Gideon Levy

Israeli Police Turn East Jerusalem Hospital Into Battlefield Amid Hunt for Dying Palestinian

A 'barbaric' Israeli police raid on Makassed Hospital could have ended in a massacre, director says

Palestinian men carry the body of Mohammed Abu Ghannam, who was shot dead during clashes with Israeli forces, during his funeral in the A-Tur area of east Jerusalem, on July 21, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Through the window of his office, Dr. Rafiq Husseini has a view of the courtyard of the hospital he directs, the stone wall that surrounds it and the pine grove on the other side. The wall is still speckled with bloodstains, now turned brown.

This is the blood of Mohammed Abu Ghannam, 22, who was shot and killed by Israeli security forces during the rioting over the Temple Mount last Friday. Why is his blood smeared on the wall? Because friends of the dead young man rushed to smuggle his body out of the hospital, just minutes after he died in the corridor, to elude the unbelievable hunt for the cadaver conducted by the Border Police and the Jerusalem District’s men in blue.

The body, wrapped in a bloodstained sheet, swayed from side to side as the group ran with it and passed it over the wall, which is several meters high. For a moment it seemed that the body was about to slide out from under the sheet, but in the end it reached the other side safely. From there it was carried to a nearby monastery and then, swiftly, was transported in a private car to the cemetery of the A-Tur neighborhood – “our village,” as residents call it – on the Mount of Olives. On the way, the car carrying the body was stopped by police at an intersection, but it was permitted to proceed on condition that no more than seven people be present at the burial.

In the end, hundreds defied the police to accompany accompanied Abu Ghannam on his final journey, though the funeral was conducted hastily and not in accordance with the tradition of first going to the home of the deceased and then to the mosque – all because of the policy of pandering in human bodies that’s being pursued by Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, hero of the Temple Mount disturbances.

But that was not enough for the Jerusalem police. On Sunday, officers arrested Hassan Abu Ghannam, 47, the bereaved father, for reasons that remain unclear. The next day, the police returned to the mourning tent set up in the youth’s memory and tore down all the photographs of him. They threatened to levy a fine for each additional photo hung and also to dismantle the tent. Thus shall it be done.

But in Dr. Husseini’s office in East Jerusalem’s Makassed Hospital, not far away, a semblance of tranquility prevails. At 65, he’s a man of snow-white hair and otherwise distinguished appearance, who studied microbiology and health-care management. He has on his computer footage taken by the security cameras last Friday, documenting minute by minute what transpired in the corridors of the hospital he runs.

At 1:30 P.M., the hospital began readying to receive individuals injured in demonstrations in East Jerusalem. By the end of the day, 120 people with wounds of varying severity would pass through the Makassed ER. At midweek only five were still hospitalized, two of them in intensive care. Most of the injured wanted to get first aid and leave immediately, to avoid possible arrest by policemen, who they feared would arrive at any moment. For the most part, the wounds were caused by rubber-coated bullets fired from short range – possibly a new version of this type of ammunition, as the damage it caused was more severe than what Husseini says he has seen in the past.

The police had already raided the hospital on Monday last week, to arrest Ala Abu Taya, a 17-year-old who’d been badly wounded in an incident in Silwan. He was in serious condition; three police officers were assigned to guard his room in the ICU. They left on Wednesday, but since then policemen have been coming occasionally to check his status. They just show up and enter the unit.

But what happened on Friday is something else again. Husseini arrived at his office, on what should have been his day of rest, at about 3:30 P.M., when it was clear that dozens had already been wounded. Upon his arrival he was told that Border Police troops were present and making their way to the operating rooms. Three were in the one Husseini entered – their very presence a violation of the rules of operating-theater hygiene. They were looking for Mohammed Abu Ghannam. He wasn’t there, so the police ordered Husseini to take them to the morgue – without saying whom they were after, Husseini says now. Earlier, noticing a nurse wearing bloodstained surgical gloves, the policemen asked whose blood it was, but it turned out to belong to a different patient who had undergone surgery.

As he left the operating suite, Husseini saw dozens more Border Police personnel in the corridors. He estimates their number at about 50, though the hospital security guards we spoke with later think there were even more. In any event, the force moved in the direction of the morgue. On the way they passed the blood bank, where they told the dozens of people who were waiting to give blood to leave the premises immediately. The video footage shows one donor departing with a needle still stuck on his arm. “It turned into a madhouse,” Hussein recalls.

