An American teen was killed in the West Bank. His family wants answers.

AL-MAZRA’A AL-SHARQIYA, West Bank — The air was fresh and the sky clear on Jan. 19 in this Palestinian village, and 17-year-old Tawfic Abdel Jabbar wanted to be outside with his friends.

The photo roll on his cellphone was filled with pictures showing how much his life had changed in the nine months since he had moved from Gretna, La., to his grandfather’s West Bank home. The American teenager was thriving, his family said, having effortlessly adjusted to life in their ancestral community. When his mother, Mona, called him that afternoon, he told her he was driving toward the olive groves for a barbecue — he wouldn’t be long, he said.

He did not see who fired the first bullet, or the barrage that followed, according to his friend Mohammed Salameh, who was in the passenger seat that day. Photographs of their battered blue Mitsubishi suggest the shots came from behind, as the boys were driving away. Tawfic was hit in the head and lost control of the vehicle, Salameh said, slumping onto the steering wheel as the car flipped over several times.

The Abdel Jabbars’ family home felt muffled with shock this week as their personal tragedy made global headlines. His parents, surrounded by mourners, wrestled numbly with the loss of their second born son, even as news spread to the White House. Journalists and other strangers kept calling.

“My son was executed,” said Hafeth, Tawfic’s father. “I know nothing can bring him back, but I’m telling you this because maybe someone else’s kid can be saved.”

Tawfic was the 358th Palestinian, according to the United Nations, and first American, the State Department said, to be killed in the occupied West Bank since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. With global attention focused on the mounting death toll in Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are also being killed at an unprecedented rate, victims of intensifying Israeli military raids and surging settler violence. They have come to expect that their deaths will rarely make the news, and even more rarely result in convictions.

Settler violence is erasing Palestinian communities in the West Bank

“If this kid was not an American, he would just be another number, and that’s what they were counting on,” said Ziad Mustafa, a family friend who had flown through the night from Dallas to join the family in their grief. “It hurts to say that.”

The circumstances of Tawfic’s death remain murky. The public statement from Israeli police gives few clues as to who was responsible, saying only that an off-duty law enforcement officer, a soldier and an Israeli settler had all been involved in a “firearm discharge … directed towards a perceived threat” — identified as “individuals purportedly engaged in rock-throwing activities along Highway 60.”

Salameh, who sustained light injuries in the crash, said everything was calm before the shots rang out. No one was throwing rocks he said, and certainly not his friend, whose hands were on the wheel and eyes were on the road as they looked for a spot to cook out.

“Two bullets came in the [back windshield] and broke the glass,” Salameh recounted. “The fourth bullet hit his head … blood came on my T-shirt and my hands.”

Israeli police said that “a comprehensive investigation” had been launched. The Israel Defense Forces directed all inquiries to the police; COGAT, the Israeli agency responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tawfic was born and raised in Louisiana. He was “full of life, full of love,” his father said.

Hafeth owned a string of businesses in Gretna, 12 miles south of New Orleans, but he and Mona wanted their children to reconnect with their roots. Tawfic had loved it here since the moment they arrived in May, his parents said: He spent so much time in the woods, or driving around with friends, that they felt like they barely saw him anymore.

They understood, though. “He was a teenager,” Hafeth said.

He was taking online classes, preferring the computer to physical books. He still hadn’t decorated the room he shared with his younger brother, he told Mona, because he had left his favorite posters in the United States.

The world around him was changing. Israeli settlements had expanded rapidly in the years the family spent in Louisiana. Palestinian militants had become the de facto authorities in West Bank refugee camps, provoking increasingly deadly confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power at the head of a far-right coalition in late 2022 empowered radical settlers, who accelerated attacks on Palestinian communities. Impunity was the norm.

Of 160 cases of settler violence against Palestinians or their property documented by Yesh Din, a leading Israeli rights group, between January and September 2023, more than half of victims chose not to file a formal complaint, expressing mistrust in Israeli law enforcement, or saying they feared retaliation.

Since 2005, only 3 percent of known cases filed by Palestinians against Israeli settlers have led to a conviction, according to Yesh Din. It is also rare for law enforcement or security forces to face trial, the group says.

In the weeks after Oct. 7, when Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, the country’s hard-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir pushed to loosen Israel’s strict gun laws. Volunteer security groups in West Bank settlements began to arm themselves. Attacks on Palestinian communities became more common, the U.N. said, and more violent.

Settlers killed a Palestinian teen. Israeli forces didn’t stop it.

The Biden administration condemned the violence, imposing a travel ban on settlers suspected of attacks against Palestinians. It also expedited the shipment of weapons to be used by Israeli forces in Gaza, where more than 25,000 people have been killed, many of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

As the family watched footage of the bloodshed, Mona, in particular, was getting anxious. Israeli security forces were blocking roads across the West Bank; arrests in towns and villages were reported daily. One of Tawfic’s cousins was stopped at a checkpoint and humiliated, the family said.

Tawfic had traveled freely with his friends before Oct. 7. After the attack, he would clear trips with his mother the night before. “My heart just worried,” Mona said.

But all felt quiet on that Friday afternoon when Tawfic and Salameh went searching for a place to grill. Mona called her son at 2:30 p.m., asking him to come home so he could help his father with something. He told her he was having fun.

Tawfic was dead by the time he entered the hospital at 4:03 p.m, according to the preliminary medical report from the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah. The bullet that killed him was still lodged in his brain.

In Harvey, La., leaders at Masjid Omar, where the teenager had worshipped, did their best to console his former classmates. “Are you sure he died?” Nabil Abukhader, the mosque president, recounted one student asking.

“Are you sure that’s our Tawfic?”

U.S. National Security Spokesman John Kirby said that officials at the White House were “seriously concerned” about the incident.

“We don’t have perfect context about exactly what happened here,” Kirby said. “We’re going to be in constant touch with counterparts in the region to — to get more information.”

At home Monday, Hafeth looked hollow. He had been up since 3 a.m. speaking to American media outlets about his son’s case, hoping it would lead to some form of justice.

“I don’t trust this investigation,” he said.

As mourners came and went Wednesday, Hafeth’s friend, Ziad Mustafa, spoke quietly, fighting back tears.

“I feel proud to be an American, I really do,” he said. “But as a human being who has Palestinian roots, it hurts that the country we live in and we love and we are willing to sacrifice for, my tax money, is killing my people.”

“And with all respect, with all respect, you wouldn’t be here if he was just a Palestinian. You’re here because he’s an American. … It’s just the damn passport.”

Heidi Levine in al-Mazra’a al-Sharqiya and Heidi Pérez-Moreno and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff in Washington contributed to this report.

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