He has given long, hard thought to the two soldiers who stood above him, preventing his family from coming to his aid, as he lay on a gravel path, a bullet lodged in his spine, feeling the blood spreading in his gut and paralysis seizing him. "Get up! Get up!" one of the soldiers screamed at him, but he couldn't. A few minutes earlier one of them had shot him, maybe the blond with the stubble, maybe the black-haired one, he had no idea.
One bullet fired from short range, 20 or 30 meters, from the direction of the two soldiers who appeared opposite him, walking down the street. The bullet slashed into his shoulder and entered his spinal cord, where it shattered and caused internal havoc. He was standing next to his house and calling to the children of the village to go home, so they wouldn't be hurt by the tear gas the soldiers were firing. One bullet that changed his life in an instant: Issa Suf will be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. That was on May 15, 2001, Naqba (catastrophe) day, corresponding to the date of Israel's establishment in 1948.
Two months ago, on May 15 this year, the third anniversary of the incident, he decided to write an open letter to the two anonymous soldiers. "I remember you," he begins. "I remember your faces." Now he has decided to make it public.
Suf, 39, is a peace activist who is well-known among Israeli left-wing circles. Wared, his son of three and a half, clings to him. The boy was born shortly before the incident and never saw his father standing upright on his legs. A few months ago, Faissa, his wife, became pregnant by artificial insemination - because of his dissability - and the couple are now awaiting the birth of twins. They live in Khares, the village opposite the city-settlement of Ariel. Most of the village's land was expropriated to establish the settlement of Revava, the industrial zones of Barkan and Ariel West, and now the fence, if it's built here, is threatening the remaining land.
Khares is also a place that has known more than its share of abuse by settlers. Since Sharon's ascension to power, Suf says, the settlers rely on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to abuse the population and have stopped their raids. The village of 3,000, with its many olive trees and its comparatively handsome homes, has lost four inhabitants in the current intifada, two of them children. Settlers and soldiers uprooted 2,000 olive trees from the village lands, the youngest of which were 50 years old. "For the elders, the trees are like children. When the intifada started, our village was burning. There are many settlements in the area and our village has the luck to be on main roads that serve the settlements, so maybe that's why they have something special in their head for our village."
Suf studied journalism in Nablus and then graduated from a physical education teachers college in Jordan. He worked as a phys-ed teacher in Jericho. He educated his students in nonviolence, he says. He is haunted by the story about the prophet Ali, who was spat upon by a Jew and unsheathed his sword but decided nevertheless to let the Jew be. "In the first year of the intifada we started to look for a method or a way to resist, try to stop it [the mounting attacks on people and property]. We don't believe in armed struggle. Human beings are holy, all human beings, God gave and only God can take. We started, Nawaf - my older brother - and I, to strengthen the ties with the Israelis who believe in peace and in our rights to the land. We had good ties with Neta Golan, with Ta'ayush [a Jewish-Arab cooperation group], with Physicians for Human Rights and with End the Occupation. We expanded and also made contact with people abroad who are calling for peace.
"A month before I was wounded, a jeep stopped and a soldier threw a tear gas grenade that struck the house. Our homes are filled with children and pregnant women. Two days before I was wounded, my brothers went over to [another] jeep and told the soldiers: `We have women and children in the house, so why are you throwing teargas? We aren't throwing stones, we don't have weapons, we aren't a danger to anyone.'"
On the morning of the incident, a friend from a carpentry shop below on the road called and said "the army was getting closer and we should make sure that the children and women go inside. My son was a month and a half old, and I told my wife not to go outside. I closed the door behind me and shouted to everyone to go inside. I managed to tell all the women to collect the children and I got as far as father's house, up here. Suddenly I heard tak-tak, automatic weapons fire. I fell to the ground. Why? Who? How? At that moment I didn't know anything. Two minutes went by and I saw two soldiers above me next to my head. `Get up! Get up!' I tried but I couldn't. I said to the soldier, `You have killed me and you are telling me to get up?'
"My voice grew weaker. The soldiers stayed above my head for 20 minutes. They didn't let anyone approach. My mother and father and brothers tried, but they didn't let them. The soldiers threw stun grenades at them and fired in the air. I felt like I was going to die. I said to the soldier, `Be humane, let the people help me, I'm going to die.'"
When he woke up, in the hospital, he heard the doctor say that he might be paralyzed for life. "Those were the first words I heard. According to the x-rays, they told me that a dum-dum bullet has exploded in my spinal cord, at the sixth disk. It was a dum-dum and it caused damage to the spine.
"They couldn't treat the wound at Rafidiya Hospital and my brothers saw to it that I went abroad. The closest to us is Jordan. I was there three months for an operation and the whole family followed me there. They removed two parts of the bullet, but more than ten fragments remained, which the doctor said it would be best to leave there. We came back from Jordan. I am telling this very quickly, but to live it is something else. And the family will live it. Above all, the family. It lived it minute by minute."
When he got home he discovered that "they changed around the whole house for me. They changed the doors, the toilets, the kitchen. I accepted it all. I didn't ask why it happened and why it had to be me, as other people ask. I started my new life, without any anger.
