How a Palestinian man with autism was killed by Israeli police

Eyad al-Halaq, a 31-year-old man with autism and the mental age of an eight-year-old, was on his way to his special needs school when he was shot and killed by Israeli police one year ago. His mother remembers that day.

A photo of Eyad al-Halaq taken by his mother in Jericho on his birthday in 2018 [Courtesy of al-Halaq family]

On the morning of May 30, 2020, 31-year-old Eyad al-Halaq was making his way to the special needs school he attended inside the Old City of Jerusalem when he was shot and killed by Israeli police. Eyad had severe autism and, according to his parents, the mental age of an eight-year-old.

No formal charges have so far been brought against the Israeli police officer who shot him despite calls from Eyad’s teacher, Wardeh abu Hadid, who witnessed the incident, as well as from Eyad’s family and the lawyers representing them. An investigation by Israeli police into the incident is ongoing.

“Eyad was the energy in our home, and now our home has collapsed, it’s frighteningly quiet now,” his mother Rana, 58, says. Rana – known to her family and friends as Um Eyad (mother of Eyad) – is a retired teacher who lives in the family home in Wadi al-Joz, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, with her husband, Khairy, and 36-year-old daughter, Jumana.

Knowing her son would never be able to live completely independently but hoping to give him the tools to build a future for himself, Rana spent many years during his childhood trying to get him the help and support he needed.

“I was running, looking, in all directions to find a place for him,” she says.

She found that at Alwein, the special needs school he had attended for five years and where he was learning to be a cook. Rana had been encouraged by the progress he had made there.

Today, she still struggles to talk about Eyad. The pain is too great. Sitting in her small living room, she appears tired and overwhelmed as she speaks in a soft voice.

Rana a-Halaq, 58, remembers the day one year ago when her son, Eyad, 31, was shot and killed by Israeli police close to his school in the Old City of Jerusalem [Ibrahim Husseini/Al Jazeera]

He had difficulties communicating with other people and hated crowds, she explains. He had a fixation with washing his hands and did not like to sit idle. He was gentle and had an air of innocence about him, she says. He loved praise. Over time, he became her “right hand” at home, moving heavy items around when she did the cleaning, carrying groceries up the stairs and helping with household chores.

“We used to sit together on the doorstep every day,” Rana says. “I would listen, I would teach him what’s right. Eyad sought appreciation.” He was well aware that he was not the same as other people, she says. “He understood well people’s looks – the pity. He found them rude.”

Eyad was “extremely shy”, his mother says, when he first started at the Alwein school in 2016. But his teachers, Um Rami and Wardeh, worked hard to develop his ability to communicate with people.

He “loved school”, his mother says, and, in time, he “excelled” as an assistant cook there. “Kitchen work was what he enjoyed the most,” says Rana. He particularly loved preparing rice dishes, she remembers.

“He learned how to prepare rice, slice up and peel vegetables, and knew all the spices,” she says.

The school’s kitchen opens at 6am, and Eyad would always be there on time. As soon as he arrived, he would pick up the provisions delivered by suppliers and stacked at the school entrance and carry them up the stairs to the kitchen.

By around noon, the meals which Eyad and other students had prepared under the supervision of Wardeh would be ready for distribution to five schools around Jerusalem. The kitchen prepared 1,300 meals each day.

‘You have to come now; Eyad is hit!’

May 30, 2020 was a Saturday. Eyad had recently celebrated his birthday and was looking forward to starting a new chapter in his life. Manar Zamamir, the principal of his school, had told him a couple of months earlier that his training was complete and that she would find a job for him in a restaurant.

He would have started his job sooner, but the coronavirus pandemic had forced everything to close. Even his cherished school closed for a few months during the lockdown in 2020. During that time, he had spent his time cooking at home and doing gardening. Aeoniums were among his favourite plants, his mother remembers fondly.

Early that morning, Eyad woke up, got dressed and left home to go to school for 6am as usual. On his way out, he took out the rubbish. Usually, he would ask Jumana, who is a teacher, to approve his choice of outfit but it was her day off and she was sleeping.

