The stabbing of a 13-year-old Israel settler by her 16-year-old Palestinian neighbor and the conflict that made them enemies
On the last night of her life, Hallel Ariel danced. The performance was entitled Genesis. “Each dance had some meaning around a beginning,” her mother Rina recalled. In one, she was Eve in the Garden of Eden. In another, she was a bride on her wedding day.
At 8:44 a.m. the following morning, sixteen-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Tarayreh entered the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba and stabbed the thirteen-year-old Israeli in her bed. He had come in with the sunlight and the breeze, through an open window. Like all children, Hallel had once feared imaginary monsters. Like all children, she had envisioned things that were not there outside her window. They buried her that evening, wrapped in a white shroud.
When the news reached the nearby settlement of Gush Etzion, it was claimed that he had stabbed her three hundred times. The papers later reported that it had been dozens, or once in her chest and seven times in her back.
Tarayreh had seen what I saw now, approaching from the remote edge of Kiryat Arba — from a barbed wire fence that buckled and sagged. Syrian Thistles bloomed. The Ariel house crouched in the undergrowth at the end of a meandering dirt road, framed by a stained mattress and a rusted tricycle. Their nearest neighbors were several minutes away — a cluster of prefabricated boxes on the crest of a hill.
Looking into the room from outside — the protective metal shutters were open, as they had been that morning — I could see Hallel’s naked bedframe below and the bunks of her sisters off to the right. The sisters, four and eight-years-old, had been at camp when the murder occurred. Hallel slept beneath a hot air balloon of crepe paper, an array of dancing ballerina figurines she had fashioned out of fabric and tinfoil, and a box of plastic animals. She had loved animals more than anything, her parents told me. Disturbed by thoughts of their suffering, she had become the family’s only vegetarian at the age of seven. She had planned to become a zoologist.
Recently, the bloodstain on the floor had been scrubbed and Hallel’s sisters had been sent back to sleep in the room. There was nowhere else in the little house for them to stay.
“I came in with my friends,” Hallel’s father Amihai began, describing the aftermath of the murder, “they didn’t know he was inside, but they heard something was not well, so they called me. They were armed. I came from the swimming pool on foot. It was about 15 minutes after he murdered her, after they saw him going under the fence. We came inside.”
We were seated in the living room. Amihai pointed down the hall. “I saw her and I tried to call her, ‘Hallel! Hallel!’ I tried to call her, and then I understood that she was dead, but I shouted, ‘Hallel! Hallel!’ The killer was hiding, and he came with his knife — a big knife, and he wanted to kill my friend and me, but the other man who came with a gun — I knew, I had to shout, so I shouted, and he came and he shot him. I knew she was dead, and nothing can help us.” He was crying now, his rough farmer’s hands gripping his body.
Hallel’s hands had been rough too. She had worked intermittently in the vineyard beside her father from the age of six. At the shiva, Rina had encouraged everyone to drink the wine. “The wine is the wine that Hallel helped to make in the last days of her life. This is still full of her energy and her thumb prints.”
“I feel she is existing still,” Rina insisted weeks later, “because it’s hard to imagine she’s not here. Everything we do has to do with her. She was sitting over here, and here’s something she liked to eat, and here’s her clothes and her towel. Everything is full of her.”
Amihai tried, but he could not feel the spirit of his daughter. “No,” he stated. “She has died. She is dead. You can see a lot of films and a lot of pictures, but the hole is only becoming deeper and blacker.”
Three kilometers away across the no man’s land, in Bani Naim, a wedding was underway. The cars were decked in flowers and ribbons. Someone had thrown dye into the fountain here at the center of the city where Mohammed Tarayreh had lived. It hemorrhaged pink.
On the drive from Jerusalem, the car passed a series of Israeli guard towers and looming walls. Some had been painted to resemble Roman arches through which could be seen trompe l’oeil visions of green fields and the blue Mediterranean. Scenes of villages and flowers decorated IDF guard posts. As we drove, I traded stories with my translator, Vera, an American-educated Israeli-Arab. She laughed about having to search in the darkest corners of her closet for clothes conservative enough to wear in Bani Naim.
