The last time Fawziya Shaalan saw her son alive was February 26, 2016. After eating lunch, Mahmoud, a 16-year-old Palestinian-American living in the West Bank, decided to go on an afternoon walk. This was routine; it was a way for Mahmoud to deal with his rheumatism, a disease that inflames joints and muscles.
Once outside, the Florida-born teen descended the steps of his spacious house in Deir Dibwan, a stately village dotted with summer homes for Palestinian-Americans returning for visits. Wearing a black North Face hoodie and blue jeans, Mahmoud started on the path toward Al-Bireh, the city adjoining Ramallah where his aunt lived. He liked to surprise her by showing up unannounced.
According to his mother, Mahmoud’s walk to Al-Bireh usually took about an hour, a trek that included crossing an Israeli army checkpoint. Palestinians know the crossing near the Beit El settlement as the “VIP checkpoint”; car traffic is reserved for Palestinian Authority officials, businesspeople, and diplomats. Mahmoud was just a high school student, but in the past, Fawziya said, he had no trouble crossing on foot.
Around a quarter after four, Mahmoud approached the two-lane checkpoint. According to S.A., a 45-year-old Deir Dibwan resident who witnessed Mahmoud trying to cross, he walked on the far right side of the lane toward an armed Israeli soldier who was monitoring the entrance to Ramallah and Al-Bireh. S.A. told The Intercept he watched intently from his car on the exit side because he found the sight of a boy trying to cross the checkpoint on foot strange.
What happened next is disputed.
According to S.A., the soldier guarding the entrance to Ramallah ordered Mahmoud to stop and turn back. Instead of immediately following orders, Mahmoud made gestures to show he wanted to go to Ramallah and lifted up his shirt and hands, as if to show the soldier he was not a danger. Then, the witness says, Mahmoud began to go back, but the soldier, standing 6 to 10 feet away, shot him multiple times. Mahmoud fell to the ground.
“He was shot when his hands were up,” S.A. told The Intercept, in his first remarks to a journalist. S.A., who provided testimony to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem soon after the incident, requested that his full name be withheld because he feared that media attention would lead to retaliation from the army.
The soldiers removed Mahmoud’s clothes as he lay on the ground bleeding. Kamal Washaha, a volunteer ambulance driver with the Palestinian Civil Defense, arrived at the scene shortly thereafter.
“They shut down the checkpoint, and the soldiers prevented us from approaching the body, which we saw was lying on the ground,” Washaha told The Intercept. According to the ambulance driver, the soldiers, who were behind a barrier, aggressively prevented medical workers from reaching Mahmoud, firing tear gas and stun grenades at them and refusing to clear a path. It would be three hours before the Palestinian Red Crescent was allowed access to the teenager’s body.
“Maybe he would have lived” if there were no delay, Washaha said. “Mahmoud died in the end because of how much blood he lost.” According to an autopsy report conducted by a doctor at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in the town of Abu Dis, Israeli-fired bullets caused seven injuries to Mahmoud’s body, most of them in his chest.
The Israel Defense Forces have a much different account of what happened. In a statement to The Intercept, an IDF spokesperson said the army’s initial investigation into the incident found that Mahmoud “drew a knife and attacked a soldier, stabbing him in the head,” though the soldier was not injured because he wore a helmet. S.A., the witness, said he was certain he did not see a knife.
The spokesperson said the IDF was “unable to comment” on the allegation that soldiers denied Mahmoud medical treatment, though the army did tell Haaretz it provided medical aid to Mahmoud. The army did not release video footage of the alleged stabbing attempt but provided The Intercept with a picture of the knife it said Mahmoud used.
Mahmoud could have become just another statistic, another Palestinian death in a conflict littered with them. He was one of 32 children killed by Israeli forces last year in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, making 2016 the deadliest year for Palestinian children in a decade, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine. Twenty-four of those children were accused of carrying out attacks on Israeli soldiers or civilians.
But Mahmoud was American, and his citizenship brought his case to the attention of the U.S. State Department.
The Shaalan family and human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee, had multiple meetings with U.S. officials during the Obama administration, pushing the White House to publicly condemn the killing and call for a transparent Israeli investigation into the incident. Human rights advocates also requested a State Department review of U.S. military aid to the checkpoint unit that shot Mahmoud, viewing the killing as part of a pattern in which Israeli soldiers used excessive force against Palestinians who posed little threat.
In November 2016, after the IDF informed the State Department that the army had found no criminal wrongdoing by the soldiers involved, advocates received a letter from Anne W. Patterson, at the time the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. She said the U.S. took seriously allegations that Israeli forces had killed Mahmoud with an excessive amount of force. She also wrote that despite the Israeli government sharing evidence about the case with embassy officials, “We continue to have concerns about the death of this American citizen, and will remain engaged with the government of Israel on this issue.”
