One morning in 2004 it all went terribly wrong. A Palestinian, Sael Jabara al Shatiyam, was in his old blue Ford Transit minivan. Earlier on he had lost his job in Israel and now worked an unofficial taxi service in the West Bank. With eight passengers in the car, he spotted an Israeli checkpoint on the road. Convinced that the soldiers would stop him he did what Palestinians usually do – took a dirt road to circumvent the checkpoint.
Approaching the main road again, Sael Jabara al Shatiyam had to speed up to negotiate a steep climb through the gravel. There he was seen by Yehoshua Elitzur from the radical settlement of Itamar. The settler opened fire with his M16 rifle and fatally wounded the Palestinian driver. The settler was arrested and charged with manslaughter, but surprisingly the court decided to put him in house arrest. By the next court meeting, Yehoshua Elitzur had disappeared.
Shay Fogelman, a journalist from the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, got interested in the story. The court’s lenient attitude puzzled him, and he wondered why the authorities seemed to have done next to nothing to find Yehoshua Elitzur. He launched his own manhunt, but what he expected to be a one-month assignment for the paper turned out to be an over ten-year ordeal. Now he has turned his many travels into a captivating documentary that was screened at the 2019 DocAviv, the Tel Aviv documentary film festival.
One morning in 2004 it all went terribly wrong.
Fogelman has a good story to tell with the film becoming a psychological portrait of Yehoshua Elitzur. He lived alone in a makeshift cottage in Itamar. He worked in a nearby settlement, and in spite of being part of the community, nobody seemed to know him well. It turns out, Elitzur hails from Pfarrkirchen, a small town in lower Bavaria. In his earlier life, his name was Johannes Wimmer, but he converted to Judaism and became Yehoshua the radical settler. The family is staunchly Catholic and deeply conservative. His mother does not want to meet Fogelman, and the brother claims to have lost contact to Johannes. But in spite of this wall of feigned silence, a certain picture comes together. At the local archives, he learns about the killer’s grandfather, Hans Wimmer, who was a well-known sculptor with a dark Nazi past. Fogelman also visits the Ettal Convent, where Johannes attended school as a child. As it turns out, in 2010 Ettal was the epicenter of a scandal involving child molestation and sadistic monks.
«If God gave me the gift of sight and I saw him, I would turn blind again,» says the victim’s daughter, Yasmin, who is blind. Her brother is also, which only adds to the picture of a family in dire straits. We get an impression of Sael Jabara al Shatiyam as an honest man who struggled to keep his family afloat, and who would never try to run over another human being with a car.
The picture of Yehoshua Elitzur, on the other hand, gets murkier. Why did he stop his car, get out and shoot a Palestinian, Fogelman asks over and over again? Because he could, was able to, and had the power, seems to be the clearest answer.
«If God gave me the gift of sight and I saw him, I would turn blind again»
Those that get close to describing him in detail look at a highly complicated person with lots of mental issues. He came from a very constricting environment, burdened with Nazism and a victim of pedophilia, who found freedom, as one observer puts it. More likely, he found another framework and a total break from his own past. 2004 was the most violent year of the Al Aqsa Intifada. More than 800 Palestinians were killed and a hundred Israelis, so to a certain extent there was nothing exceptional in his deed.
And still, this is a classic case of radicalization. As a youth back in Germany, he was already a loner, having a problem with strict rules in a conservative society. He broke free and joined the freewheeling nightlife of Tel Aviv, earning a living by modeling, finally finding solace by joining another religion and going to new extremes.
At ease with fate
«It is a film about several victims,» said Fogelman after the screening, and one could see that as an attempt to whitewash radical settlers. Yehoshua Elitzur could be seen as the exception, whereas the rest are rational citizens. But he actually says that Elitzur might be an unpredictable loner and, at the same time, an archetype. There are many like him among the radical settlers, and deadly violence can strike at any moment.
Yehoshua Elitzur gets caught in the end. Interpol traces him to Sao Paolo and he is brought to Israel to face justice. He gets 15 years behind bars, having no justification whatsoever to open fire on that fateful day, says the verdict.
Fogelman meets him in prison afterward. Elitzur seems at ease with his fate. He laughs heartily and sticks to his lies. Still convinced that the eight passengers in the blue Ford Transit were terrorists wearing explosive belts, he maintains his right to defend himself and prevent disaster. He is a confused and dangerous man living his own fantasy – seemingly triggered by a traumatic childhood and youth in another world – one that could happen anywhere.