Autopsies and Executions

By Mary Barrett

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , April 1990

I came to Nablus to learn about the execution-style killing of a young man here and the shooting death of his young friend.

I remembered another visit when the military had opened fire on a demonstration. A teen-aged boy was shot in the face and soldiers charged in to get him. Suddenly hundreds of people poured into the street, oblivious to the tear gas and live ammunition.

Old women ran straight at the soldiers, screaming and crying. Children flooded around to protect them from flailing clubs and gun butts. The wounded boy was dragged away by friends. Before the military could seal the gates to the city, he was out.

The best efforts of a local hospital failed to save him, however. As we entered, frenzied youths were plunging through the corridors to a secret exit with their lifeless burden. Parents of other patients rushed to hold doors and wipe the fresh blood from the tiled floor. As hospital personnel rapidly swabbed down the surgery and changed their smocks, a young woman rushed outside to drive away the car which had brought the boy. By the time the army had maneuvered around the barricades and plunged through the doors of the emergency room, all was quiet.

Why did the soldiers want the body so badly and why were the Palestinians ready to risk death to keep it? The stories of the families I had come to see today embodied those issues. Nearly a month after their sons had died, they had only just buried them.

A Family's Story

The home of 'Ammar Mohammad Anis Kalbouneh was decorated as so many I had seen in the last two years. There were wreaths of palm, bundles of flowers, calligraphed banners, photographs of the martyr and, as always, colors of the Palestinian flag. During the 40 days of mourning they would be replaced over and over after soldiers entered and destroyed them.

'Ammar's mother sat in the living room with about 15 other women. Pinned to her white scarf was a photograph of her 19-year old son and his fiance, Bahiya Sayieh. There were no hysterics, no sobbing. The women were calm, controlled and angry.

The story was a complex one. 'Ammar's mother, sisters and fiance began by pointing out that they were mourning not only for 'Ammar, but also for his friend Ayman Shafiq Jamous, killed at the same time. The two had been living quietly for about a year in a deserted house in the Rafidieh section of Nablus with three other youths, all wanted by the army.

Nineteen-year-old 'Ammar Mohammad Anis Kaibouneh and his fiance, Bahiya Sayieh.

At 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1989, the CID (Israeli secret police) and Israeli soldiers surrounded the house and burst into it. Neighbors heard a sustained explosion of gunfire, as if from a number of weapons.

Then terrible screams were heard from within. A young man was howling, "Leave my head, God curse you, leave my head!" and someone else was yelling, "You're going to answer, do you hear? You're going to talk!" Suddenly the boy's screaming stopped. Neighbors watched as Captain Kuby (some spell it Coby), an infamous Nablus police officer, accompanied the motionless form of Ayman Jamous from the house, still yelling at him, "You cannot die. I want you alive."

At 9:30 in the morning the families heard of the deaths of 'Ammar and Ayman on Israeli radio. They imagined their sons lying naked on mortuary slabs with wounds over each kidney sewn closed with coarse black thread, as so many families had described. Or perhaps the boys were being maintained on life support, waiting, comatose, to become unwitting organ donors.

When they demanded their sons' bodies, the military governor of Nablus, Shemolik Mrad, claimed that they had been taken away and buried in Rihaneh cemetery in Jericho. He gave the families a permit to go to see the graves. Rihaneh is the place where martyred fellahiyeen, the Palestinian fighters who have infiltrated from across the Jordan River, are buried. Its location is secret. Rumors have long abounded that those Palestinians who disappear after arrest end up there.

The grieving families of the two boys went to the military governor of Jericho. At first he said he did not know what they were talking about, and that they could not have been told the boys were buried there because "Who is buried here is a military secret." Finally, after they produced the permit he said yes, the bodies were there but it was a closed military zone so they could not see the graves.

The governor told the families they could not have the bodies, "because you would not turn them over to us when they were wanted." All of this only confirmed their initial suspicion. They saw no reason to believe the boys' bodies were in Jericho.

