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A Louisiana teen traveled to the West Bank to learn about his roots. He was shot dead.

AL-MAZRA’A AL-SHARQIYA, West Bank Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar was born and raised in Louisiana, in the city of Gretna, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

It’s a long way from the mountains of the occupied West Bank, but when Tawfic, 17, arrived in May, he was excited to properly explore the landscape of the village where his dad grew up, and to learn more about his roots as a Palestinian American.

“He loved the outdoors,” his father, Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, told NBC News — and Tawfic was eager to spend more time in Al-Mazra’a Al-Sharqiya, about 10 miles northeast of Ramallah, and to enjoy all the reasons Palestinians “love their homeland,” he said.

He never imagined he would end up burying his son on that very same land.

“Tawfic is gone,” said Abdel Jabbar, 40. “He was killed in cold blood.”

Women console the mother (C) of 17-year-old Palestinian Tawfeek Ajaq, who holds a US citizenship was killed a day earlier in the village of Al-Mazraa Al-Sharqiya in the West Bank, before his funeral procession on Jan. 20, 2024.
Tawfic’s mother, center, weeps over his body during his funeral procession on Saturday.Marco Longari / AFP via Getty Images

Tawfic’s family says he was a victim of mounting settler violence in the territory, which has been on the rise since the war began.

As an American, Abdel Jabbar said, he would have expected the U.S. to seek justice for his son. But he says the Biden administration’s support of Israel, including with weapons, and what he sees as a tepid response from the White House to Tawfic’s death make him doubt that his government will act in his son’s interest.

‘They took the best of us’

In video from his funeral shared by his father, Tawfic’s head is wrapped in a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf. There are cuts and bruises on his face. Flowers surround him as his family says their final farewells.

Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, 17, far left.
Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, 17, far left.

“They all say they took the best of us,” Abdel Jabbar said, describing his son as a lovely and outgoing teen who was “very loved.”

He hoped to study engineering in college and was considering pursuing his degree in the West Bank.

Abdel Jabbar said Tawfic had gone out for a picnic with friends on Friday when he was shot by a person witnesses told Abdel Jabbar appeared to be an Israeli settler, who initially opened fire, followed by someone wearing a uniform for the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF said it had received a report regarding an “off-duty police officer and a civilian who fired toward a Palestinian individual suspected of hurling rocks” in the area. It confirmed an IDF soldier was also in the area and said it was investigating a claim that the soldier fired at the Palestinian.

The Israel Police said it was also investigating the incident. Asked to confirm whether the civilian was an Israeli settler, the IDF referred NBC News to the Israel Police, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the civilian’s identity.

Abdel Jabbar dismissed the suggestion his son might have been “hurling rocks” as a “lie.” But, he said, even if rocks were thrown in the area, “so what?”

“If they were throwing rocks 150 meters to the street, what is it going to do to a tank? Or to a jeep? Or to a car full of soldiers? You’re gonna shoot the car 10 times because a guy threw a rock?” he said.

Speaking with NBC News shortly after his son’s funeral, Abdel Jabbar described racing to the scene when he heard his son had been shot. He found him bleeding in a truck with two gunshot wounds — one to the head and another in the chest. “I took him with my bare hands out of the car,” he said.

The truck in which Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar was shot dead sits over Highway 60 in the occupied West Bank on Saturday.
The truck in which Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar was shot dead sits over Highway 60 in the occupied West Bank on Saturday.Chantal Da Silva

The grieving father said people in IDF uniforms were already on the scene when he arrived — and he said they “pointed their guns at us, warning, ‘We will shoot you,’” if he and others did not leave the area.

“We didn’t care. We went to the car and we grabbed him,” he said.

The IDF did not immediately respond to a question about that specific claim.

Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, 40.
Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, 40.Chantal Da Silva

Blood could be seen on the shattered windshield and seats of the truck Tawfic was shot in. Shards of glass were strewn along the terrain where his family says the vehicle rolled over before coming to a halt over a section of Highway 60.