But nearly a year later, Patterson’s letter remains the most substantive U.S. government response the Shaalan family has gotten. According to advocates working on the case, demanding accountability after the death of an American citizen was not a priority for the Obama administration at a time of tensions between the U.S. and Israel.
In February, after Donald Trump took office, an IDF spokesperson told The Intercept that additional claims — likely from S.A.’s witness testimony — had prompted the Israeli military to reopen an internal inquiry to determine if a criminal investigation should be initiated into the soldiers who killed Mahmoud. While the IDF review leaves open the possibility of military prosecution in Israel, it also puts on hold the prospect of suspending U.S. military aid to the checkpoint unit responsible for the killing. A National Security Council spokesperson told The Intercept that the Trump administration has continued to monitor the case, just as the Obama administration did.
“This is the story in a nutshell: All of our political leverage as nonprofits working on Israel/Palestine is not enough to suspend U.S. military aid to one Israeli soldier who executed an American-Palestinian boy. It’s impossible to hold Israel accountable, and there is no clear path to ending this blank-check policy,” said Raed Jarrar, who worked on the case as government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee. “At this point, I’m pretty sure Israel is getting away with murder, again.”
It was 10:30 in the morning on February 26 when Salman Shaalan, Mahmoud’s 59-year-old uncle, began to get phone calls. He was still sleeping at his home in Tampa, so he ignored the first call. Then a second came. It was a cousin who lived in Washington, D.C. “Did you see what happened?” the cousin asked. He told Salman to check Facebook. When Salman, the brother of Mahmoud’s father, logged on, he was confronted with grisly images of his dead nephew. “I couldn’t even stand on my feet when I see that picture. I was in denial. I said, ‘That’s not him. He can’t be dead like that, shot, lying on the street bleeding.’”
Salman, who was very close to his nephew, began calling relatives in Deir Dibwan. His sisters told him that Mahmoud had gone to his aunt’s house. He called Mahmoud’s mother, Fawziya, but she told him the same thing. Salman could not bring himself to break the news to her just yet.
Instead, he immediately made plans to leave for Palestine. That night, Salman got on a plane, landing in Tel Aviv around 4:45 p.m. the next day. His first stop was the public hospital in Ramallah, where Mahmoud’s body was being held. Then he went to Deir Dibwan. By then, Mahmoud’s mother had been notified of her son’s death. She was devastated by the news. “I was the last one to find out,” Fawziya told The Intercept. “[It’s] the hardest thing to know.”
Mahmoud’s father, Mohammad, arrived from Florida two days later, and on March 2, hundreds of Palestinians from Deir Dibwan attended the funeral. As is common at the funerals of Palestinians killed by Israel, armed men accompanied the crowd and Mahmoud was carried on a stretcher draped with the flags of Palestinian political factions. He was laid to rest wrapped in Palestinian and American flags.
Mahmoud’s death came as a shock to the village, which is not known as a site of clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. While Fatah, the nationalist Palestinian party, posted on its Facebook page that Mahmoud had carried out a “heroic stabbing operation,” Salman told The Intercept that Mahmoud and his family had “nothing to do with Fatah” and the political party was trying to exploit his nephew’s death for its own gain.
The shock in Deir Dibwan was compounded by residents’ disbelief that Mahmoud would try to stab a soldier. He was a diligent student and had big plans for the future: return to the U.S., go to the University of South Florida with his brother, and become a doctor — not the typical profile of a would-be attacker on a suicide mission.
“The kid wouldn’t hurt an ant. He wouldn’t step on it,” said Mohammad Samha, a childhood friend from Deir Dibwan. “How do you think he would go murdering an Israeli soldier?”
Mahmoud’s death was the beginning of a long journey for his family. Rather than dealing with his death privately, Salman took the lead on publicly advocating for his slain nephew.
“I will not rest until I know what happened to him, and why he was killed, and [for] the person who killed him [to be] punished,” Salman said.
He began to work with Accountability for Violence Against Children, a Ramallah-based organization that conducts investigations into the deaths of Palestinian children. He hired a lawyer to look into pushing the army to prosecute the soldier who killed Mahmoud. (The occupied West Bank is under Israeli military law, and all deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers are handled by the military justice system.) And he engaged in multiple conversations with U.S. officials.
Salman’s first meeting came in mid-March 2016, when he spoke with U.S. consular officials in Jerusalem. The officials asked Salman to bring them whatever documents he had on the death of his nephew, like the autopsy report and medical records, which Salman later delivered. In subsequent conversations, Salman always circled back to his main concern: ensuring accountability for the killing of Mahmoud.
