Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation

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Hebron, Occupied West Bank – Suleiman al-Hathaleen, 73, never backed down from an opportunity to confront Israeli security forces in Masafer Yatta, Hebron, in the occupied West Bank.

With a white scarf covering his long, grey hair and nothing more than a wooden staff in one hand, Suleiman was often seen fiercely attempting to block Israeli bulldozers from demolishing Palestinian homes, or tractors from razing Palestinian land.

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Although he could neither read nor write nor use the internet, the late Suleiman, known locally as “Sheikh” or “Hajj” Suleiman, was well-connected.

On January 17, some 15,000 Palestinians attended his funeral in his hometown of Umm al-Khair, a village in northern Masafer Yatta, two weeks after he was – allegedly deliberately – run over by an Israeli tow truck.

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Suleiman’s 60-year-old brother, Ibrahim, said the turnout at the funeral was unprecedented for Masafer Yatta.

“The communities of southern Hebron have never witnessed anything like this,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.

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Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation
© Provided by Al Jazeera Mourners attend Suleiman Hathaleen’s funeral procession in Umm al Khair on January 18 [Louay al-Saeed/Al Jazeera]

Home to some 7,000 Palestinians, Masafer Yatta’s Palestinian communities are at the forefront of a struggle for survival amid Israeli efforts to dispossess them, including by refusing to connect them to water and electricity grid networks.

“He [Suleiman] would stand at the forefront with the young men behind him,” Ibrahim recalled, describing him as an influential icon and a mobiliser of the Palestinian street. “He would lie on the ground to prevent military vehicles from moving to demolish Palestinian homes.”

Suleiman was fatally injured on January 5 when an Israeli tow truck ran him over in Umm al-Khair during a raid by dozens of Israeli army jeeps on the village to seize unregistered Palestinian vehicles.

The truck “drove over him and dragged his body for several metres without stopping”, according to a statement by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Israeli forces fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd that was protesting the raid, and quickly withdrew from the village, leaving his bleeding body on the ground. Due to the lack of ambulance services in the village, he was taken in a private car to the nearest medical clinic, some 15km (9 miles) away.

He died after 12 days in hospital in Hebron.

Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation
© Provided by Al Jazeera Muntaser, Suleiman’s 34-year-old son described his father as being “at the forefront of protests against the occupation” [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

The family, who believe the ramming was intentional, are in the process of filing a case in Israeli courts against the truck driver and the policeman who did not provide treatment.

More than two weeks on, Israeli police have yet to question the Israeli truck driver. The police say they are investigating the incident with input from the State Prosecutor’s Office, according to Israeli media.

UNOCHA said Suleiman “had been peacefully protesting on the road” and “would have been clearly visible to both the truck driver and the [Israeli] officers”, adding that there is no indication Israeli forces offered him any assistance, “having simply left the area immediately after the incident”.

‘Information-gathering room’

Suleiman leaves behind three brothers, seven sons and three daughters, and nearly 30 grandchildren. He mobilised a group of them to inform him of planned protests, setting up an “information-gathering room”.

His 34-year-old son Muntaser said he was his father’s companion, describing him as being “at the forefront of protests against the occupation”.

“I was charged with collecting dates and places for protests everywhere. I woke up early in the morning, bringing to him all the details with me,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I sometimes hid protest dates from him out of concern for his health, given his old age, but when he found out, he was very angry, so I had to stop,” he continued.

“The house has lost its solid foundation,” said Muntaser.

Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation
© Provided by Al Jazeera The community is home to about 1,000 residents, most of whom were expelled from Arad in the Naqab (Negev) in 1948 [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

Umm al-Khair, a village of about 1,000 residents, became Suleiman’s new home after he, his parents and his younger brother were forcibly displaced by Zionist militias from the town of Arad in the Naqab (Negev) Desert during the 1948 war to create the state of Israel.

In the 1980s, the Israeli army began building the illegal nearby settlement of Carmel at the expense of Umm al-Khair’s lands, launching another family struggle.

Like other Palestinian communities in Masafer Yatta, Umm al-Khair lacks basic necessities such as electricity, water, infrastructure, education and health facilities, and residents are prevented from building permanent homes, forcing them to live in tin shacks and tents.

Meanwhile, the Carmel settlement is a green oasis filled with playgrounds and parks, and a chicken farm running on electricity.

Suleiman’s home is only three metres (10 feet) away from the settlement. He has been the victim of dozens of attacks by settlers, who were protected by the occupation army and police.

Over the past several years, there have been more than 15 demolitions in Umm al-Khair.

Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation
© Provided by Al Jazeera The illegal Carmel settlement in Masafer Yatta was built on lands from Umm al-Khair [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

‘If we do not resist, who will?’

Fouad al-Amour, 38, first met Suleiman in 2018 and accompanied him for about five years in his journey of resistance.

Together with several village residents, they established the Protection and Resilience Committee in Masafer Yatta to fight Israeli policies of systematic displacement against Palestinian residents.

Al-Amour said that, using the committee’s cameras, they “documented the demolitions of Palestinian homes”, exposing “the practices and crimes of the occupation forces against Palestinian residents, constituting a deterrent to the attacks of settlers in the area”.

“He was our backbone in every step we took,” al-Amour told Al Jazeera, noting that Suleiman called him a day before he was run over to organise an event in the village of Umm Zaytouna where Israeli forces had demolished homes.

“If we do not resist, who will?” al-Amour recalled Suleiman as often saying.

Suleiman Hathaleen: How a 73-year-old defied Israeli occupation
© Provided by Al Jazeera Israeli authorities are developing the settlement of Carmel at the expense of nearby Palestinian communities like Umm al-Khair [Louy Alsaeed/Al Jazeera]

“Sheikh Suleiman did not only participate in events in Masafer Yatta – he was present in all protests inside and outside the [Hebron] governorate, from the far south to the far north,” al-Amour explained.

He noted that Suleiman “used to wake up at dawn on protest days and be the first to arrive. He would refrain from eating and drinking until the event ended, saying, “I gave my day to God and country, and it will remain for God and country.”

“In 2021 alone, Sheikh Suleiman was detained more than 60 times and tens of exorbitant fines were imposed on him,” said al-Amour.

“The Israeli army targeted Sheikh Suleiman at the beginning of protests or Israeli demolitions. They would detain him, beat him, and take him to an undisclosed location until the event or demolition was over because they knew he was the main driver behind the protests,” he continued.

“The Sheikh’s resistance against occupation forces was peaceful. He did not use the stick he was carrying, or stones.”

Ibrahim described his late brother Suleiman as “an obstacle that hindered their [Israel’s] policies of Palestinian displacement”, who has now been removed from the scene.

Still, he said he proudly remembers that Suleiman and his companions “showed the world in the clearest way their abhorrent crimes against the Palestinian people”.

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