‘V’ Is for Victory
The odyssey of Jack Tytell: An intimate look at the accused Jewish killer
Hani Balbisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who lives in East Jerusalem, hasn’t worked a minute past sundown in 13 years. He picks me up on Nablus Road in Jerusalem’s American Colony at 5 in the afternoon. He starts driving before I shut the door. He takes the turns at a screeching speed. He says we have only an hour. Akram, his father, told his son he would disown him if he worked past dusk. Balbisi is middle-aged, married, and a father of four. “‘You are not my son if you work at night,’” Balbisi remembers his father saying a couple weeks after he started to drive again.
Tytell flashes a victory sign prior to the start of his trial at the Jerusalem District Court on December 9, 2009.
CREDIT: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
In 1997, between 8:00 and 9:30 in the evening, according to police records, a man hailed Samir Balbisi, Hani’s brother, at Damascus Gate. Night had fallen. The white stones on the gate were bright, and the sky was black as the vendors packed up and food fell from their carts. The taxi drivers stood outside their cars, smoked cigarettes, and drank Turkish coffee out of clear plastic cups. The man who’d hailed the cab said he was a tourist. He asked to go to the Holy Land Hotel in West Jerusalem. It would be about a 20-minute ride from the Old City, and Balbisi would make a pretty shekel. The man asked about the weather, maintained light conversation. The man asked where he was from and Samir answered he was an Arab, born in Haifa. Soon they approached the man’s destination. The man then pulled out a Glock and shot Samir once in the back of the head from behind the driver’s seat. The bullet exited Samir’s face underneath his left eye; the side-view mirror stopped the bullet. The man got out of the taxi and got into his getaway car, which he had parked at the hotel earlier, and drove away. Jack Tytell has reportedly confessed that he killed Samir to avenge Palestinian suicide bombings.
“If the court is good they will put him in the prison all his life. If he goes to an Arab court, they will kill him like my brother and he will know what it means for the Arabs to kill,” Balbisi says to me in English. His face looks like it was just slapped. “He killed a person,” he says. “Now I need his father and sons to know what it feels like for what he did to us.”
Hani Balbisi is a slightly plump Palestinian whose body fits his seat like a tailored suit. From his position he can efficiently drive, shift, and handle money and the meter quickly. He can downshift his white Skoda sedan, swerve if need be, or honk when necessary. His eyes are friendly, but stuck in a far away stare, and they sit neatly underneath a four-inch scar on his right eyebrow. Crows feet sit deep like dry riverbeds at the edge of his eyes. There is a strain in his voice as he says that he has handed the wheel of revenge and punishment over to God. “I am not the God, it is not my job to punish,” he says. “The Jew will be punished not by me, but by God.”
There is a barbershop across the street from where we have parked. I can hear the chchchchchch of the clippers as they snip hair. The patrons talk as they turn their heads from side to side, to see if the barber did a good job.
“He will not go paradise, but hell,” Balbisi says and cuts the engine. Samir, who was in his early 20s when he was murdered, was the favorite son out of the eight Balbisi brothers. He didn’t have to work as much as the others because his father wanted him to concentrate on his studies. When he died, Samir was a year from finishing his engineering degree at Jerusalem College.
The last time Balbisi saw his brother was that June day, at around 3:30 in the afternoon. Samir had just come home from a test and saw that Hani was very tired. He said he would take the taxi out that night so his brother could rest. Samir Balbisi told his brother that was the last night they were going to drive the taxi, because when he got back, they would make plans to start their own engineering business. The brothers would design and build houses and buildings and never drive taxis again.
“It was all ruined,” Hani Balbisi says with a distantly angry voice. “It was going to be his last night ever driving the taxi.”
Large trucks rush past us as we sit and talk about Samir and the Jew. A motorcycle rushes past and sets off a car alarm. Birds chirp from the trees. Hani’s white Skoda shines in the sunset. His taxi is meticulously clean, like the car has never seen a dusty road or a sandstorm. Balbisi points out that we are parked down the block from the Garden Tomb, where Jesus lay dead for three days, wrapped in a white robe, before he was resurrected.
CREDIT: Will Yakowicz
“I’d like to see him in the prison for the rest of his life, not a couple of years, but for all his years. I would like for his father and brothers to know what it is like to lose a brother, to feel the same thing me and my brothers and father and mother feel. The Jew must die like my brother died,” Balbisi says again, showing no forgiveness. He is a simple man who believes that good Arabs go to paradise and bad Jews go to hell. He also believes all settlers are bad Jews.
“Do you miss your brother?” I ask Hani.
“What does ‘miss’ mean?” he answers. “Do I miss, miss what my brother?” he asks.
“How have your parents been affected by Samir’s death?”
“My mother, she cried for four hours when she heard the news,” Hani says. “Then she forgot what happened.” His mother, he explains, handles her son’s death through denial—so much so that, if I were to ask his mother what happened to Samir, she would say “I don’t know.” His father Akram hasn’t worked in over 10 years; he sits on the verandah of the family’s home in Haifa and smokes cigarettes. “He couldn’t handle driving the taxi and thinking about Samir all day,” Balbisi tells me. Sometimes, he adds, his father calls in a frantic mood and asks Hani to come over quickly. He races over to Haifa and asks what’s the matter. Akram says that nothing is wrong and if he wants he can leave. “I ask, ‘Father, what are you thinking about?’ ” Hani says, but his father never answers. When Hani went to the morgue to pick up Samir’s body, he fainted.
“Would you ever want to see Jack?” I ask him.
“See him? Why would I want to see him?” Hani’s face is slightly gnarled in disgust. “My father saw him in court, but I’d rather look at the animals all day than see him. At least the animals have a heart.”
Balbisi thinks there is a certain victory in the story for his brother’s death. Samir is a “shahid” whose place in paradise is promised; he was killed for being a Muslim. Hani’s second son is named after Samir. Samir will live and grow with a strong name. His peaceful demeanor, he says, is a certain victory over the attack. His nation has lost one, but gained four. Instead of spilling blood, he says, he has created more Palestinians.