Portrait of a grieving father: Amin Khazem mourns his son and resistance fighter, Nidal

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  April 19, 2023

In October, Mariam Barghouti interviewed Palestinian resistance fighter Nidal Khazem. Six months later after Israeli forces assassinated him, Barghouti returned to interview his father and share a previously unheard recording of her interview with Nidal.

On April 9, two brothers in Jenin refugee camp stood together as young armed men from the Jenin Brigade surrounded them. The men in their mid-50s, both veterans of Palestinian resistance in the camp, were leading a commemoration marking one since the death of Ra’ad Khazem

The masked resistance fighters that surrounded them, armed with old M16s and protective gear, vowed escalation of armed confrontation if Israel persisted in its aggression against Palestinians. 

The two brothers stood between the crowd of masked figures, the only ones whose faces remained exposed to the world around them. They were Fathi Khazem and Amin Khazem. Dressed in all black, save for the black and white Kuffiyeh thrown over Fathi’s shoulders, the two brothers held each other’s arms as they saluted the younger men around them (the comrades of their sons) and the surviving youth of their community.

They masked their pain in front of the cameras, which may have remained invisible to the outsiders who knew them only as freedom fighters, or as ‘Aba’ shuhada’ — the ‘fathers of martyrs.’ But to everyone else, the grief was still palpable. 

Fathi, known as ‘Abu Ra’ad’ (Father of Ra’ad) was mourning his two sons, Ra’ad and Abdelrahman. Amin, known affectionately as ‘Abu Nidal,’ was mourning his son, Nidal. 

Together, and in the span of a year, the brothers had lost three boys.

“I have an interview I did with your son that I would like to give you,” I told Abu Nidal (Amin Khazem) over the phone in late March, just a few days after his son Nidal was killed by undercover Israeli forces in Jenin. Although the 55-year-old had neither heard of Mondoweiss nor myself, I continued to tell the scruffy voice on the other end of the phone: “after that, I’d like to interview you.”

“You are welcome any time,” Amin told me invitingly. “Anyone working to show the truth is welcome,” he repeated. “Any time.” 

The life and death of a son

Jenin refugee camp, once referred to as “the Wasp’s Nest” by Israeli intelligence officers, has been an epicenter for armed Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation. The model of the Jenin groups has inspired others like it across the West Bank districts of NablusJericho, Tulkarem, and others.

Last year, the Khazem family was thrust into the center of the Wasp’s Nest, falling directly at the center of Israel’s crosshairs. Amin’s nephew, Ra’ad Khazem, had carried out a shooting operation last year in Tel Aviv, in which three Israelis were killed. Ra’ad was killed by Israeli police hours after escaping the scene of the shooting towards Yaffa. Months later, Israeli forces invaded Jenin refugee camp and killed four Palestinians, including Khazem’s younger brother, Abdelrahman Khazem. 

Less than a year later, on March 16, 2023, Nidal Khazem would meet the same fate as his cousins Raad and Abdelrahman. 

I interviewed Nidal Khazem in Jenin refugee camp on October 26, 2022, a month after his cousin Abdelrahman was killed. I had been reporting on the rise of the Lions’ Den, an emerging armed resistance group in Nablus, and its connection with the Jenin Brigade. Nidal had been one of the fighters from the Jenin refugee camp who agreed to speak with me. 

According to his interview with Mondoweiss at the time, the killing of his cousin Abdelrahman became the precursor for Nidal’s intensified engagement in armed confrontation against Israeli forces in the following months.

Five months after interviewing Nidal Khazem, I found myself back in Jenin refugee camp, this time to give his grieving father an audio recording of his son that he had never heard before. 

It was the first evening of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, almost midnight, and the streets of the Jenin refugee camp were empty, save for the group of armed Palestinian youth waiting to meet us. The group of young men and boys who greeted us that night as we entered the camp were the front-line defenders of the resistance, there to ensure we were not undercover spies or Israeli operatives. 

The fighters in the camp were still a primary target of undercover Israeli assassination missions, and tensions in the refugee camp were high. Just two months prior, Israeli forces conducted a massive raid on the camp, killing 10 Palestinians.

Some of the resistance fighters had their faces covered, though most did not. Some were armed with guns put together from spare parts they had stolen from Israeli military bases, or purchased through the black market. Alert but inviting, they hawkishly watched as myself and two other journalists approached them. 

I shared my credentials and asked them to guide the way to the Khazems, who were expecting us. Before that, I ask them to share their ages, “18, 17, 19, 18, 18.”

We were guided through the alleyways of the camp, towards a humble building that looked gray and jaded. Upstairs with no safety bars, and towards the rooftop, I saw three men sitting on a balcony full of plants, some healthier than others. These were Amin’s and his wife’s.