Vera had spent the previous day accompanying Palestinian children from Hebron. An Israeli organization had arranged permits for them to view the sea for the first time in their lives. It was the first time for many of their mothers too. “It’s an hour’s drive to the coast,” Vera explained, “but with the checkpoints, it took four. The soldiers opened every bottle of water and every box of juice. When we got to the Mediterranean, everyone started screaming. The kids jumped into the sea with their eyes open and tried to drink the water. They didn’t understand that they couldn’t drink.”
For Vera, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is personal. The last bus bombing in Jerusalem had shaken the walls of her home. “It was just across the street,” she told me, “where you parked your car, and to the right.” She recalled another day several months ago when she had bought groceries near the Damascus Gate. “A few hours later,” she recalled, “the police shot a man dead there. His blood was where I was standing.”
She had lost a cousin as well, twelve years prior during the Second Intifada. “He was a waiter in an Arab restaurant,” she explained. “This teenager from Janin sneaked into Israel with a suicide vest. He was sent by Hamas or another group — I forget. The kid was meant to go into the shopping mall nearby, but because there was heavy security, he knew he couldn’t pass through. There was a restaurant next to the shopping mall though, so he went there instead. He killed 22 people that day, including my cousin. At first I was furious, why would he do that? And, why would he do that in an Arab restaurant when he’s talking to an Arab waiter? Then you read about him, about how he never saw his father growing up — about how he was in jail. So, you stop judging.”
As we passed the road to Kiryat Arba, our Palestinian driver Gasan interjected a story of his own. He spoke of a memorial in that town erected to the Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein who had fired into a crowd of praying Muslims at the nearby Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. He killed 29 and wounded 125. “People go to this memorial and praise him,” Gasan spat. “He’s a terrorist. Don’t they say Hamas praises terrorists? The memorial should be banned.”
After the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre, Gasan had joined a riot on the Temple Mount. The driver patted his right leg where a bullet was still lodged from that day along with two others from the First Intifada. On each occasion, he had been throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. “We weren’t kissing them,” he laughed.
We halted at the border of Bani Naim, before a massive earthen barrier. In the hours after Hallel’s murder, the Israelis had organized teams of bulldozers to blockade every entrance to the city of 30,000. The collective punishment was to be indefinite. We idled there watching families scramble over the embankment and into vehicles that came to meet them on the other side.
As we waited, Gasan told jokes to entertain us. There was one about the ongoing Knife Intifada of which Hallel had been the latest victim. “Why did the married woman stab the IDF soldier?” he asked. “To escape from her husband!”
As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, a relative of the Tarayreh family finally arrived in an SUV. He drove us to meet Mohammed’s parents, Nasser and Raeda, at the threshold of their two story home. Anticipating its imminent demolition, in accordance with Israeli law, they had emptied the house of all their possessions. They had bought tents and were prepared to sleep amidst the rubble.
“It is a tradition for Arabs to welcome a guest regardless of the situation,” Nasser announced. He had worked as a traveling salesman until his permit was revoked after the murder. Mohammed’s grandmother served coffee and dates in the foyer. We sat in a ring of plastic chairs occupied by five of the remaining seven children from the Tarayreh family and a multitude of uncles and cousins. The last to be seated was Mohammed’s younger brother, who has Down syndrome. He was the only one who smiled.
In the aftermath of the murder, Raeda had appeared on television in support of her son. “My son died as a martyr defending Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” she stated. “Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, my son has joined the martyrs before him … Allah willing, all of them will follow this path — all the youth of Palestine.” Similar comments by the Tarayreh’s oldest daughter and son had led to their arrest by the Israeli authorities for inciting violence.
The parents presented us with a martyrdom poster featuring their son, printed by Fatah. The organization had used a selfie that Mohammed had posted to Facebook. It showed a scrawny teenager in the back seat of a car. He held the camera diagonally, so that he seemed to almost float within the frame, free of gravity. He wore a serious expression, with his body torqued and head cocked at a dramatic angle. In the picture on the poster, the interior of the car had been removed and replaced by a white background. The text established Mohammed’s status as a martyr, entitling his family to a stipend of $350 per month in perpetuity from the Palestinian Authority.
