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Behind the Headlines: An Unremarkable Life Sparks Many Questions in Violent Death

February 26, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

He led an unremarkable life, but his final act of violence that brought it to an end has sparked a host of questions.

Indeed, had it not been for his sudden, perhaps irrational, assault atop the Empire State Building this week, Ali Abu Kamal’s life may not have been remembered — let alone questioned — except by family members and friends.

But now there are questions, and some may go unanswered.

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s shooting of seven people, one fatally, New York City investigators said the 69-year-old Palestinian had acted alone and that personal misfortune, not Middle East politics, had motivated the senseless crime.

But police officials later confirmed that they had found on Kamal — who turned his 14-shot Beretta pistol on himself at the end of his rampage — two letters in English and Arabic condemning the United States, as well as Great Britain and France, for oppressing the Palestinian people.

The letters, which officials described as bitter and rambling, also lashed out at Zionism, prompting the question of whether there had been a political motive for the mass shooting.

But the letters also referred to two unnamed business partners whom Kamal accused of swindling him out of his life savings.

Kamal’s gun killed Christoffer Burmeister, a 27-year-old jazz guitarist for the Bush Pilots, a Danish rock band.

Among the seriously wounded was Matthew Gross, a 27-year-old Jewish band member from Montclair, N.J. Also wounded were a 52-year-old Argentine man; a 30-year- old Swiss man; a 35-year-old New York City man; and a married couple from Verdun, France.

Kamal’s family members in his hometown of Gaza City said he had no connection to any Islamic militant groups.

In fact, he had once been a victim of such groups.

In 1992, Kamal had been abducted by a band of Islamic vigilantes who broke his legs and an arm after several days of beatings. According to graffiti the vigilantes later painted on walls, they said they had beat Kamal because he smoked hashish and drank alcohol, a violation of Islamic law.

There also were rumors that he had also been punished for having extramarital affairs.

Relatives said Kamal, an English teacher, was distraught over big financial losses he had suffered since his arrival in the United States on Christmas Eve.

“My husband is not a terrorist, he was just hopeless,” Fathiya Abu Kamal, 55, was quoted as saying. “He was aged, he had nothing to do with politics, or terrorism, or crime.”

But the amount of money he was said to have lost to unscrupulous business partners — variously put at $300,000 to $500,000 — also prompted questions.

Kamal, who had become fluent in English after working for several years for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, had been a successful English teacher at a Gaza high school and university, as well as a well-paid tutor and translator.

Family members said he had amassed his nest egg after 50 years of hard work and sound investments in Egypt and Switzerland.

Just the same, a nest egg of as much as a half-million dollars seemed remarkable to some in a place like Gaza, especially given what was described as his lavish spending habits, to say nothing of the demands he faced in supporting six children.

Kamal had fled his native town of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, during the 1948 War of Independence. Like tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, he settled his family in Gaza.

Whatever the precise total of his savings, Kamal decided to seek a new and better life in the United States. His plan, family members said, was to increase his fortune and then bring his wife and children to the United States.

But within weeks after arriving in New York, he traveled to Florida, where he bought the Beretta, according to officials.

He later returned to New York by bus, presumably to avoid detection of the pistol by airport security — giving credence to the theory that Sunday’s shooting spree had been premeditated.

New York City police officials provided further evidence to that effect when they announced this week that Kamal had visited the 86th-floor observation deck on Saturday, one day before the shooting.

In one more unanswered question prompted by the case, it remained unclear whether his first visit to the site of the crime was designed to check security at the New York landmark, or if he had brought the gun along, but backed off from carrying out the crime.

His family members said he had called them over the weekend to tell them he was facing financial troubles.

When they heard news of the shooting, they said they could not believe who had carried it out until they called a friend in the United States who confirmed that it indeed had been Kamal.

His family soon set up a traditional mourning tent outside their l-story home in the relatively fashionable Al-Hawa neighborhood in Gaza City.

In the tent, where the family receives for three days friends who come to pay condolences, people sipped Turkish coffee and asked each other why Kamal had carried out the crime.

As elsewhere in the world, there was much speculation, but no firm answers.

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