Injured in the Fault Line

Halil Bashir's land and home was requisitioned and his greenhouses destroyed. Then his 15-year-old son was shot in the back.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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The Israel Defense Forces spokesman at the Southern Command, who is very punctilious when he reports on Palestinian shooting in the Gaza Strip, did not report this firing incident that injured Yusuf Bashir, 15, of Dir al-Balah. On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 18, at approximately 2:30 P.M., a United Nations vehicle bearing three UN personnel approached the home of the Bashir family. As part of their routine work, the UN people wanted to confirm reports that on February 3, the IDF had confiscated some of the family's land in order to expand the security fence that surrounds the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom (in addition to lands belonging to other families in the area that were confiscated for the same purpose).

About three years ago the Bashir home in eastern Dir al-Balah had already been requisition as an IDF military post. As reported here ("This Mortal Coil," Week's End, February 13), during the first months following the outbreak of the bloody hostilities the house stood in the path between Israeli and Palestinian gunfire. The family refused to leave the house and denied the army's claims that shots had been fired from within the house. As a result, the two (as yet uninhabited) upper stories of the house were requisitioned.

On the roof, camouflage netting, rolls of barbed wire and cameras were installed. Soldiers go up and down a folding ladder and sometimes enter the first floor and carry out searches there. The members of the Bashir family - the elderly, widowed mother, her son Halil, who is a school principal, his wife Souad and their five children - sleep in one inner room on the first floor. Other rooms are too dangerous: Their windows face to the southeast, straight into the military base and positions that protect Kfar Darom. On a number of occasions they were hit by bullets, as well as by an IDF artillery shell (which is now stored in a bucket, along with its fragments, in the room that was hit).

The IDF demolished the family's greenhouses to the west of the house and uprooted most of its date palms. For three years now the members of the family have been forbidden to move around outside the house and are allowed only to go into the yard on the northwestern side. An IDF guard position is stuck onto the yard, on the eastern side, at a distance of 20 meters from the wall of the house (in which part of an artillery shell is still embedded).

Thirty meters to the east is the wall that surrounds Kfar Darom. In this barrier there are barbed wire fences, a dividing path, another guard position of reinforced concrete - all in an area that Palestinians are forbidden to approach. Along its length are abandoned, pock-marked houses and a UN school that is as porous as Swiss cheese. The only people who dare visit the family under these conditions are journalists, human rights activists and UN people.

When the UN team got out of their vehicle on February 18, Halil Bashir asked them to wait until he informed the soldiers in the nearby observation-guard position. This position is located on a hillock and the soldiers peer through the slits on the position that are located about one meter above head-height.

`We waited by the car," related one of the three, "and then we were told that the soldiers were asking to speak to us. We approached the observation post and I explained that we had come to talk to Halil Bashir and his family. We understood that they had doubts about our identity and we explained that we are UN representatives stationed in Gaza, but we were not able to show our documents - the distance between us and the soldiers did not permit this. We were surprised to hear that we had to coordinate our visit to the house with the army, as in the past we had not been required to do this.

"The soldiers agreed that we could talk to the family - but only in the yard, and they asked us to coordinate visits in the future. We sat and talked, and after about 20 minutes the soldiers shouted something to the family members and announced that we had to leave. We began to say goodbye and we walked towards the car, which was parked on the path that leads to the house. This was at about 3:00 in the afternoon. Halil Bashir and his son Yusuf walked us to the car. We got into the car and began to reverse out. Yusuf waved at us.

"Suddenly we heard a shot and we saw Yusuf collapse and fall. Halil Bashir tried to lift his son up. We were scared to get out of the car, so as not to get into the line of fire. We asked Halil to bring his son to the car and from there we took him to the hospital."

At the hospital it became clear that Halil had been injured in his back, on the eleventh spinal vertebra. The doctors feared he would be paralyzed and were afraid to remove the shrapnel. On Friday evening, at the end of two days of feverish coordination between the Palestinian side and Israel, Halil Bashir accompanied his son to the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.

According to Halil Bashir, two pieces of shrapnel are embedded in his son's spine. The doctors at the Israeli hospital do not yet know whether they will perform surgery to remove them. If the pain persists, it is a sign that the shrapnel are pressing on the spine and they must be removed, even if the spine is liable to be injured during the operation itself. If the pain abates, they will consider leaving them. On Sunday, Bashir moved his toes for the first time. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps he will be able to walk again, but only after a lengthy process of rehabilitation. It is still too soon to know, reported Halil Bashir in a tired voice.

"All that I'm asking," he said, "is to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen to one of my other children. My house is occupied, please. The soldiers sleep in my house, please. You demolished the greenhouses. So you demolished them. But why should you shoot at my children?

"The army came to the house twice and told my wife that the shooting was a mistake, that they were sorry. That the soldier who fired has been suspended from duty. How can I believe that this was a mistake, when the people had been sitting in my yard, when we reported their arrival to the soldiers? I don't believe it was a mistake.

"Now I am at the hospital in Tel Aviv. My children are going to school and my wife and my mother are alone in the house, with soldiers all around and above them. I left the school where I am the principal and there are 1,250 children in the school. Sooner or later I have to go back. And then, my wife will come in my stead and sit at Yusuf's bedside. And then who will be with my mother during the day? Is she going to stay alone in the house, with all the soldiers around?

"What am I going to do? We have never endangered the soldiers. They know this very well. We accept the fact that our house has been occupied and that all our land has been taken, but we want to make sure that other children will not get killed. Just don't kill."

The IDF Spokesman's Office has responded that "on February 18 an IDF officer carried out a shooting in the direction of the wheel of a vehicle that looked suspicious to him, in the area adjacent to Kfar Darom. Apparently from the shooting a youth who was in the area was injured. The officer has been suspended from his position until the investigation is completed. The IDF is continuing to investigate the circumstances of the incident."

According to the UN person who witnessed the injury of Yusuf Bashir, an Israeli liaison officer contacted him to confirm that he had indeed been at the scene at the time of the shooting. To date, he has added, the IDF has not invited him to clarify details that are essential to the investigation.