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Middle East

Did Israeli troops deliberately provoke boy, only to shoot him in the back?

On Monday Samir was shot by the IDF near his home in the West Bank. Israel says he was trying to invade its territory. But the boy's family claim the truth is much more sinister

Like most parents at a time of crisis, Sidiqy Khalaf Awad was surrounded by her children today. She has 14 in all. The image of her 15th, Samir Ahmed, who looked much younger than his 16 years, is plastered all over her village and now brings her only sorrow. For Samir is dead. He was shot in the head on Tuesday by soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) close to the family home in Budrus, near the West Bank border with Israel.

As Mrs Awad sat in her yard today, behind the front door which gives out on to the street, her husband, Ahmed, mourned outside with male members of the village, handing coffee and dates to well-wishers. The local mosque was offering mourning prayers. Several people in and around the house were carrying Arabic newspapers, which had pictures of Samir’s funeral on their front pages.

“I lifted up his arm and it just fell to the ground. I looked into his eyes, but he was staring into space.  I was saying, ‘My son is dead’”, she said as she described the moment she found Samir in a field. He had been shot three times: in the legs, the back and the back of the head, according to eyewitnesses. Speaking at her home, surrounded by her other children and neighbours, Mrs Awad described how Samir had left for a science exam on Tuesday morning, and that the next time she saw him, “he was bleeding from his injuries. I gave thanks to God for his life and then started throwing stones at the Israelis who had done this.”

The circumstances surrounding Samir’s death are not yet clear. The IDF said on Tuesday that he was among several Palestinians who approached the border fence, damaged it and were “attempting to infiltrate Israel” when its soldiers opened fire. Samir’s family rejected the accusation, and insisted that Tuesday was just another ordinary day in the village, and that local children protested regularly. Indeed, this morning another group of teenagers ran up to the fence and seemed to be baiting the troops on the other side. The IDF responded by firing what appeared to be tear gas in their direction.

Samir’s family and other villagers said the IDF regularly uses loudhailers to taunt children at the Budrus Secondary School, which overlooks the area where Samir was killed.

“Why are the soldiers here?” asked his mother. “Every day they provoke the children, using their loudhailers to get inside the school, and then they fire rubber bullets and tear gas. Every day. The loudhailers are directed specifically at the schoolchildren. We have been suffering this for eight years [since the construction of the security barrier].”

The family denied being political, but the flags of Hamas, the group that controls the Gaza Strip, were attached to the top of their house. They said local officials had put them there. At another local school, somebody had hung a large poster showing Samir’s face next to that of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli air strike in 2004.

The claim that the military provokes the schoolchildren was corroborated by others in the village. Nader Shalesh, an Arabic-language teacher at the secondary school, said the soldiers regularly used their loudhailer to insult the children: “It is as if they are saying; ‘we’re here, come and get us.’”

Sheihab Mohammed, a student, said the same insults had been flying on Tuesday: “They were using phases, like ‘sons of bitches, sons of whores’, that sort of thing,” he said.

Mr Shalesh said that in recent years the school had built the wall that now surrounds its yard in an attempt to drown out the soldiers’ taunts – usually delivered in Arabic, he said – and to stop the children moving down towards the fence during their breaktimes.

Budrus, about 35 kilometres north-west of Ramallah, has long been a centre for protest against the barrier built by the Israeli government in the early part of the last decade, ostensibly to stop suicide bombers from the West Bank.

If the clashes on Tuesday mirrored those of today, it appeared to be local children who were leading the charge. As about four or five teenagers approached the fence, younger children at the school cheered from the yard. And later two 4x4s arrived carrying what appeared to be members of the Palestinian security forces.

Samir’s 10-year-old brother Mahmoud said Samir and four of his friends had told the younger ones to stay away from the protest on Tuesday, which immediately followed the exam he and his friends had sat. Afterwards, students at the school claimed that IDF soldiers had crossed the fence and hidden in a trench on the Palestinian side, metres from the schoolyard. It is thought that Samir became trapped between these soldiers and those at the security fence, with some reports suggesting that he was arrested. He managed to escape, but was then shot. There was no evidence from the Palestinian side that Samir made any attempt to cross into Israel.

His family also accused the IDF of preventing them from getting to him immediately after the shooting, and that by the time he reached hospital in Ramallah 30 minutes later, he was close to death.

The IDF insisted it had issued the necessary warnings before opening fire. It said: "It should be noted that in the aforementioned area, there are daily occurrences of rock hurling at the security fence by Palestinians, which cause severe damage to the fence, hampering the IDF's ability to provide an envelope of security in the area."

Some in Israel fear the possibility of a third Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and in the past week alone four Palestinians have been shot dead by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank. For Samir’s family, life will never be the same. But the clashes at the fence in Budrus suggest that, for the protesters and the IDF, it was back to business as usual.