RAS KARKAR, West Bank — It seemed that Khaled Nofal’s luck had finally turned. After nearly a year of separation, he was preparing to reunite with his wife and young son, who had been stranded in Jordan since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
To inaugurate the new stage in their life, Nofal, 34, a clerk in the Palestinian Authority Finance Ministry, had rented a new apartment in Ramallah and started to move in. He’d bought new clothes for the first time in years. He was preparing to travel to the Allenby Bridge border crossing to meet them and bring them back to the West Bank — and then the border closed.
On February 4, the night that he was supposed to be reunited with his wife Suzanne and 4-year-old son Yousef, Nofal sat instead with his parents at the family’s home in Ras Karkar, a small, quiet town northwest of Ramallah. At approximately 10 p.m., his father, an electrician by training who worked as a handyman in Israel, went to bed. An hour and a half later, his mother did the same.
“We sat in the living room. We made plans for the following day — he was planning on buying a new car, he wanted to move the rest of his things — and then I went upstairs. Nothing was wrong. Everything seemed normal, he was so normal,” his father, Maher Nofal, told The Times of Israel outside the family home.
It was the last time he would see his son alive. The next time he saw his son’s face it would be in a photo on a smartphone held by an Israeli officer who knocked on their door at dawn.
“The soldiers arrived in the early morning. They knocked on the door and asked for Khaled. I opened the door and told them Khaled was here. It was as I opened the door that I saw that his car was gone,” Maher said.
At some point in the dead of night, without anyone else in his family knowing, Khaled Nofal left his house and drove off in his car, his relatives told The Times of Israel.
According to the Israeli military’s account, based almost entirely on the testimony of the Israeli settlers involved, at around 3:45 a.m. on Friday morning, Nofal drove his car a few hundred meters away, through a muddy valley and up a ridge known locally as Risan into the outpost of Sdeh Efraim Farm, which overlooks Ras Karkar. He was unarmed and alone.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, Nofal ran up to the home of the owner, Eitan Ze’ev, and banged on the locked door in an attempt to break in, alerting guards patrolling the outpost to his presence. He scuffled with one unarmed guard before Ze’ev and a second guard — both carrying weapons — opened fire, killing Nofal, the military said.
The IDF quickly deemed the incident an attempted terror attack, despite there being little evidence to indicate a nationalistic — rather than a personal — motive and despite the lingering question of how Khaled intended to carry out an attack without a weapon. Like most residents of Ras Karkar, Khaled likely knew that those living at Sdeh Efraim Farm had guns and were prepared to use them.
No further investigation was launched by the military or police. A spokesperson for Israel’s West Bank police district told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that “this was not a criminal event. This was a terror attack, and as such, there’s no case.”
But for the Nofal family, the shooting immediately threw up red flags, namely due to the involvement of Ze’ev, who they knew, was on trial for aggravated assault for shooting and wounding a different Palestinian man during an altercation in July outside the village of Biddya in the northern West Bank.
Moreover, it was unclear why Ze’ev was armed at all, as his handgun had been confiscated due to his indictment.
The family said they had known Ze’ev — by reputation and by experience — well before the shooting. Aside from the shooting in Biddya, they claimed he was prone to threatening Palestinians who neared his farm.
Although Ze’ev’s gun had officially been confiscated after his indictment, local Palestinians — including the Nofal family — said they’d seen him walking through the hills with a pistol on his belt.
“He descends the hilltop with his pistol strapped to his thigh, trying to show himself as the lord of the land. Anyone who approaches him, he threatens to shoot them,” said another Nofal family member. “I want to beat him. I’d have no problem with that.”
Tensions have seethed between Ze’ev’s illegal outpost and the residents of Ras Karkar since it was established in 2018. Ras Karkar residents used to cultivate parts of Risan ridge — which is registered by Israel as state land for public use — but say doing so is more difficult now. Ras Karkar residents have sporadically demonstrated against the farm since its construction, sometimes clashing violently with Israeli soldiers.
For the Nofal family, like the rest of Ras Karkar, opposition to the farm was part of the larger struggle against Israel’s control of the West Bank. But Khaled’s death transformed it from an issue of nationalism into a deeply personal one.
Perched on a hill above their home, today the farm looms as a daily reminder of what they lost.
