The Justice Ministry department that investigates allegations of police misconduct will not be probing the shooting of Abdel-Afo Bassam and his injury: even though it happened in the heart of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound; even though the young Jerusalemite was clearly taking pictures; even though police shot him twice; even though he was one of five Palestinian photographers who were shot by the police at the holy site that day, Friday May 7. About a dozen more photographers were attacked by police officers in other places in Jerusalem that day.
This column opts to cover the routine, the unsensational, the repetitious, what has been forgotten in the heat of the more dramatic events. And in Israel, what is less newsworthy than shooting a Palestinian who is taking pictures.
Bassam, 28, a freelance photographer who lives in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, arrived at the Al-Aqsa plaza at about 6 P.M. that Friday. “The atmosphere was quiet and pleasant, families came from everywhere. From the north, from Jerusalem and from the West Bank,” he told me two days later. The war that erupted the next day disrupted my original plan to write about the targeting and wounding of photographers.
“I took pictures during the meal,” Bassam said. “Afterward I approached Bab al-Silsila [Chain Gate, one of the gates of what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Al-Haram al-Sharif]. I saw it was terribly tense there, and people had gathered to see what was happening. But people were still offering food to one another. At about 8:10 P.M. I heard the first stun grenade explode in the plaza. The police assembled at Bab al-Silsila, as though planning to burst in. I think young men threw empty plastic bottles at them, maybe tomatoes, to try to prevent the break-in. I don’t think there were any stones,” Bassam related.
“You would expect that if the police attributed crimes to a few people, they wouldn’t attack the entire plaza, with tens of thousands of people on it, including women and children, right? But they did attack. The call to prayer began about half an hour after the first stun grenade. And even before, and until the nighttime prayer, the Waqf [Islamic religious trust] members cried out over loudspeakers, begged the police not to break in and asked people to show restraint.
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“I was surprised by the stun grenades the police threw at the plaza, and the large forces that broke in. Aggressively, while shooting rubber-tipped metal bullets – just like that, in all directions – at people. I photographed the first to be wounded – he was wearing a red shirt, lying on the floor. A few seconds later I was hit in my right arm. Look, the mark on my arm is still there, round like the bullet. I fell, and young men carried me to the clinic.
“There were only two of us, the guy with the red shirt and me. And then, within 10 minutes or less, there was no room in the clinic. At least 20 injured people were inside. Some had head wounds. I remember seeing a boy, three or four old men and a woman who were treated. I was still a little dizzy. The medics put ice on the place where I was hit. I preferred to leave, to make room for those with worse injuries than mine. I stood outside and didn’t believe that what was happening was happening. Every centimeter was dangerous.
“The clashes continued, I looked for a somewhat safe place. But the shooting continued, there wasn’t a minute without someone or several people wounded. The medics worked nonstop. I photographed people fleeing toward the Dome of the Rock (which is usually designated for women and children). There were another four or five photographers next to me, and I saw the police aiming guns at us.
“A soldier who fired at me was about 50 meters from me. I was with my camera, facing him, somehow I turned my head the moment he pulled the trigger and was hit under my right shoulder blade, in the back. This time it was deliberate shooting, not random.” After the pain did not subside, Bassam was examined and found to have a broken rib.
“If I hadn’t turned around, he would have hit me in a more sensitive place. I heard from the Red Crescent teams that three people lost eyes from the shooting that day. The large number of wounded (205) is no coincidence.
“I fell again, and they took me back to the clinic. The pain was worse than the first time, and the clinic was more crowded than before. It took about 10 minutes until the medics had time for me. Again they put ice on the injury and went to take care of others: several who were wounded by shrapnel from stun grenades, and were bleeding.
“I saw a boy who had been hit in the chest by a bullet, and he was bleeding from the mouth. I couldn’t leave, because there was shooting all the time. This time I stayed for about half an hour. I went out and couldn’t take pictures. I was surprised to discover that the plaza was empty, only police officers everywhere, running like lunatics, and all the exit gates from the plaza were closed, so the remaining worshippers couldn’t leave. The police locked the doors of the eastern [main] mosque with chains.
“I entered the Dome of the Rock, like other men who went in to find shelter. People blocked the doors so the police wouldn’t burst in. But the police threw stun grenades at the doors, and a policeman shouted and demanded that everyone come out. I was next to the door, I heard a member of the Waqf police say to a policeman: ‘Give me five minutes and they’ll come out.’ The policeman said: ‘One minute.’ That really scared the people, women started to shout, others sat and read the Koran and cried. I stayed there all night, awake, I said the dawn prayer and returned home, very tired.”