On Sept. 8. Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel, working with Palestinian lawyer Adrian Abu Laileh, filed a plea in the Israeli High Court demanding the bodies be exhumed, the families be permitted to examine them, autopsies be performed with the families' choice of physician in attendance, the families be permitted to bury them, and a thorough investigation of the deaths be mounted.

Amid escalating violence, military governor Mrad called the Kalbouneh and Jamous families to his office on Sept. 10. The bodies, he said, were in fact at the Abu Kabir facility. Two members of each family would go to identify them. The implicit assumption was that the bodies had been there all along and Mrad said nothing to disabuse the farmlies of this belief. (It was not until days later that they were to learn the boys had been buried previously and exhumed.) They demanded and received permission to be accompanied by a doctor.

On Sept. 11 and 12 the families, accompanied to Tel Aviv by Palestinian surgeon Dr Jihad Aunallah, viewed the bodies from behind the glass windows of the morgue at Abu Kabir facility at a distance of five feet. Presuming the bodies to have been in the morgue since death, Dr. Aunallah interpreted blistering and blackness to indicate the boys had been burned rather than shot to death. Neither body was recognizable. A number of tubes protruded from one. His mother recognized his engagement ring. This was Ayman. The face and most of the head of the other was gone. The word "Fateh" was tattooed in English on his forearm, and an "A" on the back of his thumb. His mother knew that this was 'Ammar.

The bodies identified. Mrad ordered mourning to begin, but the families insisted they would not do so until their sons were properly autopsied in the presence of a doctor of their choice (a provision available to Israelis but not extended under the military law which governs the occupied territories) and buried according to the tenets of Islam. Horror at the thought that the boys might have been burned to death set off a new wave of anger, with its concomitant deaths and injuries. The autopsies took place on the 15th. The women of the Kalbouneh family described them to me with remarkable sophistication and apparent dispassion.

Midnight Burials

Five days after the autopsies, on Sept. 20, Mrad told the families that the bodies would be brought from Abu Kabir at 10 p.m. for burial in the local cemetery. He said the families would not he permitted to prepare the bodies for burial and there would be no funeral. Only three representatives from each family could be present. The city was again placed under curfew. Several men went to dig the graves.

In the evening. 'Ammar's mother, brothers and sisters, and his fiance Bahiya, went to wait outside the graveyard. They found it surrounded by soldiers. Mrad was at hand. But by 10 p.m. the bodies had not come and the soldiers had chased the family away. They hid in the dark at a nearby house. At midnight. as a military van entered the graveyard, the women dashed after it and saw the black plastic bags thrown onto the ground. Identification tags listed names and numbers.

The men carried the bags to the grave sites under the watchful eyes of soldiers. As the women approached, the soldiers turned and began beating them back with their rifle butts. One of Ammar's relatives tore open the polyethylene trash bag and turned the body in its grave to face east towards Mecca. it was a small triumph in the degrading process. From somewhere high in the Nablus hills a cry rang out, "Allahu akbar." "God is great." Bahiya translated. The rnartyrs had been laid to rest three weeks after their deaths. Mourning could begin.

I went to see the renowned Palestinian physician, Dr. Hatem Abu Ghazaleh. The right to perform autopsies is jealously held by the Israeli authorities. Palestinian hospitals simply do not receive the required permits. Consequently, few Palestinian doctors are familiar with the procedures.

Dr. Abu Ghazaleh, however, was at one time the chief health official for the West Bank under Jordanian administration. He had been director of forensic medicine and autopsies, and often served as an expert witness at criminal trials. A Nablus resident, he was the obvious choice to assist at the autopsies. As we sipped coffee in his quiet living room, he spoke at length about the legal ramifications of the case and described the autopsies.

Abu Ghazaleh pointed out that the bodies were returned to the Abu Kabir facility before the High Court Could act on attorney Leah Tsemel's plea in order to avoid the precedent of court-ordered exhumation. The same held true for the autopsies and return of the bodies for family burial, both of which were acceded to voluntarily by Mrad.

