‘Where is Bilal?’ Palestinian family searches for son shot by Israeli army

The mother of the deceased Palestinian Bilal Rawajba during a protest in Nablus (APA Images)

Jessica Buxbaum

Mondoweiss  /  February 23, 2022

Bilal Rawajba was shot by Israeli forces at the Huwara military checkpoint on November 4, 2020. His family has been trying to determine his whereabouts ever since.

Bilal Rawajba, a legal consultant with the Palestinian Preventive Security Forces, was driving through the Huwara military checkpoint outside Nablus when he was stopped and shot at by the Israeli army. 

An hour after the incident on November 4, 2020, the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence unit responsible for internal security, informed his family he was injured. Shin Bet agents then called again saying Bilal Rawajba is dead. Then another Shin Bet call said he was injured and imprisoned. Until now, his family has been left without answers on where Bilal Rawajba is and what happened to him.

“My son wasn’t wanted by the Israeli police. He didn’t do anything that would provoke the Israeli security,” Adnan Rawajba, Bilal Rawajba’s father, said. “We don’t know if our son is martyr or if he’s in prison.”

The family has reached out to the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. government, the United Nations, and international and local humanitarian organizations in a desperate attempt to find Bilal Rawajba, but these efforts haven’t succeeded. 

Adnan Rawajba said the family hasn’t been in contact with the Israeli authorities since November 2020.

“We haven’t heard from them at all,” Adnan Rawajba said. “Even the number that [Israel] used to call us from, we tried to call them back and found that the line is disconnected.”

The General Authority for Civil Affairs, the PA entity responsible for coordination with Israel, did not respond to a request for comment.

Describing Bilal Rawajba as a “terrorist,” the Israeli army said in a statement to Mondoweiss, “An initial review showed that the terrorist opened fire from his vehicle. The soldiers identified the threat, returned fire and the terrorist was neutralized. The terrorist’s body is currently in IDF custody, by the directive of the political echelon.”

Left in the dark and without support, the family launched a social media campaign under the hashtag وين_بلال# (Where is Bilal) to have their voices heard on a global scale. 

“I want the world to know the Palestinian narrative,” Adnan Rawajba said. “Apparently, we’re living under a Palestinian Authority that has no authority at all, and that’s why we’re seeking the help of the international community for protection.”

Israel’s policy of withholding bodies

The Rawajba family worked with the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC) for assistance. JLAC’s lawyer sent a letter to Israel’s Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli military, Aviv Kochavi, demanding the release of Bilal Rawjba’s body. 

JLAC received a response from the Israeli military this year, saying they refuse to release his body because the state’s criteria for withholding bodies applies to Bilal Rawajba. 

Since 2016, Israel has withheld the bodies of 93 Palestinians, including eight minors, to use for future prisoner swap deals. Additionally, 254 bodies are held in what is known as the “cemetery of numbers.” 

Four cemeteries have been identified, where Israel keeps the bodies of those killed in war, clashes, or other confrontations over the decades. In 2019, Israel expanded the scope of this policy to include all bodies — not just those affiliated with the militant organization, Hamas, or individuals who have carried out severe attacks. 

JLAC research Budour Hassan explained that Israel is currently the only state in the world withholding bodies. 

“To manipulate and to not say immediately that he died, to put his family in limbo, and to refuse to acknowledge where the body is because you want to use the body as a bargaining chip, that is killing in installments,” Hassan said. “Hopefully the family will receive the body back, but then all this trauma, all this pain, and all these scars will just resurface again.”

JLAC put the Rawajba family in touch with a British legal center in moving forward. Adnan Rawajba was not able to provide the organization’s name, but said the family has given it power of attorney so it can file a case against the Israeli military and government. 

 “We’re not even asking to be protected when we’re alive. We’re asking to be protected when we die, at least to have our sons be buried if they’re dead,” Adnan Rawajba said. “Our life has been flipped over ever since this incident happened. It’s made us doubt if there’s democracy in the world.” 

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem covering Palestine and the Israeli occupation