“He’s killed one of our sons,” said Khaled’s uncle Murad Nofal. “He has to go.”
No means, but perhaps a motive
Khaled Maher Nofal — Palestinians traditionally take their father’s name as their middle name — was born in 1987. He attended Birzeit University outside of Ramallah and graduated with a business degree.
When it came time to marry, Khaled was wed to a female cousin: Suzanne, a Jordanian-Palestinian architect. They lived together in Maher’s home in Ras Karkar, along with Khaled’s younger brothers, Khaldoun and Mohammad. He had a son, Yousef. A peek at Khaled’s social media shows endless photos of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed child.
“His son, his Yousef,” recalled his brother Mohammad. “His son was his whole life.” According to Mohammad, the family is still at a loss for how to tell Yousef about what happened to his father just two weeks ago.
Nofal had a steady job, working as a tax assessor in the Palestinian Authority’s Finance Ministry, and had plans to start a side gig helping his uncle Murad set up a delivery business. The night before he went up to Sdeh Efraim, he spoke to his father about his plan to buy a new car, one better suited for life in Ramallah, according to his uncle Murad.
Murad lives in Ohio but got special permission to return to Ras Karkur following the death. He said he was in regular contact with both Khaled and Suzanne, who is also his niece. (Suzanne, who is still in Jordan, declined to comment for this report.)
Maher said his son did not have a history of violence or connections to terrorist groups. Residents of his village had clashed with local settlers in the past, but nothing happened to him personally nor had there been any incidents in the preceding days, according to both his family and the military.
“I don’t know what could have happened,” Maher told The Times of Israel a week after the shooting. “The police asked me for an alternative narrative, but I told them that I don’t have another account. I only have the Israeli story, and it’s not logical.”
“He was extremely calm and patient, not someone who was violent or aggressive or who would seek out a fight,” said Khaled’s brother Mohammad, 25.
But Murad said Khaled was morose the day before he was shot. After months of waiting for the Allenby Bridge to reopen, the young accountant expected to see his wife and young son arrive from Jordan on Thursday.
That same day, the border closed again due to renewed coronavirus restrictions across the country. Allenby Bridge, like Ben Gurion International Airport, remains shut down three weeks later, with only exceptional cases allowed to pass, an Israeli defense official said.
Khaled had painstakingly prepared for their arrival. When news of the sudden border closure came through, he was devastated, according to Murad.
“He was waiting for that moment, that Thursday, to go to Jordan and pick them up — and then they shut down [the border]. So what was he thinking? Maybe he was thinking that you were part of the reason why, you know?” Murad said, referring to Ze’ev. He later added: “I don’t know. Maybe when the border shut down, his brain shut down.”
But Khaled’s father pointed out that if he wanted to cause harm, he was unarmed on the night he was shot.
“If he’d wanted to stab someone, God forbid, there are knives in the kitchen,” Maher said bluntly, standing in Khaled’s half-empty apartment.
Other Ras Karkar residents said there were weapons in the town and armed groups — “not with the Palestinian Authority,” said one knowingly — who were prepared to take violent action against Israel. But Khaled wasn’t one of them, they said.
“Khaled’s not one of those guys. It’s not that he didn’t care about his people or his land, it just wasn’t his way of taking it back. If people were to ask him if he was coming to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, he’s not going. He didn’t have that violence in him,” Murad said.
But what if Khaled wasn’t trying to kill an Israeli when he arrived at the hilltop on Friday? Could the sudden blow of being separated from his wife and son for an unknown span have led him to try and get himself killed?
Noting his outsider’s perspective as someone who lives in the US, Murad said “half of these people have depression.”
“In Israel, I’m sure there are places, the government helps out with money. Here, who’s going to help with depression? They don’t give each other hugs. They don’t know to say ‘it’s gonna be okay. You’re alive,'” Murad said.
Both Maher and Mohammad, however, rejected the suggestion that Khaled had any desire to die. “Khaled wasn’t suicidal. He wasn’t. He was acting completely normal that day, the last day,” Maher said of his son.
Farm to trouble
Looking south from the roof of the Nofal family home, you can easily see the Sdeh Efraim Farm, which was built illegally in 2018: a gleaming cluster of caravans and agricultural buildings.