Rana and Khairy, a retired stonemason in his mid-60s, were also asleep.

It was an easy walk from home to school – 15 minutes at the most, his mother explains. He would pass the fire station in Wadi al-Joz, cross the street and walk south along a rough white-stone road to Bab el-Asbat or Lion’s Gate, the eastern entrance to the Old City. The Old City’s iconic wall and a few olive trees would be on his right, and a Muslim cemetery to his left, as he approached.

As usual, several Israeli police officers would be there at the gate, which is close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. But Eyad was used to seeing them there, and in case he was ever stopped (he rarely was), he always carried three forms of identification to show – two of them attesting to his autism.

St Mary’s Street inside the Old City of Jerusalem, close to Lion’s Gate and a few metres from where Eyad was shot and killed by Israeli police [Ibrahim Husseini/Al Jazeera]

The precise sequence of events after he arrived at Lion’s Gate remains unclear. CCTV footage released by the police to the lawyer of the police officer who is under investigation a few weeks ago shows Eyad walking along St Mary’s Street, the last part of his route to school after entering the gate. The school sits just 150 metres from the gate to the Old City.

The police officers stationed at Lion’s Gate said afterwards, in an official statement, that they had received a warning that morning from their command that an “armed terrorist” had entered the Old City. When they saw Eyad go past, he became a suspect.

On the CCTV footage which was released, roughly halfway between the Alwein school and where the police officers were standing, Eyad can be seen turning his head left and right and then looking behind him. The next moment, four policemen come into view, chasing after him. Eyad panics and runs.

Wardeh, Eyad’s teacher who witnessed what happened next, is still traumatised by the events of that day. She has only recently returned to work following extensive counselling. She was too traumatised to speak to Al Jazeera in person. Instead, she has related her experiences to Manar, Issa, Rana and the human rights NGO, B’Tselem.

From her testimony on June 1, 2020 to B’Tselem, which documents incidents of police violence, and from what she has told Rana, we know that Wardeh was just a few steps ahead of Eyad, walking towards the school at the time. In her testimony, Wardeh said that she had been unaware that Eyad was behind her. Suddenly, she heard “a commotion”. She turned and saw Eyad running towards her. Then she heard gunshots.

“Wardeh! Wardeh!” Eyad called out to her.

Realising the danger Eyad was in, Wardeh called out “Nakheh nakheh (disabled)!” in Hebrew, to warn the officers that the man they were chasing had a disability.

A rubbish collector who was working nearby ushered Wardeh to a small rubbish collection room next to a yard containing dumpsters, so she could take cover from the bullets. Seconds later, Eyad also entered the rubbish room and fell to the ground, bleeding from at least one bullet wound to his leg, according to Wardeh. Omar Ailouni, a shopkeeper who was close to the scene, said later that he heard at least two shots just before he saw Eyad make it inside the rubbish collection room.

The police followed him into the room immediately after, their weapons drawn and pointed at Wardeh and Eyad. According to Wardeh, the rubbish collector was standing to the side, “frozen”.

Wardeh says she shouted in Hebrew and Arabic: “He’s disabled!”

“Where is the gun? Where is the gun?” one of the policemen shouted back.

Wardeh says she tried to explain that there was no gun and that Eyad was disabled.

“Check his ID, check my ID,” she pleaded. But, she says, the policemen were not listening to her.

Then, a few moments later, three shots were fired inside the rubbish room, which is no more than 2m wide. Eyad was hit and killed. Wardeh said she could not be certain where he was hit, but she thought it was on the mid- or lower part of his body.

In shock, she called the school principal, Manar Zamamiri. “You have to come now, Manar. Eyad is hit,” she says she shouted in shock.

A policewoman entered the rubbish collection room and – at gunpoint, Wardeh says – searched her with her free hand, saying she was looking for a gun. “I felt my life was about to end,” she told a reporter soon afterwards. “My impression was they were going to kill me just as they killed Eyad.”

