To Understand What 'To Neutralize' Means, Look at This Broken Palestinian Man

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Mohammed Ziada, who was shot by Israeli security forces, in the Beit Jala hospital.
Mohammed Ziada, this week, in the Beit Jala hospital. Still wants to be a student.Credit: Alex Levac

If you want to see what things look like from there – meaning, not in Israel – visit the cafeteria at the Beit Jala rehabilitation hospital, 15 minutes from Jerusalem. Managed by a charity organization, this Palestinian counterpart to Israel’s Beit Loewenstein is considered the West Bank’s best rehab center. Its patients include some of the victims of the events of recent weeks. They were “neutralized” by Israeli security forces but were lucky: They weren’t killed and weren’t arrested (or they were detained and then released); they were “only” wounded seriously and crippled, temporarily or for the rest of their life.

The cafeteria probably reflects the atmosphere in the territories better than any opinion survey. It is a spacious hall with three large TV screens attached to the walls, all displaying images of violence that Israelis don’t see and don’t want to see, but which Palestinians watch nonstop. The screens depict a parallel universe, one of turbulent demonstrations and brutal suppression; of funerals and wailing ambulances, all broadcast live and uninterrupted. Columns of smoke, tear gas, shooting, people wounded and killed – courtesy of Palestine Today, a television station that broadcasts from the field.

Only a very small fraction of the events broadcast here in an unedited format reach Israeli stations, which are engaged almost exclusively with the stabbing and vehicle-ramming attacks. Indeed, the parallel reality that pervades this cafeteria is unknown in Israel, which is occupied only with its own victims. Here, though, it flickers on the giant screens or is embodied in the wheelchairs, the stretchers and the beds occasionally wheeled in, carrying young people who will never walk again, or perhaps never talk again. Here, too, patients’ families spend their days staring at the violent scenes on the screens as their loved ones struggle to recover their physical abilities. And here their consciousness is forged, too: It’s hard to remain indifferent after a visit to this place.

Mohammed Ziada is about to be brought in to the cafeteria; we are waiting for him while he undergoes physiotherapy. With us is his father, Othman, who stays here day and night. For the past month, Mohammed has been half a human being, or should we say a whole human being with half a functioning head. He’s 19, from the village of Bitilu, near Ramallah.

Last year he tried to enroll in Bir Zeit University, but his grades were too low. His father decided to establish an electrical-appliances store for him in the village, where he could earn a living. But Ziada continued to contemplate the university; he wanted to study law. Othman talks about this as the television shows yet another stormy demonstration in Hebron, with thick black smoke rising in the air and soldiers trying to take control of the situation by force.

It was a similar demonstration that sealed Ziada’s fate. On that black day, October 7, Mohammed went to buy items to stock his still-unopened store, his father explains. That’s when he was caught up in the tempestuous demonstration staged by – of all people – Bir Zeit students, opposite the Beit El settlement and the adjacent DCO checkpoint. Maybe it was chance, maybe he went to demonstrate with his friends. It was a large-scale protest on a particularly violent day in the West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported afterward that 100 Palestinians were wounded in the events, 10 of them by live fire.

Othman now steers his son into the cafeteria in his wheelchair. He is a broken young man: His right hand hangs down limply, paralyzed; a big scar, now mostly covered by curly hair, slices across his head from front to back; and on the left side of his head there are signs of two holes – one entry wound, one exit wound – that have healed. His speech is slurred and somewhat slow, his mouth is drooping and slightly twisted, his memory occasionally fails. His father says that he is not able to recognize all his visitors.

At the first sight of this young, crippled man, the full implications of the harrowing term “to neutralize” – often used by the Israeli media to describe the results of actions by security forces against Palestinians, in attacks or demonstrations – become devastatingly clear. Yet even so, his condition is relatively good: Things could have ended differently, and far worse, for him.

Mohammed relates that after buying some things for his store, he was on his way back to Bir Zeit to try to sign up for a pre-university preparatory course, when he encountered the demonstration. He says he became trapped there, but we can be excused for doubting that, and thinking he went intending to join the protesters.

Suddenly, the young man goes on, four masked individuals rushed at him from the crowd. They looked like all the other demonstrators, threw stones like them and spoke Arabic among themselves. They started to hit him in an apparent attempt to subdue him and finally knocked him to the ground. He was stunned, he says, but nevertheless tried to resist. They struck him on the head with a pistol butt to neutralize him. And then, he says, while he lay on the ground, they fired one bullet into his left temple – the bullet entered from the front and exited from the back – ostensibly to finish the job of neutralizing him. The images on his cellphone show him being carried by three soldiers like a sack (“Is this how you carry someone who is wounded?” his father asks), and a moment later he is lying on the stone-strewn road next to an Israeli army jeep. Also taken into custody is another young man, Ahmed Hamad, from the village of Silwad, who, like Ziada, was wounded and detained. (Hamad is still in detention.)

After being taken to a nearby army base in the jeep, Ziada was transported in an army ambulance to Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Karem. He was unconscious on arrival, underwent surgery, and for the first five days was under arrest, his hands and feet bound to his bed. His parents, who managed to get to the hospital the next day, were not allowed to see him. He says he was questioned in his room and was hit by his interrogators when he told them he didn’t remember anything.

After five days, Ziada’s lawyer arrived at the hospital with an Israeli order for his discharge, unconditional and without bail, and his guards left. He left Hadassah the next day and was transferred to the Ramallah Government Hospital. A week later, he was moved to the rehabilitation center in Beit Jala, at whose entrance is a sculpture adorned with a prickly pear cactus and a plaque that says, in English, “Every patient is first and foremost a human being.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit made this statement to Haaretz this week: “While confronting a mass public disorder, the force provided medical care to a wounded individual present at the demonstration, and evacuated him to a hospital. The individual, Mohammed Ziada, arrived at Hadassah Medical Center on October 7, and two days later, military police began keeping watch on him. The IDF is investigating the incident, and with the conclusion of the investigation, the findings will be analyzed.”

Ziada is in room 305, on the third floor, which is accessed by people in wheelchairs, stretchers and beds via a winding ramp. The walls on the way up are painted a deep green, on which are hung photographs of a stormy sea and sailboats. There are four more patients in Ziada’s room, all of them paralyzed to one degree or another. Othman moves his son out of the wheelchair and into the bed, takes off his shoes and helps him lie down. When the rehabilitation process ends, many months down the line, he will go back to his store and try again to enroll in the university, the young man says. He then uses his left hand to shake hands – the right hand is paralyzed – and gives us a strained smile.