Gideon Levy

Israeli Army Gunfire Paralyzed This Young Palestinian, and His Entire Family

A Palestinian boy was shot in the stomach and spine on his way home from school, his family says. After eight years in and out of hospitals, his leg has been amputated.

Yakub Nassar at the Al-Fawwar refugee camp.
Alex Levac

Here’s what someone who was wounded by Israel Defense Forces gunfire looks like, eight years later: Half a person, he’s carried like a sack into the living room of his family’s meager home in Al-Fawwar refugee camp, southwest of Hebron. He sobs silently. He’s gaunt, ashen and paralyzed from the waist down. For eight years he’s been in and out of hospitals – most recently a few weeks ago, when his right leg had to be removed at the groin. Life-threatening gangrene had set in, caused by bedsores that developed from prolonged sitting in a wheelchair.

He’s from a refugee family that can’t afford the never-ending treatments and hospitalization. But his mother, Maryam, refuses to give up, fighting like a lioness for her son’s life. As he lay on the sofa in their well-kept home when we visited on Monday, head drooping, tears welling, she recounted his story – the chronicle of their ordeals – as though she herself were not one of the protagonists.

Actually, it is the soldier who shot Yakub Nassar – then 13, on his way home from school, on January 8, 2009 – who needs to hear this story and see the consequences of his action. But that’s unlikely to happen. Does he even remember the event? For him it was probably just one in a series of similar incidents.

It happened during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead. Demonstrations against the killings of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were widespread, and Al-Fawwar, in the West Bank, was no exception. On that January day, Yakub, a seventh-grader, encountered a melee of stone throwing aimed at soldiers who had entered the center of the camp. It would be the last school day of his life. One dumdum bullet fired by an IDF soldier smashed into his stomach and spine. Yakub’s life, as he knew it, came to a halt.

He was hospitalized in the intensive care ward of a Hebron hospital, but it soon became clear that the staff there could not help him. After Israel denied him access to its medical facilities – Yakub’s parents wanted him to be transferred to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem – he was sent to Ibn al-Haitham Hospital in Amman, Jordan, where he spent three months. His parents accompanied him, of course, leaving their other children behind and renting an apartment in the Jordanian capital. The physicians in Amman concluded that Yakub would never walk again.

After his return home, a number of complications developed as a result of infections. Over the years, the teenager spent time in various West Bank hospitals – Al-Ahali, Alia, Yatta and Beit Jala; every few months, a different problem and a different hospital. He would spend a month or two there, followed by a week at home, in a relentless cycle over the years. It’s doubtful that he received proper treatment. Certainly there was no proper rehabilitation.

About a year ago, Yakub started to suffer from bedsores, which became increasingly more acute and painful. His mother took him to the hospital in Yatta, adjacent to Hebron, but was told that they could do nothing for him. The physicians warned her, though, that his condition was liable to deteriorate rapidly and that his life was in danger.

Maryam went to the offices of the Health Ministry in Ramallah and told the staff in no uncertain terms that she would not leave until an institution was found to treat her dying son. Without connections in the Palestinian Authority, it’s very difficult to get help, she says now. Finally the PA agreed to fund treatment for Yakub in the rehabilitative hospital in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.

In the meantime, his condition worsened. He started to bleed (from his mouth and elsewhere), but beyond giving him multiple blood transfusions, the Beit Jala staff was at a loss. Yakub’s right leg became blackened and bloated. His life was in immediate danger. Maryam was told that her son’s only chance lay in Israel, where the hospitals have more experienced doctors and better equipment. It would take her three weeks to collect all the authorizations needed to transfer Yakub to an Israeli hospital. At first she was told that he was denied entry on security grounds. Then there was no room for him in Hadassah hospital’s Ein Karem campus. Finally Yakub was admitted to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he spent three months prior to being released last week.

The family looked after him at Ichilov. One brother – he has five brothers and three sisters – quit his job to be by Yakub's side; his parents came on a rotating basis. Every trip to Tel Aviv cost them hundreds of shekels; the trips to the Hebron hospital cost 150 shekels (about $38). Each occasion entails carrying Yakub down a steep alley in the refugee camp from his home to an ambulance.

His father, Fayek, who worked for some 25 years as a gardener for the Jerusalem Municipality, is still recovering from complications in the wake of heart bypass surgery. Yakub’s older brother, Ahmed, has been incarcerated in Israel for the past 18 months while awaiting trial on charges of throwing stones and a Molotov cocktail. The main burden is borne by Yakub’s mother.

According to Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and himself a former resident of Al-Fawwar, Yakub was a mischievous, extremely active boy until his injury; the whole camp knew him. Now Abu Hashhash gives Yakub a kiss, and the young man weeps bitter tears.

His condition improved during his first month in Ichilov, but then new complications set in. The only way to save Yakub’s life, he and his mother were told, was to amputate his leg. Though Yakub was already paralyzed in both legs, the news shattered him. Until then, he says now, he was at least able to crawl on the floor. Now he no longer can do even that. His one-and-only dream – to stand on his feet one day – was crushed for all time, he tells us now, the tears streaming.

Yakub was discharged but his amputated leg remained in the hospital. His mother says she doesn’t have the money to bring the limb back in an ambulance for burial, as she would wish.

An old, broken-down wheelchair the family received as a donation stands at the entrance to their house. It moves in fits and starts but somehow carries Yakub out for fresh air when a friend comes to visit, and they go down the alley together. But the wheelchair is wobbly and unsafe.

Maryam says that since returning home Yakub hasn’t been able to sleep at night because of the pain he feels in the ghost leg. He also eats very little.

“We are so tired,” she says. “It is not only Yakub who has become paralyzed from the bullet that hit him. Our whole family has been paralyzed completely for the past eight years.” No one has spoken with them yet about rehabilitation or a prosthetic leg. Maybe during their next visit to Ichilov at the end of the month, Maryam adds, in despair.

Their family hired a lawyer (Mazen Qupty, from Jerusalem) to file suit against Israel for the harm done to a boy who, they say, encountered demonstrations on his way home from school, and for the family’s immense medical expenses over the years. At great expense, they obtained and submitted documentation attesting to his medical condition, but the suit was rejected out of hand by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, on the grounds that the event occurred within the context of a war. “What war?” Maryam asks. “He was a boy.”

Half a year after Yakub was wounded, he was summoned to the Etzion interrogation facility on suspicion of stone throwing. His mother waited outside. Hearing the interrogator shouting at her son, she burst into the room and was peremptorily thrown out. No charges were brought against him.

She is occupied with her economic distress; her son, with his physical condition. This week the house was connected to the internet, so Yakub can surf the web. The PA pays them a disability allowance of 1,400 shekels (currently $386) a month, which more or less covers the cost of two visits to Ichilov.

Now Yakub drapes his head and face with a large purple hood; his mother covers him with a woolen blanket. He speaks very little, and not a trace of a smile crossed his lips during the hours we spent in his house. His drooping head, feeble body and, above all, his face, say it all. He’s 21 now, but still looks like a boy, like he was then, when the soldier shot him.