Amin was a large man, wide and over 6 feet tall. Yet despite his formidable build, he was inviting and warm, his voice rattling deeply when he spoke, perhaps hoarse from the cigarettes he puffed through as we talked. The chilly evening breeze was kept at bay by the pit of burning coals that we huddled around, and on the table in front of us was a thermos filled with bitter Arabic coffee, the sign of a family who has been receiving guests. Surrounding us were empty plastic chairs, waiting to host mourners who were still trickling in almost a week after the funeral.  

We sat down with Amin six days after Nidal, his eldest son, was executed by undercover Israeli special forces at midday, March 16, in the middle of Jenin city. The Israeli operatives arrived in the city in at least three civilian cars and executed Nidal before fleeing the scene under Israeli army cover. Dozens of civilians were injured during the operation, and three others were killed alongside Nidal, including one child passing by on his bicycle.

The 55-year-old father sat with his younger son, 26-year-old Musaab, to his left. Dressed in black, Musaab remained mostly silent for the duration of our conversation. Another younger man, a relative of the Khazems, sat to the right of the gray-haired Amin, listening attentively as Amin spoke. 

 “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Amin asked, motioning towards the flickering orange lights of the Jenin refugee camp, dotted around us like a constellation of fallen stars. “All it needs is peace of mind,” Amin said, his gaze now transfixed on the horizon.  

“Peace of mind,” Amin sighed. “But, where exactly is our peace of mind?”

At that moment the sound of Allahu Akbar rang through the mosques, in that instance a call for celebration rather than prayer — it had just been announced that Palestinian political prisoners had achieved their demands after more than a month of collective disobedience inside Israeli prisons. Palestine and Jenin refugee camp celebrated, while Amin Khazem continued to grieve. 

“Nidal was smart, a university person,” he told Mondoweiss, reflecting on the memory of his son. “He studied mechatronics in university for years. He was an intellectual. He even studied while in prison.” Nidal had spent five-and-a-half years, or one-fifth of his life, in Israeli prisons. At 24 years of age, Nidal had experienced administrative detention at Israel’s hands, the practice of imprisoning Palestinians with no charge or trial. His most recent stint in this kind of unlawful imprisonment lasted one-and-a-half years before he was eventually released on May 21, 2021 — just three months before his 27th birthday.

“There is a fire eating away at me from the inside.”

Amin Khazem

Without pause, Amin listed off his son’s accomplishments, contrasting them with his own schooling history. “Me?” he said ironically. “I would get a zero in studying. I only attended school up to the sixth grade.” Yet Amin sounded proud of this, perhaps because it was followed by Nidal’s own achievements. 

“There is a fire eating away at me from the inside,” Amin confessed, gesturing with his hands towards his chest. “As a father, I am being tortured on the inside.”

“I had passed through the same spot where Nidal was killed,” Amin said, recalling the day his son was executed. “One minute separated us.” As he said it, he threw his hands down on his knees. 

Amin’s son was also killed along with Yousef Shreim, 29, walking near Abu Wakel Shawerma when undercover Israeli special forces approached the 28-year-old and shot at him from behind. “[The special forces] were so scared that they opened fire at everyone,” Amin recalled the immediate aftermath of the assassination to Mondoweiss, when the special forces unit was attempting a retreat. “They fired automatic [live ammunition] at people around the area.”

Amin was near the sidewalk which would become the scene of his son’s demise only moments before the undercover assassins arrived, as father and son had parted ways moments earlier with the intention of meeting up again in the camp. They never did. 

“Because of the traffic, I preferred to go to the [road on the right],” he said, taking a breath. “If I had continued straight, I would have arrived at the scene of the incident.” In explicit recognition of a sense of guilt he carried as a father, he continued: “I would have defended my son, and I wouldn’t be in the torment that I live in today.”

Newly released CCTV footage shows the moment of Nidal’s assassination. Dressed in a plain short-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a pair of sunglasses, the young man is shot first from the back, falling on his face as his sunglasses drop to the concrete and come up right under his right arm. 

His body on the ground, a group of four armed men in civilian clothing reach Nidal. One of them, dressed in a cap, a sweatshirt, cargo pants and an M16, shoots again at Nidal’s body. The four men rush towards the other man with Nidal at the time, Yousef Shriem. Shreim tried to escape the ambush, but could not outrun the bullets. 

Seconds later, the same undercover men ran back in the direction of Nidal’s body. One, dressed in a sweater, cap, jeans, and another M16, fires a “confirmation kill” into Nidal’s head, as a splatter of blood crowns Nidal’s still body. 

“There is no one like Nidal,” Amin said in a pained voice. “Nidal has manners, he prays, he has morals, he’s polite with people, and he’s always smiling, he does not inflict harm.” He pauses for a moment before continuing to paint an image of what has now become a memory.