The incident comes as human rights groups have documented a rise in settler violence in the occupied West Bank since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began.

Since Oct. 7, at the start of the war in Gaza, 344 Palestinians, including 88 children, have been killed by security forces and settlers across the West Bank, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Blood smeared on the broken windshield of the car Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar was in when he was shot.
Blood smeared on the broken windshield of the car Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar was in when he was shot.Chantal Da Silva

Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, an organization that documents human rights violations against Palestinians, told NBC News in a phone interview on Sunday that cases of reported settler violence are rarely thoroughly investigated by Israeli authorities and even more rarely prosecuted.

Settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, are Jewish communities that have formed in the West Bank after it was occupied by Israel in 1967. Israel maintains that only settlements built without permits or on state land should be considered illegal.

Grief in Louisiana

Even as settler attacks in the West Bank increased, Abdel Jabbar thought the small village he grew up in would remain far from the violence.

He repeatedly assured friends and family in the U.S. that Al-Mazra’a Al-Sharqiya was safe when they expressed mounting concerns over violence in the territory.

Karim Taha, a board member of the mosque Tawfic belonged to in Louisiana, Masjid Omar, said the 17-year-old’s community was devastated by his death.

“We are like brothers and sisters. We all lived here in the ‘West Bank’,” he said, referring to the West Bank of the Mississippi River. “We all share happiness and sadness. We’re just like a family here.”

“Everybody’s sad and I guess there’s nowhere safe in Palestine now,” he said. “Either you get hit by a soldier or the settlers.”

Abdel Jabbar said his own anger and despair is deepened by his shock over what he sees as the U.S. government’s indifference to his son’s killing.

‘My son is an American’

On Friday, the U.S. State Department confirmed that a U.S. citizen had died in the West Bank and offered condolences to the family. It said U.S. officials were still working to understand the circumstances and had asked the Israeli government for more information.

Hours before, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing that while U.S. officials didn’t have “perfect context about exactly what happened,” the White House was “seriously concerned about it.”

Tawfic and a friend stand this month on the vehicle in the location where he would later be shot.
Tawfic and a friend stand this month on the vehicle in the location where he would later be shot.Supplied by the Abdel Jabbar family.

The response, Abdel Jabbar said, was “humiliating” for his family. “He didn’t say a child he didn’t say who was the killer.”

Abdel Jabbar also questioned the U.S. government’s allegiances, should it conduct an investigation into his son’s death, “when my government is supporting” Israel, including in its offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 25,000 people since the war began, with more than 62,000 injured and thousands more missing and considered dead, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza after the Oct. 7 attacks that killed about 1,200 people in Israel and saw more than 260 taken hostage into the enclave, where more than 100 people remain captive, according to Israeli officials.

“Where’s your concern there?” Abdel Jabbar said, addressing the White House. “Where’s the weapons that you send them to kill all these children?” he said, referring to the billions of dollars Israel receives from the U.S. in military assistance annually, including emergency arms transfers to further bolster Israel’s war chest last month.

“Americans, us, our government backs it up,” Abdel Jabbar said. “Takes our money to give it to them,” he said, referring to Israel.

Since the start of the war, President Joe Biden has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, but the death toll has continued to skyrocket in the months since. And Biden’s administration has expressed mounting concerns over settler violence in the West Bank.

Tawfic, farthest right, on a trip to Florida as a child.
Tawfic, farthest right, on a trip to Florida as a child.

Abdel Jabbar said his family had been contacted by U.S. officials about his son’s case and was expecting a visit from them. As an American citizen, he said, he expected the U.S. to seek justice over his son’s death.

“[I] work hard, built myself, pay taxes … I married there, had all my children there. I’m a part of the community there. I’m an American citizen,” he said. “I live that American dream. But where’s the humanity?”

“My son is an American before Palestinian. He was born in the U.S.,” he said. “On his passport, [it] says ‘We will protect you. … We will protect you and bring you justice.’”

“Where’s my son’s justice?” he said.

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