A mural painted by Taqi Edin Sbeitan on the separation wall in Bethlehem depicts Eyad. The message makes reference to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in the US just one week before Eyad died in Jerusalem [Ibrahim Husseini/Al Jazeera]

‘You’ve killed a disabled man’

Wardeh was taken to a small police station close to Lion’s Gate, while Eyad’s body was removed from the scene about an hour later. At the police station, Wardeh said, her hijab was removed by a female officer and she was searched again.

A policeman then came in to the room. “What happened?” he asked her in Hebrew.

“You’ve killed a disabled man,” Wardeh told him.

“Are you telling the truth?” he asked. Then: “You’re going for interrogation.”

By this time, Manar had told the director of the school, Issam Jamal, what had happened. The two arrived at Lion’s Gate police station together at about 7am. Manar was allowed to go with Wardeh for questioning.

Before this – and while Wardeh was being taken to the police station – Manar explains, she approached one of the officers at the site of the shooting to explain that she was the school principal and that Eyad was one of her pupils. She tells Al Jazeera that the police ordered her to stand against the wall.

“I kept telling them to bring an ambulance, but they didn’t,” she added. She frantically called Eyad’s home. Jumana answered the telephone.

“I’m so sorry, dear. Eyad has been wounded in the leg, that’s all the police are telling me,” Manar told her.

By the time Eyad’s parents arrived at Lion’s Gate, reports that their son had been shot dead had already started to circulate on social media.

Unable to see Eyad or talk to the police, who had sealed off the area, Issam drove Eyad’s parents back home.

They were bewildered by what they saw next.

“I came home and there were soldiers. Soldiers everywhere,” Rana says.

Police and special forces officers had arrived at the Halaq residence to search through Eyad’s belongings.

“They turned the house upside down; they were looking to incriminate Eyad,” his mother says.

When Jumana and Diana, Eyad’s other sister, objected to the search, the police struck them with batons, Rana says. “I tried to intervene to protect my daughters but a policeman pushed me on the floor.”

“They were uttering the foulest of words to us in Arabic,” she adds.

Nothing was found to incriminate Eyad, but Wardeh’s interrogation went on until about noon.

By then, she was in a severe state of shock and was sent to a medical facility.

“We went to the clinic to look after Wardeh. She was collapsing,” Manar says.

Rana al-Halaq walks through the al-Mujahadeen Cemetery in East Jerusalem where her son Eyad is buried [Ibrahim Husseini/Al Jazeera]

‘He left us with pain and suffering’

Following the shooting, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the officers “spotted a suspect with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol. They called upon him to stop and began to chase after him on foot, during the chase officers also opened fire at the suspect”.

The Israeli police did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on this case.

Last October, the Machash – a unit which investigates police misconduct in Israel – announced it would indict the officer who shot Eyad. The officer has not been named. The announcement came after Khaled Zabarga, the lawyer acting on behalf of Eyad’s family, appealed to the High Court in September 2020.

“The delay in taking decisions is deliberate and not normal,” Zabarga tells Al Jazeera. He says he is still waiting for access to the accused police officer’s file, so he can review the police material relating to the incident.

The State Attorney General is still preparing an indictment against the policeman who fired the shots that killed Eyad. It has already ruled out taking action against the commanding officer at the scene because, it says, he gave orders to halt fire which were disobeyed. Zabarga told Al Jazeera that he intends to challenge this decision.

“I believe the police should have worked harder, been more serious, more professional, and have intent to bring the offenders to trial, given this case is of public interest and the crime outrageous,” he says.

In the past, Israeli police officers have received lenient sentences for shooting unarmed Palestinians who did not pose a credible threat. The case of Palestinian teenager Nadim Nuwara, who was shot by border police officer Ben Deri in 2014, is one example. Deri was initially given a nine-month jail sentence which was later doubled. He was released for “good conduct” after serving less than a year.

Eyad’s family received his body on May 31, 2020. He now lies in the al Mujahadeen Cemetery in East Jerusalem.

Rana is still grappling with the loss of her son and sees a therapist regularly.

“He left us with pain and suffering,” she says.

“I know my son, had they stopped him and talked nicely he wouldn’t have run away.”

Source: Al Jazeera