Twilight Zone / A Burning Issue

When two shepherd boys were badly burned after finding a metallic object, the IDF sent a team to scour the area. So why did another boy find a similar object in the same place just two days later?

Eid and Mohammed find it difficult to stand up. Their wounds are very painful, they grimace. They are wearing filthy bandages, their hands and feet are wrapped and scarred, the skin of Eid's face is peeling. Eid and Mohammed Dajneh are two shepherd boys, cousins, residents of the remote village of Al Bweib in the South Hebron Hills. A poorly maintained gravel road leads to the tiny shepherds' village on the side of the desert mountainside - the Civil Administration does not permit the village to pave an access road worthy of the name - between the settlements of Pnei Hever to the north, and Carmel to the south. About 1,000 people live here with their livestock, which graze in the yellowing wheat fields of the village, between the rocky hills. Attractive stone houses, with sheep and goat pens in the yards, overlook a primeval landscape.

Eid, an eighth grader with 15 siblings, and Mohammed, a ninth grader with 10, take the family sheep and goats out to graze every day after school. That is what they did two weeks ago on a Friday, their free day. What do they want to be when they grow up? They've never been asked, they've never thought about it. They giggle in embarrassment and finally they say, in unison, "Doctors."

Mohammed, Eid Dajneh

We meet in the home of Eid's grandfather, in a guest room with ceramic tiles, with the sheep bleating in the yard below, and they recount events. At 8.00 A.M. Eid got up, took the family's 100 sheep and goats in the direction of the grazing land - about half a kilometer from the house. His little brother, Sufian, 7, accompanied him. Their Uncle Jihad had already watered the herd from the well water and sent them on their way. Next to the well they met their cousin, Mohammed, and his herd.

A few minutes later Eid noticed a shiny object glittering among the rocks. It was wrapped in aluminum foil, about 30 centimeters long. Eid thought it was a strange pen. He called Mohammed and asked him: "What's this?" And Mohammed answered: "Maybe it's a bomb, let's get out of here." But Eid's curiosity overcame him and he picked up the object and began to remove its metal covering. Thick white smoke immediately erupted from the object which exploded, licking the bodies of the two children. They began to flee in horror, but they felt the smoke was chasing them even as they fled. Their shoes melted from the heat, their clothes burned. They felt strong pains all over their bodies. Deathly afraid, they began to shout for help.

Uncle Jihad, who hadn't yet left, heard the shouts and arrived immediately. He quickly drew water from the well and poured it over their smoking bodies. Afterward he called Mohammed's father to come immediately to extricate them with his battered Subaru. The father, Yusuf, arrived on the rocky path within a few minutes, and his son told him he felt he was going to die.

"They were hysterical," the father tells us. The children jumped, shouted and trembled. Yusuf put the two children into the car and rushed to the small hospital in the town of Yata. At the hospital the doctors were unable to help immediately. They immersed the children's hands and feet in a tub of water and told the father to go to the pharmacy and buy bandages and ointment. There is no medical equipment in the hospital - it turns out the healthcare system in the West Bank has been on strike for the past three months because of salary conditions. Just like us.

Afterward the father tried to phone the Israel Police and the IDF, in order to find out what had exploded in the children's hands and to request help. By the time he found an operator in the police station who spoke Arabic and didn't hang up on him, an eternity had passed. The policewoman asked him to come with the children to the Ziv Junction, at Yata's eastern exit.

Yusuf says that large numbers from the police, IDF and Border Police arrived at the junction, including two military ambulances and sappers. They treated the children with intravenous liquids, and drew shapes of various objects and asked them to identify the object that had exploded in their hands. The children couldn't identify the object. Mohammed's father asked the army to have the children taken to a hospital in Israel, but he says the officer told him there was no such possibility and that he had to take them to the Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron. The IDF had already coordinated their arrival there in Palestinian ambulances. The father was very afraid. He says he didn't understand the meaning of the strange object and the thick smoke that erupted from it. He suspected it might be white phosphorus, and he was afraid to leave the children in a Palestinian hospital, especially one that was on strike.

The soldiers, meanwhile, went to the area where the explosion took place, where the child Sufian identified one of the soldiers' drawings as the object that had exploded. In the Al-Ahli Hospital the doctors initially refused to treat the children because of the strike, and suspected that it hadn't been caused by a bomb, but they were soon reassured after the security guard told them that they had been brought in coordination with the IDF. Once again they sent the father to buy bandages and then refused to hospitalize the children because of the industrial action. The children returned home suffering great pain from their injuries.

The following day, they returned to the hospital to get their bandages changed. Three days later the father met American doctors - who were volunteers at Al-Ahli - who said the children should undergo surgery. The next day the hospital agreed and the children were anesthetized to treat their burns and prevent infection. The next day they were released. Their grandfather says now: "My grandchildren fell between the cracks, between the prohibition against transferring them to Israel and the strike in the Hebron hospital."

Dr. Ibrahim Tameizi, who treated them in the hospital, wrote in their official release papers: "The children are suffering from first and second degree burns, as the result of an explosion of a foreign object left behind by Israeli soldiers." He stated that treatment must be continued in "a burns center with great expertise," as he put it. But just two weeks after being injured, the children are at home.

A member of Physicians for Human Rights, Samih Jabarin, visited them this week and promised to take steps to have them transferred to a hospital in Israel. He took them to a clinic in Halhul that specializes in burns and was told that there was no need for further treatment, except for bandaging the burns. The family insisted on going to the Rafadiya Hospital in Nablus this week, where they were also told there was no need for further treatment, except for the bandages.

Immediately after the incident, IDF forces went out to scour the grazing area and make sure there were no additional suspicious objects. It's enough to make you explode: On Sunday, two days after the incident and after the area was inspected, another shepherd boy, 11-year-old Louis, found a similar object, at a very short distance from the site of the first explosion. He ran to the village in alarm, and there they called the IDF and police.

Large forces spread out over the area, but there were no sappers among them and they asked the residents not to approach until the following day. On Monday sappers arrived and blew up the object in a controlled explosion. Mohammed's father says one of the officers told him: "You were very lucky. It could have killed the children and the sheep, it's a scandal that soldiers left it in the field."

An IDF spokesman told us this week: "The area was used in the past as a training ground. The boys were treated on the spot by a military medical team. Due to the fact that their injury was light, there was no need for evacuation to Israel and they were evacuated by Red Crescent. It should be noted that no request was received from the usual channels for their transfer to Israel."

The IDF assumed this week that these are old illumination flares, but the village residents are convinced they are new objects, because the children graze the herds there every day and have never seen them before.

Afterward we went out to this undeclared firing range, on the private lands of the village. A flock of colorful birds, majestic and beautiful, were gliding above the yellow grazing fields. Next to the well stood the sheep, and on both sides of the mountain - in the places where the two objects had exploded - the vestiges remained: A few soot-covered stones and a tiny patch of thorns that had burned. The child Louis, the one who found the second bomb, was once again grazing his herd there.