Is the IDF Conducting a Kneecapping Campaign in the West Bank?

The number of Palestinians being wounded by live fire is on the increase, with stone throwers saying they are being told that confronting soldiers is liable to leave them crippled for life.

Israeli security forces aim their weapons during clashes in the refugee camp of Al-Fawwar, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Aug. 16, 2016.
Israeli security forces aim their weapons during clashes in the refugee camp of Al-Fawwar, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Aug. 16, 2016. Majdi Mohammed, AP

The event held in honor of the wounded Deheisheh refugee camp residents started almost on time, at 8:20 P.M. last Sunday. Rows of chairs were placed in the main road, which had been partially closed to traffic. Drivers using the remaining lane were patient and crawled in both directions, creating two intertwined traffic jams that miraculously yielded to a wailing ambulance. Someone directed traffic to the right and the left, and within seconds a route had been cleared. After the ambulance passed, the traffic jams reformed, under the red flags of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and on the other side of a gigantic concrete memorial, shaped like the map of Palestine.

Three recent Israel Defense Forces raids in less than two weeks on the camp south of Bethlehem ended with a handful of arrests, but 15 people were seriously injured after suffering gunshot wounds.

This large number of Palestinians being shot around the knee by soldiers, probably leaving them disabled for life, reminded everyone of many others who had been injured in a similar way in earlier raids.

“On the news, you hear there were no fatalities, only wounded people, so everyone relaxes without realizing the suffering we’re going through,” says N., 23, in conversation with Haaretz. He says he was hit in the leg by live fire two years ago while rescuing another injured person and carrying him to safety. There was talk of amputating his leg, but he was determined to save it and found appropriate treatment in Germany. He still limps around on a crutch, but doesn’t mention the pain.

Fifteen- and 16-year-olds, along with men in their twenties, limp on crutches along the camp’s steep alleyways. They were wounded during the past year, or before that. Each has undergone lengthy surgical procedures, with more still to come. And each requires constant monitoring and repeated cleaning of their wounds in order to remove shrapnel fragments, as well as anti-inflammatory drugs and replacements for platinum implants. One youth had his leg amputated.

These boys talk knowledgeably about anticoagulant drugs, different kinds of painkillers and operations. They tell of long months during which they couldn’t make it unaccompanied to the shower or bathroom, of weakened muscles, of the yearning to step on a floor without assistance.

Medics carry an injured Palestinian during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank Al-Fawwar refugee camp, south of Hebron August 16, 2016.
Reuters

Some saw the sniper who shot them take aim, with an officer beside him. Some remember the telescopic sights on the rifle, others mention a tripod that the sniper used. Some assume they were shot by a sniper on the tall building outside the camp.

Some of the wounded got hold of crutches from wherever they could — they don’t always match, and the rubber on some is so worn out that they slip. Treatment is expensive, and even taking a taxi to a hospital for checkups is a financial burden.

Many of them don’t have health insurance, but the surgery still goes ahead. However, sometimes only an operation abroad can save a leg and that presents a bigger financial problem. It takes skill and determination to land a donation from one of the Palestinian Authority institutions.

Several of them were arrested right after undergoing surgery, or before a second operation, and sentenced to a few months in prison and a fine. The belief of the wounded — that they were representing their people and a principle, and opposing enemy raids on their camp with stone-throwing — is being replaced by an overwhelming sense of loneliness as they deal with the effects of their injuries.

Many in Deheisheh are convinced the guiding hand behind all of this is “Capt. Nidal” — a Shin Bet security service officer tormenting the camp because someone took his photograph during one of the raids and posted it on Facebook.

In February, a banner appeared in the camp bearing the symbols of Fatah and the PFLP. In an empty boast so typical of the weaker side, the notices contained a vow that the camp’s stones would harm “Nidal and the soldiers.”

There are stories in the camp that during questioning, over the phone or during nightly visits to houses in the camp, Capt. Nidal tells young people that there will be no martyrs in the camp, but “all of you will end up on crutches.” Or, in another variation, “We’ll make you all disabled.”

Capt. Nidal (the name he adopted is sacrilegious, since it means “struggle” in Arabic) appeared at the camp about 18 months or two years ago — my interlocutors can’t remember exactly when. Several international agencies have lodged complaints about his brutal behavior, someone told Haaretz. He disappeared for a few months, but then showed up again.

It also turns out that in the village of Tekoa, further east, nearly 20 other young men were also hit in the legs, all within the space of a few months. In their case, there’s a “Capt. Imad” from the Shin Bet (that’s the name officials in the municipality remember, though they’re not 100 percent sure). Villagers say that he promises the young men that if they confront invading soldiers, they’ll be turned into cripples. And many of the live-fire wounds in the village of Al-Fawwar, also raided by the army two weeks ago, were sustained in the knees.

In other words, Deheisheh is not alone, not unique.

An army spokesman says soldiers use Ruger rifles during these raids. Correspondents (and possibly the spokesman) say this is a nonlethal weapon. But this statement is wrong, or an attempt to mislead. At least four unarmed Palestinians, including a minor, were killed by the .22 bullets fired by Rugers over the last 18 months. It seems that 18-year-old Mohammed Abu Hashash was also killed by the same method in Al-Fawwar last week.

In Hebron and Deheisheh, they set up committees to take care of the wounded. In many places, there’s a growing realization that the army is intensifying its use of live fire in confrontations with unarmed stone-throwers, and that the wounds inflicted are deliberately more severe. There must be more than 100 people across the West Bank, including many minors, who have been crippled by the IDF over the last year. But there is still no exchange of information or collation of data to confirm the seeming trend.

