Mona Abdel Jabbar felt her teenage son Tawfic should get to know his Palestinian relatives and connect with his family’s heritage.
So last spring, they put their life in New Orleans temporarily on hold and moved to their ancestral village north of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank.
By all accounts, Tawfic’s experience was exactly what his family had hoped for. His mother says he made friends and was exploring the area as he prepared to return to the U.S. to start a university engineering program.
“He loved it here,” Abdel Jabbar told CBC News in the village of Al-Mazra’a ash-Sharqiya. “He enjoyed riding horses. He enjoyed just being around the neighbourhood with his friends.”
Seventeen-year-old Tawfic Abdel Jabbar came to the West Bank almost a year ago to immerse himself in his family’s history and Palestinian culture. He was killed in January after an incident involving three Israeli men. (Submitted by Abdel Jabbar family)But it all came to an abrupt, violent end two weeks ago, when the teenager, sitting in his truck and on his way to a picnic, was killed amid a hail of weapons fire unleashed by a group of Israeli men.
The next day, Abdel Jabbar buried her son in the family’s cemetery plot on a hillside overlooking where he was killed.
“He was just there, going to a cabin, and he got shot,” she said.
As of Feb. 1, 372 Palestinians — including 94 children — have been killed in conflict-related incidents involving either the Israeli military or Jewish settlers across the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Oct. 7, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The 507 Palestinians killed in the same area in 2023 were the most since record-counting started two decades ago.
While the killings of Palestinians by settlers and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have become tragically habitual in the region, Tawfic’s case has garnered international attention, largely due to his American citizenship.
‘Eruption’ of violenceTawfic’s death prompted condolences from White House spokesman John Kirby and visits to the family’s home from U.S. consular officials.
Tawfic Abdel Jabbar’s grave sits on a hillside not far from where he was killed. Israeli police say an investigation is ongoing, but have made no arrests. (Lily Martin/CBC)It may also have intensified the pressure on the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, to take action to curb what’s become an epidemic of violence directed at Palestinians.
“Since October 7th, we saw an eruption in the number of killings and injuries primarily by soldiers and border police officers, but also by Israeli settlers,” said Sarit Michaeli of the Jerusalem-based human rights group B’Tselem.
While some of the violence may be rooted in longstanding territorial disputes, Michaeli says the motivation goes beyond that.
“It’s inescapable to reach the conclusion that there is also an element of revenge,” she said. “That the horrors, the atrocities that Hamas inflicted on Israelis [on Oct. 7] was somehow used as justification for also acting illegally [toward Palestinians].”
WATCH | Palestinians describe tensions in West Bank:
Palestinian family happy for son’s return from Israeli jail but arrests continueA Palestinian family is happy to have their son back from an Israeli jail, but his mother continues to worry about her children, saying Israeli soldiers could return any time. While the Israelis released hundreds of prisoners during the seven-day truce with Hamas, the arrests continue.
In the days after the teenager’s killing, Israeli police released a statement to CBC News saying an off-duty law enforcement officer, a soldier and a civilian were part of an incident involving “firearm discharge.”
The statement continues: “This discharge was directed toward a perceived threat, individuals purportedly engaged in rock-throwing activities.”
Tawfic’s family denies the accusation.
Biden’s orderThe police say the investigation is ongoing, but as yet there have been no charges against the Israelis involved. Nor likely will there be, says Michaeli.
“For many years, Israeli soldiers, border police officers and settlers have been killing Palestinians with impunity,” she said. “It’s a long-term policy, we would say, of the Israeli government to not hold members of its forces accountable when they illegally kill Palestinians.”
During the fall, as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza intensified and the violence and killings in the West Bank escalated, the U.S. and the United Kingdom — but not Canada — imposed travel bans on extremist settlers.
Then, on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden went further. He unveiled an executive order that would freeze bank accounts and impose financial sanctions on settlers who attack Palestinians or attempt to seize their property.
Sarit Michaeli, of the Jerusalem-based human rights group B’Tselem, says that since Oct. 7, 2023, ‘we saw an eruption in the number of killings and injuries primarily by soldiers and border police officers, but also by Israeli settlers’ in the West Bank. (Lily Martin/CBC)Four individuals were named in the initial declaration, and U.S. officials say more could be added. The order also said the sanctions could potentially be applied to far-right Israeli politicians who incite or fail to prevent violence.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was considering imposing similar sanctions on “extremist settlers.”