The mirror image of father and son

A Glock was thrown on the plastic chair near the entrance of the rooftop balcony where we sat. 

The visibility of it was at once a warning against potential attackers and an invitation signaling to the three journalists entering his home that he was now disarmed. Nidal, in contrast, had greeted us that late evening in October with his pistol raised towards us, but only for a moment.

“Is that the pistol your son raised at us?” We asked Amin half-jokingly, but mostly out of curiosity.

“No. That is my personal one,” Amin replied. Then, he continued lightheartedly: “Nidal’s is tucked away.”

Nidal had spoken with Mondoweiss on October 26 in the middle of the night, just outside Jenin refugee camp. We had been standing near the site where legendary Palestinian-American journalist and correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh had been shot and killed last May. 

Upon first contact, Nidal had, understandably, thought we were undercover Israeli special forces, as our journalistic intrusion had occurred around the same time that Israeli assassinations against armed resistance fighters were surging at a ferocious and unyielding pace.

The day before, on October 25, just 44 km south of where we stood, the Old City of Nablus witnessed the brutal assassination of Lions’ Den fighter Wadee Al-Hawah and five others. Before Al-Hawah, on October 23, Israel assassinated Tamer Kilani by detonating an explosive device planted on his motorcycle in the Old City. 

As his execution on March 16 proved, the young man’s concerns were not without warrant. 

Still, after giving our credentials and introducing ourselves, and while remaining alert and skeptical as a military drone hovered above us, Nidal not only spoke with Mondoweiss, but even gave us permission to use his full name in our report, an uncommon readiness among Palestinian men who are wanted by Israel (regardless, we chose not to use his name at the time).

“He is not afraid of death, and the person that would confront the army from point zero in the camp was Nidal,” Amin said proudly of his slain son. “He doesn’t fire at jeeps, he fires on soldiers marching,” he explained to Mondoweiss. “Meaning he wastes no bullets.”

Like his father, Nidal had a steadiness to his posture, and his facial expressions were gentle but minimal. Unlike his father, Nidal was affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), while Amin was affiliated with Fatah.

“I say it with such shame now,” Amin told Mondoweiss as he explained his affiliation with the faction now ruling the Palestinian Authority.

“Your headquarters only works for the preservation and service of the occupation,” Amin wrote about the Palestinian Authority on his Facebook page shortly after Nidal’s assassination. “Nidal will not forget,” he wrote.

In the past two years, both armed and unarmed Palestinian confrontation with Israel has increased. At the same time, Palestinians have undergone increased repression by the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF), whose main goal remains to maintain the status quo, even if it’s one that is harming its own people. 

Fearful that the uprisings directed at Israel’s occupation could soon turn on them, the PA went after known “troublemakers” — fighters and activists who posed a threat to them. 

Before his assassination by Israeli forces on March 16, Nidal Khazem was targeted by PA forces twice over his armed resistance activity. However, the PA and its security forces did not stop at arrests. When the attempt to detain youth engaging in armed confrontation failed, the PA launched its own assassination campaign.“They came to my house and shot at me twice,” Nidal recalled to Mondoweiss. 

The PA had targeted Nidal in 2021 when the Unity Uprising was just peaking, and Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and those Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who lived inside the Green Line, rose in a mass uprising of protests and mostly unarmed confrontation against state-sponsored settler attacks. 

In a similar trend, weeks before the killing of Nidal in February of this year, the Palestinian Authority’s security heads met with Israeli security officials in Jordan. Just three days after the killing of Nidal, on March 19, the PA joined the second closed meeting in Egypt. The summits served to re-establish a renewal of security coordination channels amid the rise of armed Palestinian confrontation and an internal Israeli political crisis.

Although the PA has claimed that its security collaboration with Israel serves Palestinian interests and protection, reality has shown that the PA’s continued collaboration has only intensified, emboldened, and escalated politically-driven executions

“God curse them,” Amin says with an unflinching resentment. He pursues his lips and gestures with a spitting sound as he continues his tirade on the Palestinian Authority. “Curse them and curse the weapons they have,” he said. 

No choice but to live or to die trying

Khazem’s story is more than just one of resistance — it is underpinned by family.

Despite the dichotomy between father and son when it came to political affiliation, their incentive and motivation to engage in armed confrontation remained the same for both. Not just for Amin and Nidal, but for all the fathers and sons in the Jenin refugee camp living the same abusive reality, repeating itself generation after generation. 

Amin has pride in his son’s resistance ethic, but he is foremost a father who carried a fear of losing his son.  “Honestly,” Amin admitted, “I tried a lot to guide him away from this path.”

In a place like Jenin refugee camp, which has a deep history of resistance and armed confrontation with Israel, admitting that you wanted something different is not an easy confession to make. 

