Ziad Jilani: a Kill Shot in Wadi Joz

It was a stiflingly hot Friday afternoon in East Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood on June 11, 2010.  That’s where Ziad Jilani lived with his American-born wife, Moira, and his three young daughters.  He had some errands to run and as he left the house, he told his wife to get the girls ready because he wanted to treat them all when he returned.  Maybe to dinner, or swimming, or something else fun.

Ziad planned to meet his Israeli partner, Baruch, with whom he did business operating massage chairs in Israeli malls.  Jilani had too many chairs and not enough locations in which to put them, so he planned to sell some of them to Baruch, who planned to make a half-payment to him for the ones he was taking.  Then Ziad planned to attend afternoon prayers at a local mosque.

Baruch tells us that he met Ziad and gave him between 3,000-4,000 shekels as payment for the massage chairs.  Ziad also likely had collected coins from those deposited by customers to activate the chairs.  That was the last time Ziad’s partner saw him alive.

As he drove home to his family on the winding streets of Wadi Joz, a group of Palestinian youth had emerged from the mosque to engage in their ritual weekly of rock throwing at the Israeli police.  Because of recent terror attacks in Jewish West Jerusalem, there were likely increased Israeli patrols in the eastern Palestinian neighborhoods.  That was the fuse that lit the powder keg that killed Ziad Jilani.  According to local eyewitnesses, there was a Border Police patrol on the street and a long slow-moving stream of traffic.

Then the stone throwing started.  A stone or several may’ve hit Ziad’s car.  Or he may’ve been rushed and impatient to get home to his family in the slow-moving traffic.  Whatever happened, he appears to have swerved either to avoid the rocks or because he was distracted by them.  His truck side swept the Border Police vehicle and injured several of the policemen with bruises and fractures.

The cries of those who had been struck alerted one of them, Maxim Vinogradov, to what had happened.  Ziad for some reason, perhaps wishing to protect the large amount of cash he had in bags in his car, drove off without stopping.

The police, possibly because there had been several incidents in which Palestinians had driven cars or heavy equipment into Israeli Jewish crowds in acts of terror, began firing at Ziad’s vehicle.  In the process, they wounded a small Palestinian girl sitting in a parked car nearby.

Shortly after the shooting began, Jilani turned his truck into an alley near where a cousin lived.  The alley was a dead end from which there was no escape.  Emerging from the vehicle, he was shot twice by the police, once in the arm and once in the lower back.  He fell to the ground on his stomach and lay motionless, seriously wounded, though still alive.

At least two officers approached him and according to their own testimony and the autopsy, one fired at least two shots point blank (from between one and three feet) into his head.  According to eyewitnesses, the killer then kicked Ziad’s body but never inspected it to determine whether the victim might’ve worn a suicide vest.

After that, again according to the eyewitnesses, the police then went through his car and removed items.  His wife claims that the killers stole Ziad’s wallet and the cash in the truck.  All that was left was a U.S. one-dollar bill in his pocket.  Moira finds that particularly odd as he wouldn’t have had any reason to carry any U.S. currency.  It seems to her one last cruel insult, almost like a serial killer’s calling card, hurled by the killers at her husband.

After he heard the shots, Ziad’s cousin, Mahmoud, came running into the alley.  He was screaming and quite upset.  The killer, with his boot still on Ziad’s throat, fired two or three warning shots at the approaching man.  Then he beat him in the head with a nightstick.  Later, Mahmoud was taken to the hospital by ambulance.  According to eyewitnesses, when an ambulance arrived for Ziad, the police refused to allow it to approach.

Ziad Jilani was not your typical East Jerusalem Palestinian.  He had lived much of his life in the United States and earned a pharmacy degree here.  His family owned a drugstore in East Jerusalem and, as with many families, they expected he’d run the business after his father retired.

Ziad’s heart wasn’t in pharmacology.  Rather, he loved animals and would’ve preferred to be a veterinarian.  Unfortunately, agriculture in Palestine isn’t sufficiently developed to the point where vets are widely needed.  They joked with Ziad that he’d be a Donkey Doctor if he persisted in his veterinary dreams.

Luckily for him, his family’s pharmacy was so close to a major checkpoint that it failed and was sold.

Instead, Ziad open a video game parlor.  But the nature of commerce in Palestine is such that if one businessman opens a successful shop, others will move in right next door attempting to cash in on the success of the original entrepreneur.  That’s what happened to the video game shop.  Later, he turned it into a billiard hall.  Eventually, after selling the business, he got into the distribution of massage chairs in Israeli malls.