‘It’s not enough’Palestinian officials say Biden’s move stops far short of what the U.S. could have done, because it leaves the Israeli government’s broader settlement expansion program untouched.
“It’s not enough,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told CBC News in an interview in his Ramallah office on Thursday.
“We need to put all settlers and all settlements [under sanctions]. Settlements are the total destruction of the two-state solution and settlement construction is an erosion of the future Palestinian state,” he said.
“The United States should stand up to say that all settlers with an American passport should not continue living in settlements that are illegally built,” he said. “That will be the most important call for the end of this settlement program and … this colonization project.”
A Palestinian man examines a car burned during a raid by Israeli settlers near Salfit in the West Bank on Dec. 3, 2023. (Yosri Aljamal/Reuters)The United Nations says Israel has 279 Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Human rights groups say Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has built more Jewish housing units on Palestinian land than at any other time since the occupation began in 1967.
Some Jewish settlements built decades ago now have populations of more than 80,000 people, while newer communities have a few hundred or less.
In some cases, Israeli settlers have moved right next to Palestinian towns and villages, triggering violent disputes over land and property, a trend B’Tselem says has accelerated.
The group says since Oct. 7, settler violence has caused hundreds of Palestinians to flee their properties.
WATCH | MPs visit refugee camps in occupied West Bank:
Canadian MPs visit refugee camps in occupied Palestinian territoryFive Canadian MPs visited refugee camps in the occupied West Bank while on a weeklong tour of the region sponsored by a Muslim charity. Meanwhile, intense Israeli airstrikes hammer southern Gaza.
In a statement made after Biden’s executive order, Netanyahu’s office defended Jewish settlers, saying the majority are “law-abiding citizens” and that the “exceptional measures” announced by the U.S. are unnecessary.
Prominent far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich, who is also Israel’s finance minister, went further, saying “the ‘settler violence’ campaign is an antisemitic lie.”
9 bullet holesB’Tselem says it is doing its own investigation of Tawfic’s killing, but its full report is not yet complete.
His family took CBC News to an area overlooking the site of the shooting, which appeared to have occurred 100 metres or more from the highway.
A view of the area where Tawfic Abdel Jabbar was killed. Police say someone was throwing rocks at cars on Highway 60. His aunt says he was killed on the winding dirt road several hundred metres away. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)Pictures taken by B’Tselem after police released Tawfic’s truck showed up to nine bullet holes in the vehicle. The rights group also says the truck appeared to be headed in the opposite direction of the gunfire.
The teen was struck in the back of head, behind the ear, by at least one bullet, according to Nida Abdel Jabbar, his aunt.
The family says there’s no evidence Tawfic, or the boy he was with, were rock-throwers, or that they represented any threat to the men who shot at them.
This photo provided by B’Tselem shows two of the nine bullet holes that pierced the truck driven by Tawfic Abdel Jabbar. (Submitted by B’Tselem)Nida Abdel Jabbar said settlers, backed by Israel’s military, are using violence to try to chase Palestinians out of the West Bank. “This is what the Israelis want. They want us to leave and never come back.”
She accuses her own country, the U.S., of being complicit in her nephew’s killing.
“If it wasn’t for the support of the United States to Israel, [these killings] would have stopped a long time ago,” she said. “The USA and other countries support a country [Israel] that doesn’t differentiate between a kid, a woman, the elderly or a pregnant woman. They just shoot everywhere just to get us out of here.”
For the moment, the Abdel Jabbar family — which owns a chain of successful retail stores across the southern U.S. — says it plans to remain in the West Bank and refuses to be pushed away, even with the pain of the teen’s death.
Nida Abdel Jabbar, Tawfic’s aunt, said U.S. President Joe Biden must do more to pressure Israel to end the violence in the West Bank. (Lily Martin/CBC)Ramallah-based political analyst Nihad Abu Gosh says the Jewish settlements are an extension of Israeli government policy and that sanctions that target individuals — rather than the state — miss the point.
“I think that the violence of settlers is not separated from the violence of the state itself, from the state of Israel,” he said. “They are integrated. They complete each other.”