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Israeli killing of 15-year-old Palestinian girl in West Bank casts light on civilian casualties

A 15-year-old Palestinian girl, Sadeel Naghniyeh, was killed by suspected Israeli fire when a raid into the refugee camp last week ignited the fiercest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in years

Isabel Debre
Thursday 29 June 2023 07:20 BST

At the funeral for Sadeel Naghniyeh, 15, her closest friends hoisted her dead body over their shoulders. Wearing their school uniforms — tight black hijabs and oversized striped shirts — they staggered through the Palestinian refugee camp, crying and choking out the Islamic funeral prayers.

Sadeel was killed by suspected Israeli fire when a raid into the northern Jenin refugee camp last week ignited the fiercest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the occupied West Bank in years.

Typically in Palestinian funerals, older men — relatives and friends — parade the flag-draped body through the streets. At Sadeel's funeral, her eighth-grade classmates wrapped her in the uniform she would no longer wear.

“She was only a child. She had ambitions to become a nurse and save lives,” her father, Ghassan Naghniyeh, 46, said from his vine-covered driveway where Sadeel was shot. “They killed my daughter and they killed her dreams.”

Witness accounts and surveillance videos suggest there were no clashes at that time on her street and that the fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces was unfolding some 650 meters (700 yards) west of her home.

The killing of Sadeel — one of 12 Palestinians under the age of 16 killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank this year, according to a tally by The Associated Press — has renewed scrutiny of the military’s record of causing civilian casualties as violence surges in the occupied territory. The army launched a widespread campaign into Palestinian towns and cities last year in response to a wave of Palestinian attacks inside Israel.

So far this year, nearly 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank, according to the AP’s count, almost half of them affiliated with militant groups. The army says that number is much higher. But civilians have also been killed, including a 2-year-old boy earlier this month and a 15-year-old boy in last week's same Jenin camp raid. His death is also under military review.

“We’re not just talking about Sadeel’s death, we’re talking about daily killings and no accountability that could serve as a way to prevent Israel from killing more civilians in the future,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights group

The Israeli army often accuses Palestinian militants of endangering civilians by using residential areas for cover. It gave no explanation for Sadeel's death, two days after the shooting, saying the circumstances are “under examination.”

Sadeel’s family believes the bullet that killed her likely came from an Israeli army jeep rumbling down their quiet street that morning, according to surveillance footage. Two motorists, a woman in her 30s and a young man, were wounded when they came under fire from the same jeep, neighbors said.

The last video taken on Sadeel’s phone shows a similar military jeep moving along a dusty road some 200 meters (yards) from where she stood. It remains unclear whether it was the same jeep. Minutes after she posted the clip to Telegram, she was lying in her driveway, brain-dead.

The Israeli military declined to answer multiple questions about the military vehicles. Without mentioning Sadeel, the army said its arrest operation had sparked a “massive exchange of fire with terrorists” and that Israeli forces had opened fire on gunmen and those throwing explosive devices.

Israeli military raids have been met regularly with Palestinian gunfire and rippled into bloody battles. Israel contends the intensified military activities are a counterterrorism effort and has focused its operations on the hometowns of assailants — particularly the city of Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp.

The camp has re-emerged as a stronghold of Palestinian militancy two decades after Israel invaded the camp with tanks and helicopters, flattening homes. The effects of that 2002 battle, among the biggest of the second Palestinian uprising, linger on.

“The martyrs from that battle are still dead. The prisoners are still in prison,” said Mohammed Shehata, the general manager of the Freedom Theater, which was co-founded by a famous militant and offers drama classes and performance facilities for young Palestinians in the camp. "And now, the young people fighting today’s battles will pass their pain onto the next generation.”

Sadeel, who lived just behind the theater, could often be found there, watching auditions, joking with foreign volunteers and playing improv games in its summer camp, Shehata said. He shared a video of a younger Sadeel prancing and singing with other kids.

But the conflict never went away. Residents say on the outskirts of the camp, rooftops in Sadeel’s neighborhood afforded Israeli snipers a good vantage point. Multiple bullet holes from past raids pierce her father’s parked white Kia.

Two of her uncles were Palestinian militants killed as teenagers in the second uprising. Another two remain in Israeli prison.

Sadeel’s profile picture on Facebook is a black-and-white photo of an unidentified girl wearing an abaya and holding up a rifle. “Oh God, I end my life according to your will,” she wrote several months ago. Transfixed by Israeli and Palestinian attacks, killings and clashes each day, Sadeel could hardly focus in school, her father said.

Israeli officials say incitement on social media drives Palestinian youth toward militancy. But her uncle, Nidal Naghniyeh, described Sadeel's praise for militants as the inevitable outcome of life in Jenin refugee camp.

“It's the same thing in every house,” he said. “Sadeel had nothing else around her but death and destruction. So what does she think about? What does she dream of? Death.”

When Israeli military vehicles, bulldozers and drones swarmed the camp last week, Palestinian militants ambushed the forces with gunfire and powerful explosives, prompting the Israeli military to dispatch helicopter gunships to help evacuate its stranded soldiers. Seven Palestinians were killed.

The raid started with a familiar scene. The camp sirens went off. Militants fired into the air to warn residents about the incursion. Naghniyeh and his wife ushered Sadeel and their four sons toward the back of the house. They shut all the windows.

But Sadeel was restless around 8.a.m. and asked her father if she could spend the day next door with her twin cousins, Sara and Yara.

Naghniyeh agreed, considering it a safe and much-needed distraction. Minutes after she disappeared down the stairs, he heard his 9-year-old son, Hamoudi, shrieking.

In the driveway, Naghniyeh cradled Sadeel's limp body and felt blood at the back of her head. He knew his only daughter was gone.

“Whoever shot her would have seen her,” he said. “Did they not see she was small?”

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