Ziad met Moira in the States.  She’d been born in Barbados to an American father, who took the family to Texas, where she was raised.  They had three young girls who are now orphans.

If there is ever to be a new Palestine to emerge from the blood and violence of the Occupation it will be U.S. and foreign-educated Palestinians who will help it to succeed.  It is they who will bring some of the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation which will revive the Palestinian economy.  But all of this hope for the future died on that Friday afternoon in June.

Ziad’s killer was a 29 year-old immigrant from Kyrgyzstan.  Maxim Vinogradov was a tall, hulking fellow with a fondness for a beefy tabby cat seen in his Facebook photo profile.  Like many of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Vinogradov harbored especially deep hatred of the Palestinians.  In fact, in his Facebook profile and at another Israel social networking site, Mekusharim, he trumpets his rage in homicidal boasting.

In fact, only eleven days before murdering Jilani, Vinogradov had a particularly interesting exchange with Avi Yakobov, a fellow Kyrgyz immigrant.  We only know this because Yakobov published a video of himself dancing tauntingly to the strains of Arabic music around a hooded and bound Palestinian woman who his IDF unit had arrested.

The video became a cause celebre in Israel and became but one of many incidents in which IDF soldiers bragged graphically of their abuse of Palestinian prisoner.  My friend, Dena Shunra discovered Yakobov’s Facebook page, which is how Vinogradov’s name first came into public view.  Here is their interchange, which took place only two weeks after the Mavi Marmara massacre:

May 31st 6:05pm Yakobov:"Destroy Turkey and all the Arabs from the world"

Mordechai Maxim Vinogradov: "I’m with you, bro’, and with God’s help I’ll start it :)"

Avi Yakobov: "haha and you are capable of it, with no intervention from the evil eye."

In another Facebook posting from 2009, Vinogradov offered the Israeli far-right equivalent of "Heil Hitler," when he writes: "Death to Arabs."

In his Mekusharim profile (Hebrew), he writes the following:

Things you love to do: Love, Violence, Beating 
Dishes you like to eat: Arabs 
Favorite entertainment: Destroying things, Beating Palestinian wetbacks
Groups to which you belong: the far-right.

At the very least, we can say that Maxim got his wish when he met up with Ziad Jilani only two weeks later. 

In his interrogation, Vinogradov explained the Facebook messages by saying he didn’t mean what he’d written, that they’d been written in the heat of anger after the Mavi Marmara massacre (in which nine Turks, but no Israelis were killed).  When asked by the interrogator why Yakobov believed him capable of killing Turks and Arabs, Vinogradov responded that it was possibly due to the fact that he was a large man of whom people are sometimes afraid.  But he told the investigator that he would never kill an innocent man.  And to confirm that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, Vinogradov claims that his best friend in his unit is Bedouin.

Vinogradov’s story of the killing for public consumption turned himself into a frightened, cowering victim.  He believed at first his comrades might’ve been gravely injured in the hit and run accident.  All that ran through his head was that this might be yet another Palestinian terror attack with the vehicle being the weapon.

As he pursued Ziad, thoughts ran through his head that the Palestinian might be a suicide bomber.  So when he saw Ziad, who he consistently calls "the terrorist" during his interrogations even though the victim was unarmed and had no political affiliations, adrenalin kicked in.  He acted purely on instinct and claims he hardly remembers what he did.  He doesn’t even remember shooting the victim in the head.  In fact, he claims though he pumped bullets into him from point blank range that he "didn’t even see." All he knew was an overwhelming fear that he was confronting a potential bomber and that he must neutralize the threat.  If not a suicide vest, maybe (in his mind) the Palestinian had a knife or pistol.  That’s why, according to his second set of statements to investigators (more on this later), he pumped those kill shots (also known in IDF vernacular as "confirm the kill") into Ziad’s skull.

Amira Hass, in an investigative piece published by Haaretz (Hebrew) raises a series of troubling discrepancies in his account.  First, that VInogradov’s story changed dramatically from his first interrogation to his second.  In the first one, his commanding officer, an Israeli Druze named Shadi Kheir al-Din, took responsibility for the kill shots.  Maxim was there, but he wasn’t the killer.  In fact, he told the investigator that he "certainly was not" the one who fired the final shot.