Shabtai Bendet, a researcher for the anti-settlement Peace Now group, described Sdeh Efraim Farm as a “classic illegal outpost,” one started without approval, without planning and without coordination with Israeli authorities.
Ground was broken on the outpost by settler activists in August 2018, sparking demonstrations by Ras Karkar residents, who maintained that the land on the ridge belonged to various families in the town, who had cultivated the land there for generations.
According to Bendet, the area had been designated state land by Israel because the ownership of the property was not documented in the Jordanian land registry during Amman’s occupation of the area from 1948 to 1967, despite the Ras Karkar residents having paperwork to show they owned the land, as well as a historical record of use.
Work on the outpost was halted by the clashes, but the army soon after declared the area a closed military zone, which banned Palestinians from approaching. During that time, Ze’ev and some others, who were also technically banned by the military order, nonetheless hastily finished constructing the outpost.
Though Israeli settlements are generally considered illegal under international law, outposts like Sdeh Efraim Farm are also considered illegal under domestic Israeli law as they lack the necessary approvals from the government.
There were plans to demolish the outpost shortly after it was built — authorities can easily destroy such wildcat settlements within 60 days — but the government intervened and prevented a rapid eviction, ensuring that any future attempts to remove the outpost would require a dragged out legal fight.
Over the past two years, the outpost has expanded and been upgraded with improved infrastructure.
Around 40 illegal outpost farms have spiderwebbed across the West Bank in recent years, according to Peace Now, most of them guarded by private security. Despite their dubious legal status, they also operate under the protection of the IDF.
Many were established by the settler organization Amana, which receives public funding. Amana does not own Sdeh Efraim Farm, but paid for a road that winds up the hilltop. The road was later found by a court to have infringed on private Palestinian land, but was deemed a fait accompli and allowed to remain.
According to Amana, the construction of farm outposts provides the settlement movement with a simple way to prevent Palestinian use of public land and broaden the settlement movement’s footprint in the West Bank. Building homes expands settlements one lot at a time, but plopping down a caravan and demarcating acres of land around it as part of an agricultural concern can quickly and cheaply do the same work many times over.
“One farm can protect land stretching over thousands of dunams,” Amana director Ze’ev Hever told a virtual conference held by the nonprofit last week, according to Haaretz.
Critics call the spread of the farm outposts a front for expanding settlements and denying Palestinians access to open, public land.
“This is the new trend in the West Bank over the last few years. They establish a farm, bring cows and sheep, and ensure that Palestinians don’t get close to state land. When Palestinians get close, they immediately call the army in an attempt to expel them,” said Hagit Ofran, who directs the Settlement Watch Project at Peace Now.
Eitan Ze’ev, 27, owns Sdeh Efraim and operates a small cluster of similar farms through an organization he founded. The nonprofit, “Awaken O Beloved Land,” says its farms aim to create an educational framework for at-risk youth through agriculture and therapy.
“[Awaken O Beloved Land] encourages settlement in the area through outreach activities, tourist attractions and more…farming and volunteering to provide assistance to farmers and protect their rights,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
Ze’ev moved into the Sdeh Efraim Farm, where he lives with a handful of other people, including guards, in a collection of ramshackle modular homes surrounded by greenhouses and animal pens. Bad blood between the settlers and local Palestinians has continued to fester, with locals accusing Ze’ev of being a menacing presence.
“He’s a gangster, this Eitan Ze’ev. I know the settlers, in Beit El, for instance,” said Maher Nofal on the roof of his Ras Karkar home, pointing to the farm’s cluster of buildings at a nearby ridge. “This man and his associates are different. They come here and act like they’re the boss. Why did Israel allow him to place his farm up there?”
But the family also said that there had not been any personal contact between Khaled and Ze’ev, and Khaled was not known to be particularly preoccupied with opposing the outpost.
Ze’ev first became known to the wider Israeli public during a clash on a similar illegal farm close to the Palestinian town of Biddya, close to Nablus, last July. The area’s ownership is disputed and Palestinians claim that the area has historically been worked by Biddya residents.
On July 5, Ze’ev arrived in the area with a number of other settlers to work the land. From there, accounts diverge: local Palestinians claim that two Palestinians confronted the settlers and were shot, causing a large crowd of locals to arrive on the scene. Settlers recounted that they had been attacked by a hundred Palestinians hurling stones, causing Ze’ev to fire in an attempt to chase them off.