"But I wasn't rehabilitated the right way. My three brothers were next to me all day and all night, to move me from the bed to the chair, from the chair to the toilet. A hard life. We started to look for rehabilitation centers to help me, so my life would be easier. I had an English friend who lived in the village and whose wife was paralyzed, and he looked after her. He gave me the address of Stoke Mandeville in England - he said it was the oldest such institution in the world and the best experts were there. We did the documents and got visas and flew there. An Israeli girl, Miri, from Physicians for Human Rights, helped me. Finally we got there, my brother and I, and we stayed a month and a half. It cost a lot of money. A huge amount. I got good rehabilitation and my life started to be easier, and now I can take care of myself. In another month I have to go to the hospital twice for check-ups."
His ties with the Israelis continued. "Not only did they continue, they were strengthened. My feelings didn't change. I don't feel hatred for anyone. Only for the politicians who drag us, the ordinary people on both sides, into becoming victims of their power struggles and their interests. The Israelis visit me all the time. We have a great many Israeli friends. They sleep at our place and eat from our plates with us. We don't hate Jews and Israelis. If there is anger, it is for the method of the government, which is causing all this suffering.
"The soldier who fired is also a victim. I believe that he is a victim. I pity him. He is more of a victim than I am. I was a victim once, he is a victim ten times. It's not easy to live your whole life with the feeling that you have killed someone. It's not easy at all. Once I was driving my car and I ran over a cat. I didn't live for a whole week after that. The picture of the cat being killed under the wheels of the car keeps going through my head. If it happens to a human being and not to a cat, I don't think the person who did the killing will continue his life. How will he behave with his wife and his children and his friends? I don't know.
"To be strong is desirable for everyone. The problem is how to use your strength. If I am stronger, that doesn't mean I can conquer others, kill others for no reason, take away their rights, only because I am strong.
"I think about the soldier all the time. Not for revenge. I think he is unfortunate. A victim like me, if not more. I wrote him because I hope that one day we might be able to meet and I will be able to change something for him. To clean his head. To purify his heart. I hope that I will move all the soldiers who killed Palestinians to our side. That I can take them from the side of crime and hate to the side of beauty and peace.
"There are 3,000 Palestinians who were killed. On the Israeli side there are 3,000 soldiers who killed. So the army becomes an army of murderers and criminals. Not now but in a few years, that will turn the Israel society into something that is not good. Now, see, we are looking at the occupation - it is a terrible thing. For us it is death. Truly, death. It takes your lands, your rights, your humanity, your psychology, it wants to rub us out, as they say on the street. I can't travel on the roads, I can't enter the cities, and if I go to the hospital without authorization, then look out. Once a soldier made me stay in the sun for five hours in the wheelchair at the Hawara checkpoint. I told him, `This chair is my authorization. I am paralyzed.' The truth is that I had authorization but it had expired. Occupation is the real thing."
On this year's Naqba Day, the national and the private, Issa Suf wrote a letter to the soldiers who shot him (the original is in Arabic):
"I remember you. I remember your confused face when you stood above my head and wouldn't let people come to my aid. I remember how my voice grew weaker, when I said to you: `Be humane and let my parents help me.' I keep all those pictures in my head. How I lay on the ground, trying to get up but unable. How I fought my shortness of breath, which was caused by the blood that was collecting in my lungs, and the voice that was weakened because my diaphragm was hurt. I won't hide from you that despite this, I had pity for them. I felt that I was strong, because I had powers I didn't know about before.
"That was exactly three years ago. I rushed out of the house in order to distance the village children from the danger of the teargas. They were used to playing their simple games on the dusty streets of the village while the pregnant women watched over them and chatted. I didn't believe that your weapons contained live bullets or dum-dum bullets, which are prohibited under international law. I was able to protect the children and get them away from your fire, and I don't regret that.
"I pity you for having become murderers. Since I was a boy, I have hated killing, hated weapons and hated the color red, just as I hate injustice and fight against it. That is how I have understood life since I was a boy, and that, in the same spirit, is what I have taught others. I gave all my strength for the sake of peace and justice and for reducing the suffering that is caused by injustice, whatever its origin. Yes, I pitied you, because you are sick. Sick with hate and loathing, sick with causing injustice, sick with egoism, with the death of the conscience and the allure of power. Recovery and rehabilitation from those illnesses, just as from paralysis, is very long, but possible. I pitied you, I pitied your children and your wives and I ask myself how they can live with you when you are murderers. I pitied you for having shed your humanity and your values and the precepts of your religion and even your military laws, which forbid breaking into homes and beating civilians, because that undermines the soldier's morale, his strength and his manhood.
"I pitied you for saying that you are the victims of the Nazis of yesterday, and I don't understand how yesterday's victim can become today's criminal. That worries me in connection with today's victim - my people are those victims - and I am afraid that they too will become tomorrow's criminals. I pity you for having fallen victim to a culture that understands life as though it is based on killing, destruction, sowing fear and terror, and lording it over others. Despite all that, I believe that there is a chance for atonement and forgiveness and a possibility that you will restore to yourselves something of your lost humanity and morality. You can recover from the illnesses of hatred and the lust for revenge, and if we should meet one day, even in my house, you can be certain that you won't find me holding an explosive belt or concealing a knife in my pocket or in the wheels of my chair. But you will find someone who will help you get back what you lost.
"You will find a soft and delicate infant here, whose age is the same as the second in which you pulled the trigger and who will never see his father standing on his feet but who is full of pride and power, even if he has to push his father's chair, having no other choice. Even though I have reasons to hate you, I don't feel that way and I have no regrets.
May 15, 2004, the third anniversary of my being wounded
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