L. from Tekoa says his father was so angry at him when he got shot that he refused to visit him in hospital or agree to talk to him for the first two days; he only relented later. L. admits he won’t be confronting IDF soldiers again, even though he was a long way from the soldiers when he was shot by a sniper.

Y., a 15-year-old from Deheisheh, returned from hospital only last week after spending two weeks there. His father didn’t leave his side. “It was the soldiers who came to us, to our homes. We didn’t go to them,” Y.’s father says.

I met 12 wounded people over the course of three days. For the “lucky” ones, the bullet only hit their muscles. Others had bones shattered or nerves and tendons torn or scorched, or all of the above.

A. was hit by two bullets and was in a coma for 10 days. Everyone thought he was going to die. His friends didn’t leave his bedside until he awoke, white as a sheet.

In some cases, the bullet entered one leg, exited it and then penetrated the other, causing extensive damage. Some young men were shot by soldiers twice, once in each leg. This is what happened to Y. and his friend H., who was trying to rescue him.

Y. was outside his house as morning broke when he saw 20 soldiers approaching. He was shot in one leg and fell. H., 18, ran to help, lifted him and walked toward their house. A soldier then shot H., who tried to continue, still carrying Y. But a soldier shot him again, he stumbled and they both fell. Then Y. was shot again, in the other leg.

The other butterfly effect

“Right after I was hit, my foot shook like a flapping piece of paper,” relates M., 19, from Deheisheh, who was shot last December. He’s had seven operations but still can’t place any weight on his foot. He also says soldiers shot at the people who were trying to rescue him. Between fainting spells, he noticed he was being carried by his friends from house to yard and from yard to house, in order to get him to a car that would get him to hospital.

L., the young man from Tekoa, repeated what his doctor had described: The bullet behaves like a butterfly, fluttering though the leg and destroying what it encounters before emerging. People documenting injuries in the Hebron area used another image — that of a drill.

Most of the wounded young men chose not to elaborate on the circumstances of their injuries with an Israeli journalist. They prefer not to admit they were throwing stones at soldiers who appeared at dawn or after midnight in the camp’s alleyways in order to arrest their friends and neighbors, or to issue a summons for questioning.

One said he just happened to be up early in the morning, another was traveling outside Bethlehem, a third was praying, a fourth working at the supermarket. “In short, you were all on your way to buy ice cream at 3 in the morning,” I concluded, and they laughed.

Yazan Laham, however, wasn’t going to buy ice cream at 2:30 A.M. on July 28, and he wasn’t confronting soldiers, either. The 22-year-old had been out with friends, taking one of them home in his father’s jeep.

Laham is an officer with the Mukhabarat (Palestinian intelligence service). He studied security for four years at Al-Istiqlal University in Jericho, which is geared toward training cadets for the Palestinian security services. His father, Mohammed Laham, is a Fatah member in the Palestinian parliament: He’s a veteran member of the movement who, during the second intifada, forbade armed men in Deheisheh from shooting their weapons from within the camp, so the army wouldn’t have an excuse to destroy it.

The younger Laham told Haaretz that two soldiers on the main highway told him and his three friends to stop and get out of the jeep near the Al-Huda gas station, north of the camp. Laham told them he was in the Palestinian security forces, but this didn’t impress them. One of them was a sniper. The soldiers told them to stand beside a tire repair shop nearby. From time to time, the sniper would shoot and then run with another soldier behind Laham’s jeep.

The soldiers told Laham to tell children who were throwing stones to stop. They did, but then the soldiers started shooting again. He protested and argued with them and the soldiers beat him, he says. After more than an hour, they let him and his friends return to the jeep. He was walking toward the jeep, 10 meters (32 feet) away, and was then shot in the left leg. He didn’t see who shot him, but it was with a Ruger rifle. He’s had two operations and moves around on crutches, unable to step on that foot. A prolonged period of physiotherapy awaits him.

His father, Mohammed, was in Ramallah that night. His brother-in-law, Nasser Laham — a journalist and editor-in-chief at the Maan website — only managed to reach him at 10 A.M. the next morning. “He told me what had happened to Yazan,” says Mohammed Laham. “I asked him if he was dead. Nasser promised me he wasn’t, so I said, ‘Then it’s not so bad.’ What could I say?

“I haven’t talked about it publicly. There are so many wounded people. Every day I’m visiting someone, so why should I only talk about my son? But that night I talked with the president [Mahmoud Abbas]. I told him there was a clear escalation by Israel. Why do you need 50 soldiers in order to deliver a summons for questioning? I told him it was engineers who were shooting, not soldiers. These are engineers with tripods who aim with great accuracy at the knee.”

The IDF spokesman responded to these claims by stating, “Our forces in Judea and Samaria follow the rules of engagement, which have not changed recently. Each incident of live fire is reported to commanders. The army’s activities in the Deheisheh camp are usually accompanied by violent disturbances and throwing of explosive devices at our forces.

“In the two incidents referred to in this story, the army entered the refugee camp in order to carry out arrests. During the operation, explosive devices were thrown at the force and violent disturbances ensued. The force responded by employing riot-dispersal measures, including the firing of Rugers. A preliminary investigation showed no unusual behavior by the force, but this will be examined further.”

The Shin Bet, meanwhile, stated in response: “Within the framework of the activities of security services officers to preserve the security of the region and protect residents from terrorist threats, they maintain ongoing daily dialogue with local residents. The claims raised in your article have been examined and found to be baseless.”