Fortunately, a force of regular members of the Israel Police, led by two senior officers, also arrived at the hospital. Thanks to them, a major disaster was averted, the hospital director says. In the atmosphere that prevailed, and with dozens of Border Police striding through the corridors like they owned the place, he said he saw disaster looming. After he spoke with the civilian officers, they ordered the Border Police to leave the hospital. On their way out, the latter threw stun grenades and tear-gas grenades at the crowd that had gathered in the courtyard. The metal covering of the wall at the entrance clearly shows the impact of two rubber-coated bullets that struck it. A male nurse was knocked to the ground by Border Policemen, suffering light injuries; the video shows the troops pushing him over.

“It was a very grave situation – I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Husseini. In 2015, a police force invaded the hospital in an attempt to confiscate a detainee’s medical file, and also behaved liked lords and masters, but he says it was nothing like this.

“They were vicious,” Husseini says of those who perpetrated last Friday’s raid. “I think they lost control and it could have led to a massacre. We never had a Border Police raid. They were always police in blue or in black. The Border Police have no respect for the civilian population. What were they looking for? Weapons? Armed terrorists? The police could have come to me and said that there was a wounded person [they were seeking], and asked me about his condition in a civilized way, and not entered the operating rooms with their contaminated boots. Something like this would never happen at Hadassah Hospital.”

Mohammed Abu Ghannam, a computer science student at Bir Zeit University and the object of the search, was in the ER in critical condition at the time. He had been hit in the chest and neck by two live rounds at the entrance to A-Tur, where he was participating in the violent demonstration that took place there that day, after returning from prayers at the entrance to the Temple Mount.

An attempt was made to take the patient to an operating room, but police stopped the staff and friends who were pushing his gurney there. Abu Ghannam can be seen in the video footage, hooked up to an I.V., his bed bloodied. Footage from the hospital’s security cameras also shows armed Border Police advancing in the corridors as a young female photographer in a helmet and jeans documents the events, apparently on behalf of the police. Every so often they throw people aside. A sea of helmets at the reception desk, a sea of helmets at the blood bank. Suddenly the bed on which Abu Ghannam is lying can be seen opposite the police – it’s not clear whether he was alive or dead at that point – and then there’s a huge melee and the bed disappears from the frame.

After the force left, a large quantity of blood remained on the floor, where the bed of the living-dead Abu Ganem passed. There's part of a green hospital uniform too, along with an employee badge.

“It was a barbaric attack,” Husseini repeats. “Many people could have been wounded here.”

The guard at the hospital’s entrance, Rabia Sayed, who photographed everything with his cellular phone, adds, “What were they looking for? A dead man. What were they going to do with him? They killed him and also wanted to take him? Why? Halas. He’s dead. A cadaver. This is a hospital.”

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Israel Police – which includes the Border Police – told Haaretz: “During violent disturbances in East Jerusalem last weekend, the police received a report that a person wounded by gunfire had been taken to Makassed Hospital. The police who went to the hospital to clarify the circumstances of the event and the truthfulness of the report encountered violent disturbances that included stone-throwing from the premises. The police entered the hospital in order to locate the person wounded by gunfire, and when the hospital director was asked, he misled the police and said the wounded person had left the place.

“Mohammed Ghannam’s father was arrested by the police on suspicion of threatening to commit an act of terror. He was taken for questioning at the police [station] and the court afterward remanded him, emphasizing that these were serious statements.

“The Israel Police will continue to act with determination, in all places and at all times, against everyone who disturbs the public order and tries to harm police officers or innocent civilians, all in the name of the security of the citizens of the State of Israel.”

A few minutes’ drive from the hospital, in the heart of A-Tur, a group of men are mourning their dead son, relative and friend under tarpaulins stretched over the courtyard of the family home. The rage and frustration here are boundless; some of the remarks made against the police who tried to snatch the body and against those who tore the pictures off the wall in the mourning tent are unfit to print.

A mourning tent set up for Mohammed Abu Ghannam in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of A-Tur.
Alex Levac

An uncle of the deceased, Izhak Abu Ghannam, says he saw Mohammed not long before he was shot, as they young man was returning from Friday prayers outside the Temple Mount. He maintains that the Border Police, by invading the hospital as they did, prevented his nephew from receiving medical treatment, and may have been responsible for his death.

Some of the young people in the tent are the same ones who rescued Mohammed’s body from the Border Police’s kidnapping attempt. They all speak Hebrew.

Hassan, the bereaved father, is still under arrest and no one knows where he is. He was rousted from his bed at 4 A.M. on Sunday morning. He’d already been called a few times over the weekend by the police and the Shin Bet security service, who threatened that if he didn’t ensure that the village remained quiet, he would be arrested.

“We have goats here in the village that know how to behave better with people than your policemen and soldiers,” says Uncle Izhak.