“My son, may he rest in peace, was a very cheerful person,” Raeda insisted. “He loved people. He had a good heart. He was the comedian of the family.”
“There was a guy once with new shoes,” Nasser added, attempting to describe his son’s sense of humor. “This guy was walking intentionally to make his shoes squeak, so that people would notice. Mohammed went up to him and said, ‘Fine, we understand you have new shoes. Stop making noise!’”
“The thing he loved the most in the whole world was Maisa, his four-year-old sister,” Raeda noted. “They used to cuddle on the couch, and listen to music and dance, and he used to tickle her.”
“When I come home now,” Nasser mentioned, “Maisa tells me to go away and send Mohammed instead.”
Both parents attribute Mohammed’s motivation to the death of a relative four months prior. “His cousin went to get gas for his car in Kiryat Arba, and the IDF shot him dead,” Nasser claimed. Israeli reports describe the incident as a vehicular-ramming attack.
For nearly a month before Hallel’s murder, the Tarayrehs had scarcely seen their son. He had dropped out of school and began working at a pastry shop, baking from dusk until dawn throughout Ramadan. Nasser had called his son at 2 a.m. on the morning of the murder. Mohammed told his father that he would bring the family a box of pastries when his shift was over. Six hours later, the teenager selected the largest knife in the bakery, locked the door behind him, and walked to Kiryat Arba. His last known communication with anyone was a Facebook post. “Death is a right,” he declared, “and I demand the right to die.”
His family discovered what had happened from a news report. “It was like an earthquake,” Nasser described.
“Do you have any sympathy for the family of the girl who was killed?” I asked.
“We have sympathy for our son,” Raeda answered.
“Do you have anything to say to them?” I asked.
“We have nothing to say,” she replied.
Rina though, had words for her. At Hallel’s eulogy, the mother had stood and pointed her finger at Bani Naim, in the distance. She aimed her remarks directly at Raeda. “I raised my daughter to love. You raised your son to hate.”
Rina continued, raising her hands and speaking directly to God, imagining her daughter in heaven, and asking that a place be made for Hallel to dance. Rina later elaborated on her vision. “I can see the Almighty God, sitting on a throne, and the souls around him. We believe that the holier a soul is, the closer it is to the throne. If a Jew is murdered just because he is a Jew he’s considered the holiest soul of all.”
The funeral soon progressed from the personal to the political. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, stood at the podium and proclaimed that the Israelis must, “build in Sarona and Kiryat Arba, in Jaffa and Jerusalem, in Itamar and Beersheba.” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a cousin of Hallel, demanded “Israeli sovereignty” in the West Bank and the expansion of settlements.
The following week, the Ariels led a march to the Temple Mount in Hallel’s name. “I feel that there is a connection between this place and what happened to my daughter,” Rina stated. “An Arab can pray anywhere in this country, but we are not even allowed to pray at our holiest site. If we murmur something, if we even close our eyes for a moment on the Temple Mount, we will be arrested. An Arab came to stab my daughter in her heart, and the fact is, that the heart of the Jewish nation is being left to Arabs. If the Arabs can occupy our holiest site, then of course they will feel free to enter our homes.”
I asked Rina if her family would remain in Kiryat Arba. “Where should we go — Orlando?” she posed. “Where? There is nowhere now.”
They would stay in Kiryat Arba, she insisted. They would stay in their home, and the girls would continue to sleep in the room where their sister was murdered. They would continue to wake screaming in the middle of the night, only this time there would be an attack dog at their feet. This time, the metal shutters of every window would always be closed, would always be locked.
On the day of her funeral, the men jostled and fought for the honor of carrying Hallel’s body to the grave site. As the Jews of Kiryat Arba lowered one more of their own into the hole they had made, the loud speakers at the mosques of Bani Naim began to sing the evening call to prayer. “Allahu akbar! God is Great!” The Israelis joined together, faces thrust upwards — singing their own hymns, shouting the words to drown out the sound.
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