Salman also reached out to his congressional representative, Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican. With the assistance of the Arab American Institute, Salman sent a letter in August 2016 asking for Rooney’s support in pushing the State Department to ensure that Israel conducted a “transparent investigation” into Mahmoud’s death. He said he never heard back, though Meghan Rodgers, a spokesperson for Rooney, told The Intercept that the representative’s office pressed the State Department that month for a direct contact at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to obtain more information about the case. “Congressman Rooney will continue to try to get answers for Mahmoud Shaalan’s family,” Rodgers said.
Salman has never been satisfied with the answers he’s received from U.S. officials. “The U.S. government, and the State Department, too, they treat you as [if] you don’t count when it comes to the Israelis’ wrongdoing,” Salman said. “This is a U.S. citizen killed. If that U.S. citizen was killed the opposite — by a Palestinian — the White House, the State Department, the embassy will start condemning.”
Indeed, 11 days after the Israeli army killed Shaalan, a Palestinian assailant fatally stabbed Taylor Force, an American citizen and Army veteran. Speaking in Israel the next day, then-Vice President Joe Biden said, “The United States of America condemns these acts.” The State Department offered “heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Taylor.” U.S. officials did not offer similar public sentiments after soldiers killed Mahmoud.
Salman’s frustrations were shared by human rights advocates, who met with White House and State Department officials multiple times during the Obama administration. Details of three of these meetings were shared with The Intercept by Raed Jarrar, at the time the government relations manager for the American Friends Service Committee (he has since left the organization); Laila Abdelaziz, former government affairs director at the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; National Lawyers Guild members Benjamin Douglas and Ria Thompson-Washington; and two other participants who did not agree to go on the record citing concerns that doing so might jeopardize their chances of entering Israel or securing meetings with the same officials in the future. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on the advocates’ accounts.
In a September 2016 meeting, advocates asked for a White House statement on the killing. National Security Council officials explained that the personal relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so poisoned that even bringing up Mahmoud’s death would make a bad situation worse. The lack of a private presidential conversation about Mahmoud’s death stood in contrast to how the U.S. handled the killing of Rachel Corrie, a U.S. citizen run over by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003. Corrie’s death was brought up in conversation between then-President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who promised Bush that a “thorough, credible, and transparent” investigation would be conducted.
The September 2016 meeting also came amid ongoing negotiations over a U.S. military aid package to Israel for the next 10 years, further complicating the request for a presidential statement on the killing.
“There was definitely a sense that the administration cared deeply about this,” said Abdelaziz. “But it was always followed with a sense that the administration could barely do anything about this.” The National Security Council officials present at the meeting did not respond to requests for comment.
In October and November 2016, advocates homed in on another demand: pushing the State Department to open up a review of the military unit that killed Mahmoud under what is known as the Leahy Law.
First passed in 1998, the Leahy Law prohibits the U.S. from dispensing aid and training to foreign military units or individuals credibly accused of gross human rights violations, which the State Department defines as torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, or politically motivated rape. However, the secretary of state can waive that prohibition if he or she determines that the government of a country receiving U.S. military aid is taking action to bring human rights abusers to justice.
Less than two weeks prior to Mahmoud’s death, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., signed a letter asking the State Department to investigate reports of alleged extrajudicial killings committed by Israeli soldiers. The letter, signed by 10 other congressional representatives, said that the Leahy Law should be triggered if the reports were credible. Israeli concerns over the law spilled into public view the next month, when Netanyahu lashed out in response to the letter, saying Israeli forces “do not engage in executions” and defend themselves “with the highest moral standards against bloodthirsty terrorists who come to murder them.” Meanwhile, the State Department insisted that the Leahy Law did apply to Israel, as it applies to all countries receiving U.S. assistance, and affirmed it rigorously vets all military units that receive U.S. military aid.
Advocates made their initial request for a Leahy Law review in an early October meeting. Their argument was simple: Here was the case of an American citizen, killing in an apparent extrajudicial killing documented by respected human rights organizations, by a foreign military that receives $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid every year (starting in 2018, U.S. military aid to Israel will increase to $3.8 billion).
They also said the Israeli military was not holding the soldiers in the unit that killed Mahmoud accountable — under the Leahy Law, aid can only be cut off if there is no effort by the foreign government’s judicial system to hold human rights violators accountable. At the time of the fall 2016 meetings, human rights advocates understood there was no ongoing Israeli inquiry into the killing.
Did the Israeli military unit that shot Mahmoud receive U.S. aid? The answer is likely yes. According to Jarrar, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv told him last year that the U.S. government assumes that every Israeli military unit uses U.S. military aid. A congressional aide knowledgeable about U.S. military assistance similarly told The Intercept, “U.S. assistance of one type or another has benefited virtually all units of the Israeli Defense Forces.”
But the question is not as simple as it sounds. At the October meeting, State Department officials indicated it would be difficult to carry out a Leahy Law review in this case, according to meeting participants. While the statute requires the State Department to maintain “a current list of all security force units receiving United States training, equipment, or other types of assistance,” in practice, there is little in place to track weapons and aid provided to Israel. According to rights advocates at the meeting, U.S. officials explained that military aid goes to Israel in a lump sum that is then distributed by the Israeli government across the Israeli military, which makes tracking the specific units that receive U.S. aid difficult.
Daniel Mahanty, a former State Department official who oversaw implementation of the Leahy Law from January 2014 to September 2015, said that explanation sounded like a “cop out.” Mahanty told The Intercept that if the State Department determined that a human rights violation occurred in the case, the U.S. could go to Israeli officials and ask that assistance not be given to the military unit that shot Mahmoud. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on whether it ever made such a request.
At the October meeting, State Department officials also indicated that Israeli government officials had been reluctant to provide details for past human rights inquiries conducted by the State Department. According to meeting participants, an official said the Israelis were concerned that if they gave the U.S. specific information about military units implicated in human rights abuses, that information could eventually be used against the army during an International Criminal Court investigation.
As the Obama administration’s time in office began to run out, the human rights groups working on the Shaalan case requested yet another meeting at the State Department, this one in November. “Many of us saw the administration’s time limits as the end of the window of opportunity to push for suspending U.S. military aid from that one Israeli unit,” Jarrar said.
But that meeting was just as unsuccessful. U.S. officials told advocates that the State Department would not open up a review of military aid to the checkpoint unit.
Still, Jarrar has not given up on advocating around the Shaalan killing. He has continued to meet with State Department officials now serving under the Trump administration, though suspending military aid to a U.S.-assisted Israeli unit seems unlikely under Trump, who has made strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance a priority. A National Security Council spokesperson said Trump administration officials met with Israeli officials and the Shaalan family lawyer in June about the case.
“We are holding the Trump administration to the same standards and expectations as the Obama administration. And we will continue to demand that they do their job and implement U.S. law” on military aid to Israel, Jarrar said.
Jarrar also said he is exploring the possibility of legal action against the State Department for not implementing the Leahy Law when evaluating military aid to Israel.
As Palestinian rights advocates continued to push forward in Washington, the Shaalan family pursued their own campaign for accountability in Israel. Their lawyer, Yamen Zidan, pressed the Israeli military to reopen its previously closed inquiry into the killing of Mahmoud. In February, an IDF spokesperson told The Intercept that the army had “received additional claims about the incident” that were under review. While the army would not detail what those additional claims were, the State Department confirmed that the army was reviewing claims about the shooting from a witness.
S.A. told The Intercept that he provided testimony to the Israeli army on two occasions. The first was about a year after the killing, when he told the military what he saw, and investigators asked whether Mahmoud had shouted “God is great” during the incident. S.A. said he had not heard anything like that. The second occurred a few months later, when he went with the military to the scene of the killing and acted out what he’d witnessed.
The army’s review leaves open the possibility, for now, of a military prosecutor bringing charges against the soldiers responsible for Mahmoud’s death. The chances of prosecution are slim, and the family knows that. “I don’t have no confidence in the court system, that Israel will give me justice,” Salman told me. “But I have to go through that legal challenge, because that’s the only way to go.”
It is rare for the Israeli military to prosecute one of its own soldiers for the shooting death of a Palestinian, especially when there is no video evidence released and a stark dispute between a witness and soldiers over what exactly took place. Since the Second Intifada erupted, B’Tselem has demanded the Israeli military investigate 739 incidents in which soldiers “killed, injured, beat Palestinians, or used them as human shields” or damaged their property, according to a May 2016 report. The army did not investigate a quarter of those cases and closed nearly half of the 739 cases without issuing any charges. In a mere 25 of the cases, the Israeli army brought charges. In that report, B’Tselem announced it would no longer file complaints to the military after concluding that the military justice system was a “whitewash” mechanism.
If the military justice system does not indict the soldiers who killed Mahmoud, the family may move to sue the army in civil court for compensation. But even that path is difficult. Israeli law exempts the state from having to pay damages in cases of “warfare,” defined to include actions to prevent terrorism or “hostilities,” even if the soldiers’ lives are not in danger.
Apart from trying to ensure accountability, Zidan, the Shaalan family’s lawyer, says there is another reason to pursue the case. “Since we’re talking about a case with an American citizen,” he said, “there’s a possibility to create pressure and move American public opinion [on Israel].”