A Palestinian Removed His Glass Eye to Prove an Israeli Court He Needed Surgery. It Didn't Go Well

In urgent need of an eye operation but denied entry numerous times, Yusef Echlayl jumped the Israeli border. He got as far as the hospital when he got arrested

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Yusef Echlayl.
Yusef Echlayl.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Yusef Echlayl was born with his right eye shut and has been blind in that eye all his life. On July 6, 2015, he was arrested in his home, as his mother and younger siblings looked on, in a violent dawn raid by a large unit of the Israel Defense Forces. After he was beaten and his jaw was broken, he was taken for a particularly lengthy interrogation by the Shin Bet security service in Petah Tikva and in Ashkelon. During these sessions he was treated in a hospital for blows to his legs. Both his eyes were battered, but left untreated. For 11 days, he relates, he couldn’t see with his good eye, either. A young, bearded man in jeans, he spoke to us this week at his home in Beit Ummar, a town near Hebron, after returning from the funeral of a friend.

In a plea bargain, Echlayl was sentenced to 20 months in prison for throwing stones. After his release, he started to experience blurred vision in his good eye. Local physicians referred him to St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, in the eastern part of the city, explaining that only there would doctors be able to deal with the problem. Echlayl applied to the District Coordination and Liaison Office in Halhoul for a permit to enter Jerusalem. His request was quickly denied. As his one good eye was in danger, he decided to go to Jerusalem in secret, to save his eyesight.

He arrived at the hospital for the first time on November 26, 2018. To confirm the date, he pulls from his wallet the plastic ID bracelet he received there. The doctors asked him if he had been hit in the eyes, he says, but did not write in the medical summary that the damage to his good eye was the direct result of the battering he received in his interrogations. He underwent surgery to remove his damaged, closed eye. The physicians feared that an infection there would spread to the good eye and leave him completely blind.

After the operation, he was told to return to the hospital in six months, when his wounds healed, for a checkup and to have an artificial eye inserted. Equipped with a date for the hospital appointment, Echlayl again applied for an entry permit to Jerusalem. Again he was turned down. Over the months that followed he applied six or seven times more, only to be refused on each occasion. (By the way, it takes only about 40 minutes by car to travel from Beit Ummar to the East Jerusalem hospital .)

In the meantime, the artificial eye was sent to Hebron, where St. John Eye Hospital maintains a clinic. The eye was fitted and inserted by a physician who came especially from Jerusalem. But a few months later, Echlayl developed a pustular infection in the eye. He returned to the clinic, which again referred him to the hospital in East Jerusalem. He requested a permit once more, and the request was once more denied.

According to Echlayl, the condition of his eye deteriorated and the pus spread to his forehead, which became swollen. He needed an operation to drain the pus and was fearful for his good eye. He submitted a special request on a humanitarian basis, which was rejected.

He then decided to try to apply in person to the Gush Etzion coordination and liaison office, in an attempt to persuade those in charge of his freedom of movement. But the soldiers guarding the facility did not allow him in. He decided to sneak into Jerusalem again. He had no choice.

A month ago, on October 16, he made his way into Jerusalem via Dahariya, south of Hebron, and Be’er Sheva. He encountered no obstacles along the way. Echlayl had an appointment at the eye hospital that day; he arrived at reception desk, registered and waited his turn in the hospital’s inner courtyard. There, someone wearing dark sunglasses with a cap pulled over his forehead, asked him for a light. The man spoke good Arabic.

St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital.Credit: Saint John Eye Hospital Group

“I know you,” the man said suddenly. “From where?” Echlayl asked. “You must be mistaken.” He began to be suspicious of the stranger. To the latter’s question, Echlayl replied that he lives in Sur Baher, an East Jerusalem neighborhood. “That’s not so,” the man in the cap retorted. “You are Yusuf Echlayl and you are from Beit Ummar.”

Boom. The man whipped out a mobile radio and in an instant about 20 police officers in civilian garb showed up. Echlayl was arrested and taken to the police station at Checkpoint 300, at the entrance to Bethlehem, then sent to the detention facility in the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem. He was interrogated for eight hours and finally taken to a cell in the Ofer base near Ramallah. His interrogators asked him how he got to Jerusalem, and told him that someone had followed him from the time he had left his house in Beit Ummar.

The next day, Echlayl was taken to the military court at the Ofer base. Case No. 9500/19, Military Court of Judea, military prosecution vs. Yusuf Echlayl, the honorable Judge Lt. Col. Shlomo Katz presiding. Offense: violation of the Order Regarding the Closure of Territory, an offense under articles 318 and 333 of the Ordinance Regarding Security Orders. Echlayl tried to explain to the judge why he went to the hospital and told him that, contrary to what the prosecution said, he was not arrested on the street but in the hospital courtyard. To persuade the court of the truth of what he was saying and of the gravity of his condition, he pulled out his glass eye before the stunned gaze of the judge. The judge, he recalls now, was angry. Pus flowed from the eye socket.

The military prosecution informed the court that a plea bargain had been reached with Echlayl’s lawyer, Abir Marar, under which Echlayl would admit to the charges and the parties would ask for an agreed punishment. Judge Katz convicted the defendant, whose only wish was to save his eye, and sentenced him to 45 days in prison, suspended, and a fine of 2,000 shekels ($570).

Katz: “The parties have presented to me a plea bargain in the framework of which they ask me to impose on the defendant an agreed punishment, consisting of his days in detention as equivalent to his days in prison, all told, two days… The parties explained their request by citing the defendant’s non-relevant past, his admission of guilt and saving the court’s time.” After the fine was paid by a relative from East Jerusalem – who withdrew the money from the post office at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the only branch open at that hour – Echlayl was released to his home.

“Captain Omer,” the Shin Bet agent known to everyone from Beit Ummar, told Echlayl he was followed as soon as he left home. In any case, it’s clear that Palestinian collaborators were in the hospital courtyard and informed the Shin Bet of his arrival. Now Echlayl has a new appointment at the hospital, for November 20. Will treatment be allowed this time?