Salah Suleiman is an 11-year-old fifth-grader from Isawiyah, a Palestinian village within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. He lost one eye after a bullet was fired at him by the Israeli police, and is now in danger of losing the sight in his other eye, too, according to physicians at Hadassah University Hospital who treated him. They recommended he apply for a certificate of blindness and request transfer to a school for the blind.
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Now, some six weeks after a policeman fired a foam-tipped bullet into his face, Salah sits in the living room of his house – he hasn’t been at school since the incident – and gropes his way in the dark that has suddenly descended on his life. His face is scarred, his blinded eye is bandaged, and with his other eye, with its deteriorating vision, he can only make out shadows.
He is a tidy person, an outstanding student. Since being shot, Salah, whose parents are devoting themselves to his care, has also suffered from mental agitation and nightmares, and he is seeing a psychotherapist.
The fact that an 11-year-old boy was shot in the face by security forces made no impact in Israel and did not rattle the police. About three weeks afterward, the police shot a neighbor, Mohammad Obaid – a child of 5 – in the face with a rubber-coated bullet.
Mohammad’s uncle, who was an eyewitness to the incident, says there was no justification for the shooting. The policeman aimed his rifle from a distance of a few dozen meters straight into the face of the boy, who was standing on the street next to his house. The street itself was quiet at the time, the uncle says. Since the incident, Mohammad has been hospitalized in Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, and the fate of one of his eyes remains unclear.
The village of Isawiyah lies below the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The ivory tower looms above, on the hill, towering over the occupied village and its expanded neighborhoods below. The residents pay taxes to the Jerusalem Municipality, but there is no playground, sports field or other recreational areas in Isawiyah.
“Instead of giving our children balls to play with, Israel is shooting bullets into their eyes,” a local parent told us in the street, taking advantage of the fact that the same word in Hebrew – kadurim – means both balls and bullets. “The only game children can play here is cat and mouse with the police,” he added.
Since last summer – the burning alive of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the Israel Defense Forces war in the Gaza Strip – Isawiyah has become a battlefield. Regular policemen and Border Police, armed and armored from head to toe, are on every street corner. Their presence only heightens the tension and the violence. The “Skunk,” a crowd-control machine developed by Israel, occasionally sprays a foul-smelling liquid at and into residents’ homes, and the use of teargas has become routine.
A couple of weeks ago, villagers formed a committee of Hebrew-speaking volunteers, fo the purpose of representing residents in dealings with the municipality and also to work to protect the local children. One of them is driving around the village on a moped, a GoPro camera attached to his helmet, documenting events as they unfold. Most of the problems occur when the children, who have nowhere to go, leave school and start throwing stones at the policemen who are lurking for them at every corner.
Salah’s father, Samar, 40, was injured five years ago in a work accident in Kisalon, a Jewish moshav near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, where he was employed as a gardener. He has been disabled and unemployed since, and the family has to make do with a disability allowance from the National Insurance Institute. Samar and his wife and their four children – three sons and a daughter – live in a small, well-kept apartment.
On Thursday, November 13, Salah headed off to school, but soon came back home: The teachers were striking to protest Israel’s blockage of the village’s main road since Abu Khdeir’s murder, in the wake of demonstrations by local residents. Most of the teachers come from outside Isawiyah, and the closure of the road made it difficult for them to get to school.
The road was reopened the day Salah was shot. He was home for a few hours on that Thursday. At around noon, he and his father relate now, his mother asked him to go to the local vegetable shop and get some red peppers.
Children were throwing stones at police near the school; the principal, Khader Obeid was hit in the leg by a rubber-coated bullet. Salah walked by there on his way back home from the greengrocer, carrying the bag of peppers. Perhaps he joined the stone throwers, perhaps not.
Salah says that he was caught in the middle, between the police and the children who were throwing stones, and that he himself did not throw any. Salah saw a policeman aim his rifle at him – he says he shouted to him that he only wanted to pass by – and shoot one foam-tipped round that struck the wall behind him. After that the boy remembers nothing. A relative called his father to say that Salah had been wounded and taken to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem.
When his father arrived, Salah’s nose was bleeding badly and his face was a bloody pulp. Because of the seriousness of the injury he was taken to Hadassah, Ein Karem. Samar shows me a video of Salah in hospital on his cellular phone. It’s hard to watch. A doctor is heard diagnosing respiratory difficulties.
Salah was kept anesthetized and on a respirator for six days in the intensive care unit. The medical report mentions a “large laceration” on the left side of his face, a tear in the right eye and retinal damage to the left eye. “Patient underwent a large number of multi-professional interventions,” the report states.
Ten days after Salah was shot, the physicians treating him decided to remove his right eye, in order to try to save the vision in his left eye, as they explained it to the boy’s parents. The left eye’s vision improved at first, though it remained poor. Then came the deterioration.
On December 3, Salah’s physician, Dr. Hadas Mechoulam, a pediatric ophthalmology specialist, wrote: “The boy is complaining of nightmares and pain, and his father reports that he is having trouble sleeping Salah is now functioning as a blind person and I do not anticipate a marked improvement in the future.”
Last week, she wrote: “His vision has deteriorated even further. Blind person’s certificate has been recommended.” Such a document will enable Salah to be transferred to a special school for the blind and gives him other privileges as well.
Salah’s father relates that his son wakes up in a fright at night. One time, he says, Salah dreamed about a policeman aiming his gun at him, another time about a policeman dragging him by the feet. One night in the hospital the boy awoke in terror and told his father to call his mother immediately, because policemen were waiting for him outside their house.
Salah will need more operations, one of them to insert an artificial eye. Once a week his father takes him to a psychologist at Hadassah’s trauma center; this week his mother went as well. “We are undergoing a catastrophe,” Samar says. “It is so hard. He was an outstanding student and a good boy.”
At first, the school principal sent five children to visit Salah every day, but the visits tapered off, and today Salah remains solitary and sightless. On December 3, the vision in his remaining eye was diagnosed at 6/150, and three weeks later it was 6/180. Samar has hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit for compensation against the state.
We go to the home of Mohammad Obeid, the 5-year-old. IThe Israeli taxi that’s parked nearby belongs to the boy’s uncle, whose name is also Mohammad Obeid. He says he saw policeman shoot his nephew. Now he tells Salah’s father that the doctors at Hadassah don’t know what will be with Mohammad’s eye.
“First they try to calm you and say it will be all right. That’s what they said about my son, too,” Samar tells the worried uncle.
The Jerusalem District police stated, in response to a query, that materials concerning these incidents have been sent for examination to the Justice Ministry’s police investigation unit.