Since it is not common for Palestinian families to allow autopsies of those killed by Israeli police or military, Vinogradov likely believed once his first interrogation ended he was in the clear.  But Jilani’s wife sought justice and asked for an autopsy.

That was when Vinogradov’s story changed.  In the second interrogation after the autopsy results were known, then he became the killer.  He only remembered, in the "fog of war" one shot, though there were at least two. Further, Hass notes that a policeman who believed someone might be a suicide bomber would be unlikely to approach to within one foot of his body to shoot him execution style.  The policeman also claimed he shot Jilani to protect the lives of innocent bystanders.  At the same time, he notes how frightened he and his colleagues were of the hostile Palestinian neighborhood in which they found themselves.  In fact, those neighbors who did enter the alley were treated brutally by the police and Ziad’s cousin received a smashed head for his trouble.  It seems unlikely that Vinogradov would be as solicitous of these Palestinian bystanders given the previous homicidal screeds on his Facebook profile.

Jilani’s family brought an action in Israeli criminal court asking for the killer to be held criminally liable.  As is typical for cases of this kind, the Court closed the case for "lack of evidence."  Now, with the help of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, they are appealing to the Supreme Court to reopen the case.

In Israel, when you open a business you pay a tax called arnona to the municipality.  Because Ziad had maintained a video game parlor, he owed between $400-500,000 shekels ($100-125,000) to the City of Jerusalem.   Unfortunately, Moira’s name was also listed on the business license, so she has become liable for the tax debt.  In most cases, if a business owner dies the debt is forgiven.  Since Moira remains alive, the debt has not been forgiven though the State has taken her sole-breadwinner from her.

It goes beyond that.  Now the City may pursue her for repayment.  After Ziad’s murder, his truck was trashed so his wife bought a car.  The City has confiscated it toward repayment of the arnona.  Moira may not open an Israel bank account either as the entire sum may be confiscated as well.  As a widow, she received a monthly stipend from the State.  30% of that is garnished to repay the debt.

I’m hoping she will retain a lawyer and get an injunction to prevent the City from treating her so shabbily.

There is a widening circle of Israeli and foreign peace activists who’ve been drawn together by Ziad’s murder.  On April 24th, Combatants for Peace paid tribute to Ziad with a memorial service attended by nearly 2,000 in Tel Aviv.  For those who aren’t familiar with latter day Israel, it’s almost unheard of for an Israeli Jewish audience to turn out in such numbers of behalf of a Palestinian cause.  Moira, who spoke at the service, was deeply moved by the overflow of emotion and the well-wishers who crowded around her after the event ended.

In conclusion, I wanted to return to the killers, one of whom was an immigrant and the other a Druze Israeli.  Their ethnic identity is a critical factor in this tragedy.  Though military service in Israel is compulsory and hence plays a major part in building a sense of shared values and national identity, it serves a slightly different purpose for Israeli minorities.  For the Druze, Bedouin, immigrants and Mizrahim military and police service allows them to prove they belong in the Israeli mainstream.  To merit the approval of Israel’s majoritarian community, they feel they must out-Israeli the Israelis.

Further, as in every immigrant society, the latest wave enters at the bottom of the heap.  Those immigrant groups which preceded them lord it over the newcomers just as the Germans lorded it over the Italians and Irish in 19th century America.  So in today’s Israel it is the Ethiopian and those from the former Soviet republics who are the most vulnerable.  They are the ones joked about in a crude racist manner.  They are the ones the majority fears and avoids.

For those who are at the bottom of Israeli society, there is one group even beneath them: the Palestinians (in a role similar to that of Blacks in American society).  What’s more, if you take your resentment out on a Palestinian, especially under color of uniform, you will likely face no consequences.  In fact, if you serve in a particularly brutal service like the Border Police, your violent instincts may even be rewarded.

This is why there have been numerous incidents in which IDF soldiers and Border Police of DruzeRussian, or Mizrahi (and here) backgrounds have been found to abuse Palestinians prisoners or even murder them.  To be clear, I am not saying that Ashkenazi Israeli soldiers don’t engage in such acts, they do.  But I am saying that youth from the Israeli underclass has more motivation to engage in such acts.  They have more to prove to themselves and their peers.  They crave acceptance more.  And they are far more likely to need to take out their frustrations and social vulnerability on those even farther beneath them.

Author: Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, which examines issues concerning Israeli national security, human rights, and threats to Israeli democracy.