An American woman seeks justice for Palestinian husband

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Get the girls ready, Ziad Jilani's wife recalls him saying as he rushed out the door, and when I'm back from prayers we'll have a day at the beach. With temperatures soaring and school in recess, the Jilani family was looking forward to a little fun and relaxation.

After Friday prayers at Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City, Jilani jumped into his white Mitsubishi pickup and began driving through a crowded East Jerusalem neighborhood. His family believes he was planning to buy fruit for his eldest daughter and make a quick stop to visit his grandmother.

But what happened that June 11 afternoon, like much in this ancient city, is in dispute.

Israeli officials say Jilani used his truck to intentionally sideswipe three police officers on foot as they patrolled a Palestinian shopping district. Police termed the incident a "terror attack."

Witnesses and the family's attorney say Jilani accidentally hit the officers after he crossed into the opposing lane to bypass traffic, possibly when his truck was hit by rock-throwing youths clashing with the police as he was driving by.

The three officers leapt for cover, police said, suffering "light to moderate" injuries. Their colleagues opened fire. Jilani sped down a dead-end alley where his uncle lived, jumped out of the car and was shot in the back and shoulder by policemen chasing on foot, witnesses said.

As Jilani, 41, lay facedown on the pavement reciting a prayer, neighbors said, one of the pursuing officers stood over him and shot him in the head with an M-16 rifle.

The story might never have gone beyond the kind of claims and counterclaims common in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but other cases have not involved Moira Jilani, Ziad's American wife, a blond, tough-talking former gun-toting Texan with steely determination.

"I'm American and I have a voice," Moira Jilani said. "I think they see us as just 'stupid Arabs.' But I'm going to push this until the day I die. The least I can do is try to get justice for my husband."

She said that when police initially denied shooting her husband at point-blank range, she had his body exhumed, something almost unheard of in Muslim culture, where burials are held as soon as possible. An autopsy she commissioned concluded that Jilani had been killed "execution-style" with a gun less than 3 feet from his head.

Jilani brought in human rights attorneys to push for an external investigation by the Israeli Justice Ministry and prodded the U.S. Embassy to monitor the case, which embassy officials say they are doing.

When Israeli police arrived a week after the shooting to search Jilani's house, she kept them waiting outside for an hour before allowing them in. They confiscated his laptop.

It's an unusually defiant approach, particularly in Jerusalem, where many Palestinians are afraid to challenge Israeli authorities in such matters, fearing retaliation or deportation, said Hassan Tabajah, legal director of the Meezaan Center for Human Rights, which is representing the family.

"Moira has played a huge role," Tabajah said.

Asked what she hopes to achieve, Jilani, 43, a former Sbarro's pizzeria manager from Houston, doesn't hesitate: "I'm from Texas and we believe in the death penalty."

Such talk might seem a little hard to pull off for the 5-foot-3 woman whose life until recently centered on raising the couple's three girls, ages 17, 15 and 8.

She said she has loved her husband's hometown since arriving 17 years ago, though she never fully blended in. She can't speak Arabic or Hebrew, and though she converted to Islam for her husband, she and the girls never covered their heads and rarely went to the mosque, though Jilani started covering after her husband's death in a sign of respect.

White skin and a tendency to address people with "y'all" meant that she and her daughters escaped much of the suspicion and discrimination she says her husband and other Palestinians experience every day.

But his death, she said, opened her eyes further to what she calls a double standard in the treatment of Palestinians. "Something like this would have never happened in a Jewish neighborhood," Jilani said.

Police officials deny complaints of a double standard and question the family's assertion that Ziad Jilani hit the officers by accident, saying hit-and-run attacks against Israeli officers are common.

"It was a terrorist attack and the officers responded in the way they should have responded," Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Jilani ignored orders to stop and police had no choice but to shoot, he said.

Officials defended the police officers' conduct and portrayed Ziad Jilani as a malcontent who they say had confronted police on five previous occasions, including during an Old City protest this year in which he was arrested but not charged.

At a preliminary hearing held by the Justice Ministry, the officer acknowledged shooting Jilani in the head, but said he feared that the man was wearing a suicide vest and fired to protect nearby residents, according to Tabajah.

Moira Jilani wonders why Israeli police would think her husband was a suicide attacker when he ran away from, not toward, them, and why officers would stand over him if they feared he was strapped with explosives.

"He didn't care about politics," she said. "He cared about making sure his girls were having fun."

Resistance and anti-Semitism "were never in his head," said Baroukh Ella, a Jewish businessman who sold video games to an arcade Ziad Jilani operated and had known him for 15 years. "He had other worries."

Ziad Jilani later sold the arcade and opened other small businesses, including a pool hall, and most recently, became a supplier of coin-operated massage chairs in gyms and spas.

The Jilanis met in Houston in the late 1980s, Moira said. His father sent the teenage Ziad to finish his studies in Texas to avoid the violence and school strikes in Jerusalem, where his family has lived for generations.

"I noticed his eyes first," she said. "He had dancing eyes. From that day we were inseparable."

They moved to Jerusalem in the early 1990s and remained here, except for eight months in 2003 when they took their children to Barbados, where Moira was born and her grandparents still lived. Ziad was worried at the time that Iraq might strike against Israel over the U.S.-led invasion.

On the day her husband died, Jilani says, she and the girls were cleaning the house, dancing to a Katy Perry song and waiting for him to return. Instead, her niece appeared at the front door, unable to speak and her face tear-streaked. "I just knew immediately," Jilani said.

One of the hardest moments, she said, was not being able to kiss her husband goodbye. His face was badly disfigured by the shooting.

Jilani is planning to stay in Jerusalem with the girls. "This is my home now," she said. "I've already seen where I'll be buried. Next to my husband."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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