Ze’ev and some of his colleagues were lightly wounded during the scuffles and received first aid. Two Palestinians received treatment, one after being moderately wounded after being shot by Ze’ev.
Israeli law enforcement saw the case in a different light. According to court filings — which make no mention of massive stone-throwing — “dozens of Palestinians” arrived on the scene before the confrontation, blocking the only path away from the area. With tensions rising, Ze’ev attempted to disperse the Palestinians by waving his pistol. He pushed one of the Palestinians, who “moved his hand away.”
At that point, prosecutors said, Ze’ev lowered his gun and fired it next to the ear of the Palestinian in front of him. The bullet struck another Palestinian behind him.
“The bullet hit the victim’s finger and penetrated through his left thigh into his pelvis. He collapsed to the ground,” prosecutors said.
The bloody confrontation between the settlers and Palestinians made headlines in both Israeli and Palestinian media. It catapulted Ze’ev to fifteen minutes of fame in the settlement movement as “the farmer who was nearly lynched and defended himself,” as one newspaper dubbed him.
Ze’ev was subsequently arrested and indicted in September for aggravated assault. Due to the indictment, his handgun was taken away. Ze’ev defended his actions as self-defense: what any rational person would have done in his situation.
“It’s a situation in which the only thing running through your mind is your friends’ lives. You think about your wife and kids, you see death before you, and you try to think about how you get home safe,” Ze’ev said in a video released after his indictment in September.
His indictment was roundly condemned by the religious right, with pro-settler parliamentarians discussing his case from the Knesset podium.
“Victims of terror are not supposed to become defendants in court,” said Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan at a September ceremony, during which he gave Ze’ev an award for his conduct during the incident.
How Ze’ev — whose gun was taken from him in September by law enforcement due to his indictment — came to possess a weapon again is not clear.
But Yiftah Norkin, the commander of the local IDF brigade, had publicly argued in favor of Ze’ev getting his gun returned last year. In a letter to the court, he said that “[Ze’ev] and his employees, from my interactions with them, have avoided altercations with their Palestinian neighbors.”
Neither the police nor the military confirmed whether Ze’ev’s pistol had been returned to him. A police spokesperson indicated that the pistol used in the shooting may have belonged to Ze’ev’s wife, and that everyone is entitled to use weapons in self-defense.
Ze’ev has not spoken publicly about the shooting of Nofal, nor have the security guards, whose names have not been revealed publicly.
Times of Israel reporters sought to reach Ze’ev through several channels, but were repeatedly told through interlocutors that he had no desire to speak to the press.
Before his son was shot, Maher recalled, he worked in Israel for over two decades. In the late 1990s, he founded a small business based in Lod with an Israeli Jewish partner, also an electrician.
After Khaled was deemed a terrorist, however, Maher’s work permit in Israel was revoked. As a rule, Israeli authorities do not permit Palestinians whose family members commit terror attacks to work in Israel.
“I went to the checkpoint and the police looked me up. They stamped my passport ‘rejected’ right there,” said Maher.
Nor has the Israeli government returned Khaled’s body for it to be properly buried, as Israel has a policy of withholding the bodies of suspected terrorists as bargaining chips in future prisoner swaps. The policy is deeply controversial even within Israel’s defense establishment, and questions about its legality and efficacy are hotly debated.
In the weeks since Khaled’s death, Ras Karkar has become a battleground. Clashes between residents and Israeli soldiers have broken out several times, with both sides blaming the other for provoking the violence.
The Nofal family has been left in confusion. They acknowledge that the event does not admit to any simple interpretation, and every point in the story raises thorny question marks. In the absence of a serious investigation by law enforcement, clarity is likely never to arrive.
After considering the matter, Maher decided to submit a formal complaint to the PA Civilian Affairs Commission. The commission, which is responsible for handling coordination with Israel, is charged with transferring complaints to Israeli authorities. Since then, the family has yet to hear back.
“Every day, I sleep and wake up and think a hundred thousand times about what happened to Khaled. Because I don’t understand what happened, and why. I ask myself this a thousand times a day,” said Mohammad, Khaled’s brother.
“There must be an explanation, another story. If we’re going to find it, it won’t be with us. It will have to come from them,” Mohammad said, referring to Israeli authorities.