-blank range by Israeli naval commandoes on board a ship in international waters attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010”.

More recently, in 2022, Palestinian American Omar Assad “was dragged out of his car and beaten by soldiers, leading to a fatal heart attack in 2022”, Reubner said.

That same year, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen, was shot to death while reporting. After initially denying culpability, an Israeli investigation determined that Abu Akleh was fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. It deemed the killing an accident and said no one would be punished.

“In each of these cases, the US called for an investigation and accountability. However, Israeli investigations were hollow and no one has been held accountable for these killings,” Reubner said.

Abdeljabbar, Ajaq‘s uncle, said the family was reminded of Abu Akleh’s death in their own grief.

“With Shireen Abu Akleh, we know she was killed by a sniper. Her killer was never brought to justice,” Abdeljabbar said. “It’s disappointing that a country as great as ours, as powerful as ours, can’t have another country bring justice for the killing of their own citizens.”

Israel is the largest recipient globally of US foreign military assistance and receives aid without conditions for its use.

However, the US has laws and policies in place meant to prevent the transfer of arms to governments shown to abuse human rights.

The Leahy Law (PDF), for example, prohibits the US from “using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights [GVHRs]”.

Israel currently faces allegations of human rights abuses for its ongoing military campaign in Gaza. Observers have also accused the Israeli government of emboldening and offering protection to Israelis who have set up illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank.

The war in Gaza has placed unprecedented scrutiny on the US’s support for Israel, with the Center for Constitutional Rights taking the government to court on behalf of Palestinians killed in Gaza.

Abdeljabbar said it has been difficult to reconcile the US government’s policies with the personal tragedy he now faces. “If you think about it, my tax dollars, Tawfiq’s dad’s tax dollars, helped pay to support the government that killed him.”

But despite the situation, he has not given up hope that someone will be held accountable for his nephew’s killing.

“We can’t stop,” he said. “We have to keep pressure until justice for Tawfiq is served.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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