And yet, though he would have chosen a different path for his son, Amin knows why his son had made the choices that he did — it was because of the same abuses, the same pain, that Amin experienced at the hands of Israel while he was a young man growing up in the camp. 

“No effort [to sway them away from resistance] can succeed in the face of constant violence,” Abu Nidal explained to Mondoweiss. “The youth took up arms because no alternative path was found to liberate themselves from enslavement.”

Eleven days before his execution, Nidal Khazem wrote on his personal facebook account: “We are in front of a religious, national, and historical moment of reclamation. If you cannot struggle with yourself, join the struggle with money, information, anything that you can manage. we either rise up together, or we are killed one by one.”

 Even in the most difficult moments, Amin supported his son and his path because in his heart, he knew that there were no other options for Nidal’s generation. For those that choose confrontation, they face either arrest or death, and for many death is more merciful than Israeli prisons.

Last year, Israeli forces had prepared an ambush to arrest Nidal from his home in Jenin refugee camp, according to Amin. The 28-year-old was not home at the time. Instead, Israeli forces took his father and younger brother and subjected them to what can only be regarded as torture. 

“From 4:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night, and I was not unchained once in that period,” Amin recalled to Mondoweiss. Gesturing towards his broad build, “You see these shoulders? I stopped feeling them.” 

Collective detention of family members to pressure Palestinian detainees into confession or admission of guilt is a common practice of the Shin Bet.

When Amin was arrested by the Israeli intelligence services, or the Shin Bet (Shabak in Hebrew), it was an attempt at playing on his son Nidal’s protectiveness towards his father, a way of forcing him to turn himself in. 

The Israeli interrogator demanded that Amin call his eldest and command him to turn himself in.  “Are you not going to call Nidal?” the interrogator said. Still, Amin refused to call his son. “Don’t even dream of it,” he responded. 

Having done nothing himself, Amin was finally released after he had refused to cooperate. That day, when returning to their home in Jenin refugee camp, Amin found his son, Nidal, who had caught wind of the incident waiting for him at the entrance. “He had his head politely down, almost afraid of a reprimand,” Amin recalled as a smile escaped him. “I patted Nidal’s back and told him to shrug it off.” 

At the time, Nidal, as a son, asked why his father didn’t just call him, to which Amin consoled his eldest by reminding him of the ways in which Israeli interrogations work. “At that point, it wasn’t about you,” Amin had told his son Nidal, “it was about my own stubbornness and that I didn’t want to give [the interrogator] what he wanted.”

Just over a year later, Amin buried his son.

In a tone that signaled that he had repeated the line far too many times, Amin said: “You can’t live in dignity with an occupation.”

“Everything in your daily life is humiliation,” he said.

Daily life is already fragile for the Palestinian refugee population, who are not only chronically lacking in proper services, but have during the past two years been exposed to a level of brutality that is difficult to shed.

 “[The young fighters] put martyrdom in front of their eyes,” Amin elaborated, “[because] they feel for each other. This one’s friend was killed, the other one’s brother was killed, this one something else.” 

Of the 136 Palestinians killed in Jenin over the last ten years, 106 were killed in the last 27 months alone. It is within this context that Amin absorbs the reality around him, continuing to live amongst a community of those who live, and those who were killed.  

“I had some of his friends that would tell me, ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I’ve been sleeping in the streets for a long time,’ and  ‘I don’t eat properly,’ or ‘I don’t sleep properly,’” Amin said. 

“You need to understand,” he continued. “This is not an organized army. These are youth. They are civilians who are trying to defend their freedom.” 

 “I remember the pains of Nidal,” Amin professed. “The hunt of these dogs exhausted him,” Amin told Mondoweiss, referring to Israel’s military and intelligence apparatus that had been hunting his son and fellow fighters for months. “This is what it means to wait for martyrdom by the second,” he explained.

The same words were uttered by Nidal in October when asked why he was eager to share his name and his story. 

“We’re defending ourselves,” he said unwaveringly. “Why would I be afraid of sharing that?” 

As we played parts of Nidal’s interview out loud to Amin, he looked at the computer screen, watching the soundwaves of his son’s voice.  His tone changed. “You see, his words aren’t that far off from mine,” Amin said with a subtle smile. 

Amin listened intently between the sounds of journalists asking him questions, and the voice of his late son. In the midst of his grief, he couldn’t help but smile. He steadied his breath, wiping his hands over his face and down his grey beard. The smile on his face continued to spread. 

“Rest in peace, Nidal. May God bestow his mercy on you.” 

As we wrapped up our conversation, we made our way down the staircase to a group of armed young men waiting to escort us out of the camp. 

Before we left, Amin signaled to one of the young men. He wanted to make sure a copy of his son’s voice stayed with him.

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss