Witness Says Fatal Shooting of American-Palestinian Teen in the Occupied West Bank Was Unprovoked

AL-MAZRA’A ASH-SHARQIYA, West Bank — The fatal shooting of an American-Palestinian teen driving a pickup truck in the occupied West Bank was unprovoked, the sole passenger told The Associated Press, describing apparent Israeli fire hitting the back of the vehicle before it overturned several times on a dirt road.

At least 10 bullets struck the truck, which was seen by The Associated Press after Israeli investigators examined it. Most hit the back windshield and truck bed, supporting 16-year-old Mohammed Salameh’s account of the incident that killed his friend, Tawfic Abdel Jabbar, 17, a Louisiana native.

In an initial statement, Israeli police said Friday’s shooting targeted people “purportedly engaged in rock-throwing activities along Highway 60,” a main West Bank thoroughfare. Police didn’t identify who fired the shots but described the incident “ostensibly involving an off-duty law enforcement officer, a soldier and a civilian.”

Salameh denied suggestions he and Abdel Jabbar had been throwing stones and said there had been no attempt to arrest him.

Salameh — interviewed Tuesday along with Abdel Jabbar’s father, Hafeth, in the family’s ancestral village of Al-Mazra’a Ash-Sharquiya — said he and his friend were driving on a dirt road several hundred meters from Highway 60. He said shots suddenly hit the back of the truck, striking Abdel Jabbar.

Salameh said the pickup overturned several times, and he managed to get out and run back to the village for help.

Hafeth Abdel Jabbar said that when he arrived, he found his son’s lifeless body in the pickup, amid shattered glass and blood stains. He rejected claims that his son had thrown stones as “a big lie.” Even if the teens had thrown rocks, he said, they posed no imminent threat — to police, military, or civilians — as they drove through the brush.

An Israeli police official told AP on Wednesday that the witness account and bullet holes in the back of the truck represented only one side of the story and that the investigation is ongoing. He declined to comment further. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case with news outlets.

The White House has demanded a transparent investigation into the death, which came after repeated U.S. warnings that Israel must rein in rising violence against Palestinians in the territory. The teen’s family said U.S. embassy officials visited the village, photographed the car and interviewed relatives.

On the scene

Salameh said the events leading to the shooting began Friday afternoon, when he and Abdel Jabbar decided to have a picnic in the family’s fields — a typical thing to do on sunny days.

They jumped in the family truck and headed out, he said, but realized they’d forgotten charcoal. Abdel Jabbar turned the car around, heading back to the village on a dirt road perpendicular to the highway — that’s when shots began hitting the back windshield, Salameh said.

He said he ducked as bullets pounded the vehicle, the fourth one hitting Tawfic in the head. The car skidded off the road and flipped several times before coming to a stop, Salameh said.

Hafeth Abdel Jabbar said that when he and other relatives arrived, Israeli soldiers trained their guns on them and made two of them take their shirts off to show they weren’t a threat.

He said he ignored the soldiers and ran to the car, which had landed upright. He described his son’s body as splayed on the passenger side of the car, where blood pooled onto the floor and spread to the backseat.

He said he and others began extricating his son’s body, loading him into an ambulance.

Tawfic Abdel Jabbar was pronounced dead upon arrival at a Ramallah hospital. Video his father provided shows the car about 500 meters from the highway.

“It’s a scene that I hope never happens again,” Hafeth said Tuesday. “You have six or seven Israeli soldiers pointing the gun at you. Telling you not to go see your son. Your 17-year-old son is inside the car, dead from them, shot from the back.”

In the village

The killing shocked the village, where most inhabitants carry American passports and split their time between the West Bank and the U.S.

The Abdel Jabbar family’s roots there run back almost 200 years. Tawfic’s parents, Hafeth and Mona, grew up in the village. They moved to Gretna, Louisiana, where they married. The extended family owns a chain of shoe stores in the U.S.

The family returned frequently to their ancestral home, an ornate stone compound perched on a village hilltop. During summers, Tawfic and his siblings took part in traditional village life.

He was in his senior year in high school when he was killed. Studying remotely over the past few months, he hoped to finish in February and eventually attend college in the U.S, his father said.

Immediately after the shooting, Palestinian health officials identified the teen as Tawfiq Ajaq, but his parents said the family goes by the last name Abdel Jabbar and their son’s first name is Tawfic, an unusual spelling.

After Israeli investigators examined the vehicle Saturday, the family took it back to the village, where it sat under tarp. AP saw the truck Tuesday. Bullet holes had been marked with Hebrew stickers left by a police forensics team. Later Tuesday, investigators took the truck, Abdel Jabbar said.

According to figures from the Israeli watchdog Yesh Din, killings of Palestinians in the West Bank rarely result in investigations — and when they do, indictments are uncommon.

Also Tuesday, Abdel Jabbar said, he accompanied Salameh to provide witness testimony to Israeli investigators.

After shock, anger

Four days after the shooting, friends and relatives clustered into the family home to pay their respects, piling hummus and falafel onto platters and gathering around fires with cups of Arabic coffee.

Tawfic’s uncle, Rami, said that in Louisiana, Tawfic had refused to work in the family’s shoe stores — spending time instead studying. Abdel Jabbar said his son wanted to become an engineer.

His mother, 36-year-old Mona, said she wants to see those who killed her son prosecuted and punished in Israel, and added that she’s furious at U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

“How many children have to get killed for the U.S. to stop supporting Israel?” she said.

Biden’s administration has provided military and diplomatic support for Israel’s war against Hamas. Over 25,000 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them women and children, have been killed, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, in which the militants killed about 1,200 people and took 250 hostages.

The administration has condemned rising violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. Since Oct. 7, 370 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, according to Palestinian health officials. Most have been killed in clashes during near nightly Israeli army raids aimed at suspected militants.

“My son, he was killed by — I don’t want to say American bullets, but at least by American money,” Mona Abdel Jabbar said. “We live there, we work there. Our business is there, we pay in taxes there. So my taxes are going to the bullet that killed my son.”

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