The postmortems were performed at the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv by its director, Dr. Yehuda Hiss. Before beginning, Dr. Hiss explained to Dr. Abu Ghazaleh that the bodies had been exhumed and returned to the Institute on Sept. 11, nine days after the killings. The two doctors laid out the ground rules by which they would work together, and proceeded with X-rays, photographs and examinations.

The Autopsies

Dr. Hiss's observations and conclusions would be recorded by a secretary in Hebrew. Abu Ghazaleh would not receive a copy of the official autopsy report. (He did, however, issue his own report in Arabic.) Closely following Israeli rules of procedure. the doctors found that Ayman Jamous (identified as #1086-560/89) had died as a result of a single high-velocity M-16 round fired on a downward course through his chest and abdomen, severing the aorta, passing through to the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae and exiting next to the anus. This extraordinary trajectory, they believe, resulted from the victim having been shot while in a squatting position, possibly as he was rising from an Arabic (floor level) toilet. A concerted effort had been made to keep him alive, including the insertion of a drainage tube in the chest wound, two fluid serum lines in the arms, and a plastic line inserted into the chest believed intended to aid in resuscitation. Bruises indicated the use of artificial respiration. The patient. however, died some 15 to 20 minutes after his injury. Medics apparently believed the bullet was lodged in his chest and did not realize the aorta had been severed, causing massive abdominal bleeding. In any case, he was not a candidate for life support systems nor were any organs removed.

Dr. Abu Ghazaleh noted that the black color of the skin had washed off, the superficial result of putrefaction. Internal examination showed the intestines had not begun decomposition, not surprising after only nine days in the ground. This was a very important point, however, because when the doctors opened the skull, they discovered that Ayman's brain had entirely liquefied: decomposition was complete. Since the intestines are known to putrefy long before the brain, the only explanation for this dramatic reversal of the normal case was that his brain had been severely disrupted by being beaten on the floor, causing it to begin dissolving almost immediately.

'Ammar Kalbouneh was identified as #1085/558/89. (When I photographed his badly tarnished silver ring, returned before the autopsy by Abu Kabir. it was in an envelope marked #1085/89, perhaps indicating that the first number represents body count and the second, autopsy count for the year.) His death was an entirely different story. His corpse. too, was easily washed to show clear, white skin. The face, forehead and jaw had entirely disappeared. Part of the skull remained. Remarkably, although the bones had been separated. none of the dentures (the interlocking edges) had broken. Dr. Ghazaleh explained that this might have been caused by 'Ammar's head striking the floor so violently that the skull simply exploded rather than being crushed—probably the result of being hit by many bullets simultaneously (dum dums as well as high velocity ammunition were implicated). He had been shot in both arms and one leg. taken five bullets in the chest, three in the back and two in the abdomen. It was not obvious how his face had been cleared out. It was apparent to both doctors that he had been assassinated. Clearly, he was never a candidate for either organ transplant or transplant training.

Dr. Abu Ghazalch attributes the widespread anxiety over organ thefts which has gripped Gaza and the West Bank since the intifada began in December of 1987 to several factors. "There are indications that for one reason or another, organs. especially eyes and kidneys, were removed from the bodies during the first year or year and a half'. There were just too many reports by credible people for there to he nothing happening. If someone is shot in the head and comes home in a plastic bag without internal organs, what will people assume'? But I think that there was something happening inside of Israel too. Outrage is not only a Palestinian experience.

"First there was the flurry of newspaper articles about successful transplant teams and changing attitudes of Israelis towards transplants. And then, when people asked who the donors were. the newspapers talked about the great new sources of organs from Germany and South America. It scared us to death. But I think it scared many Israelis. too. There are now fewer incidents which point in that direction. We hope it's simply becoming unacceptable."

The question of organ theft is of compelling concern to Palestinians. Whether it is a matter of perception or fact, if not quickly addressed its impact on future Israeli/Palestinian relations will be devastating.