The trip was supposed to be a homecoming: a chance for Tawfiq Ajaq, a 17-year-old born and raised in the United States, to reconnect with his Palestinian roots.
Instead, his family’s ancestral village, al-Mazra’a ash-Sharqiya, became his final resting place. On January 19, Palestinian officials said Ajaq was fatally shot after an off-duty Israeli police officer and an Israeli settler opened fire.
Ajaq is one of the latest victims of rising violence by Israeli security forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank, following a Hamas attack in southern Israel last year.
His uncle Mohammad Abdeljabbar told Al Jazeera his family remained hopeful that justice would be served.
They are seeking any remedies that could “prevent this from happening in the future, whether or not they are U.S. citizens, so that no one else is unjustifiably killed,” Abdeljabbar said. The family also called on the United States to “put enough pressure on Israel” to make this happen.
He nevertheless acknowledged that justice for Americans killed in the Palestinian territories is often non-existent, with the United States historically reluctant to exert influence over its “ironclad ally.”
Already, he said, “we feel abandoned by our government.”
Ajaq‘s family settled near New Orleans in the southern state of Louisiana in the early 1990s. There, they built a sprawling family business that included real estate and sneaker stores.
For most of his life, Ajaq lived within blocks of his father’s seven siblings and more than 40 cousins. He loved watching American football, attending New Orleans Saints games, and savoring the city’s renowned culinary offerings.
A high-achieving student, Ajaq planned to follow his older brother to the University of New Orleans, Abdeljabbar said. Ajaq was still hesitant about what he wanted to study: business or engineering.
At 32, Abdeljabbar was the closest to Ajaq of all his aunts and uncles. He remembers the teen as “just a funny, goofy kid.”
“He was just a kid you could never take seriously, always laughing, joking, smiling,” Abdeljabbar said.
Ajaq often spent his summers in the West Bank, his family’s ancestral homeland, but last year, before the war in Gaza broke out, his parents decided it was time for the children to spend more time there. .
They hoped that a year or two would allow the children to “get back in touch with our ancestors, learn more about the culture, the language and the way of life there,” Abdeljabbar said.
“Tawfiq was very excited. He loved her. He loved that lifestyle,” he continued. “It’s a kind of paradise. Beyond the violence and wars, it’s still a beautiful lifestyle.”
But the occupied Palestinian territories have never experienced the level of violence they have experienced in recent months.
On October 7, tensions flared when the Palestinian group Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people.
Israel responded by declaring war and launching a bombing campaign against Gaza, a small Palestinian enclave nestled on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
To date, more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children. Rights groups have said the Israeli operation bears the marks of genocide.
The occupied West Bank also experienced its deadliest year on record, amid near-daily Israeli raids and settler attacks, particularly in the wake of October 7.
In 2023, at least 532 Palestinians were killed in the territory, according to local authorities. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said about 300 of those deaths occurred after the start of the war.
Between October 7 and December 27, Israeli security forces killed at least 291 Palestinians in the territory, and settlers killed eight. The losses include at least 79 children under the age of 18.
So far in 2024, more than 50 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank, among them Ajaq, according to Palestinian authorities.
According to AjaqAccording to the teenager’s family and Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), a West Bank-based human rights organization, the teenager was in a truck with a friend near a highway when the beatings fire rang out.
The shots came from an Israeli settler in a vehicle approximately 100 meters (328 feet) away. Ajaq and his friend tried to escape. The shooter followed.
Then an Israeli military vehicle “appeared in the opposite direction” and began shooting from a distance of approximately 50 to 70 meters (164 to 230 feet), according to documents collected by DCI-P.
As Ajaq bled, DCI-P said Israeli forces prevented rescue workers from reaching him for about 15 minutes. An ambulance then transported him to a hospital in Silwad, where he was pronounced dead from a gunshot wound to the head.
It is still unclear which shooter fired the fatal shot. Israeli police told the Associated Press (AP) and other media outlets that an off-duty police officer and a civilian opened fire and were investigating.
Police also said they were targeting individuals “suspected of throwing rocks along Highway 60,” according to the AP. The family rejected the allegations, saying Ajaq and his friend were planning to have a barbecue.
The Israeli National Police and army did not respond to a request from Al Jazeera seeking an update on the investigation.
In a chilling video of the truck in which Ajaq was killed, provided to Al Jazeera by his family, bullet holes are visible in the rear window. Blood was flowing onto the ground.
US support for accountability is ‘hollow’
Earlier this week, the US State Department called on Israel to conduct “an urgent investigation to determine the circumstances” of the killing, adding that the agency was “devastated”.
Officials from the US Office of Palestinian Affairs also visited the site. Ajaqand promised to pressure Israel “to conduct a full and transparent investigation and bring the murderer to justice,” Abdeljabbar told Al Jazeera.
On Thursday, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib pushed the US State Department to launch its own investigation “into the killing of another American by the Israeli government.”
“Tawfiq deserved to grow old,” she wrote on X. “The collective punishment of an entire people must stop.”
But historically, the United States has been reluctant to hold Israel, its ally, responsible for killing its citizens abroad, according to Josh Reubner, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who focuses on U.S.-Israeli relations. .
“Israel has killed and seriously injured numerous American citizens over the past two decades,” he said. But the lack of “accountability has emboldened Israel to continue killing American citizens with impunity.”
Reubner cited several examples. In 2003, peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar bulldozer. And in 2010, Turkish-American teenager Furkan Dogan “was executed at point-blank range by Israeli naval commandos aboard a ship in international waters attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip.” in 2010 “.
Most recently, in 2022, Palestinian American Omar Assad “was dragged out of his car and beaten by soldiers, leading to a fatal heart attack in 2022,” Reubner said.
The same year, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen, was shot dead while reporting. After initially denying guilt, an Israeli investigation determined that Abu Akleh had been fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. He considered the murder an accident and said no one would be punished.
“In each of these cases, the United States has called for investigation and accountability. However, Israeli investigations are hollow and no one has been held accountable for these killings,” Reubner said.
Abdeljabbar, AjaqAbu Akleh’s uncle, said the family recalled Abu Akleh’s death in their own grief.
“Regarding Shireen Abu Akleh, we know that she was killed by a sniper. His killer was never brought to justice,” Abdeljabbar said. “It is disappointing that a country as large and powerful as ours cannot allow another country to bring justice for the murder of its own citizens. »
Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. foreign military aid and receives aid with no conditions attached to its use.
However, the United States has laws and policies in place intended to prevent the transfer of weapons to governments that violate human rights.
The Leahy Act (PDF), for example, prohibits the United States from “using funds to assist foreign security force units when there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of egregious human rights violations.” ‘man (GVHR)’.
Israel is currently facing allegations of human rights violations due to its ongoing military campaign in Gaza. Observers also accused the Israeli government of emboldening and offering protection to Israelis who established illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The war in Gaza has placed U.S. support for Israel under unprecedented scrutiny, with the Center for Constitutional Rights suing the government on behalf of Palestinians killed in Gaza.
Abdeljabbar said it was difficult to reconcile U.S. government policy with the personal tragedy he faces today. “If you think about it, my tax money, Tawfiq’s father’s tax money, helped fund the government that killed him. »
But despite the situation, he hasn’t given up hope that someone will be held responsible for his nephew’s murder.
“We can’t stop,” he said. “We must keep up the pressure until justice is served for Tawfiq. »