A tall young man enters the café with hesitant step, his arm supported by the friend who guides him. Folded cane in his hand, he sits down at the table. Taysir Sandukeh is blind. Not from birth, not from an illness, not as the result of a sudden event. He lost his eyes on two separate occasions, though both as a result of the violence on the part of the occupation authorities.
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This young Palestinian from East Jerusalem, who never ran afoul of the law, lost his right eye when he was clubbed at age 12, and his left eye when he was struck by a “black-tipped sponge bullet” two and a half years ago – ostensibly light wounds inflicted by ostensibly nonlethal weapons, which ruined his life and that of his family. With his right eye he sees black stains; with his left eye, nothing.
Sandukeh was born 33 years ago in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat. After the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) was closed to Muslim worshipers in the wake of disturbances in September 1996, young people from Shoafat protested by going to the Musrara neighborhood – just across from the Old City – to pray. A mounted policeman charged the demonstrators and beat Sandukeh on the head and in the face with a club. The boy fell to the ground, writhing in excruciating pain.
After recovering his senses, he realized that his head had become swollen and that his right eye was moving uncontrollably from side to side. He rushed home, where his mother, frightened rushed him to the St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital in the eastern part of the city.
Sandukeh underwent corrective surgery to repair what was diagnosed as a retinal tear, but during the operation it emerged that the retina had become detached. A few weeks later, he underwent another operation, in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, but it too failed to save his vision in that eye.
Despite his disability, Sandukeh went on to study cooking at a local college, started to work in Jerusalem restaurants and got a driver’s license.
For about 12 years he worked in his profession – at Jerusalem’s Focaccia Bar, the Anashim restaurant in the city’s Ein Karem neighborhood, a banquet hall in Tzur Hadassah outside Jerusalem, Hotel Novotel in Jerusalem and the Spring Onion café in Eilat. “The left eye was 20/20,” he explained in fluent Hebrew, when we met earlier this week. In the meantime, he married a woman from the Old City; they have two children: Amir, who’s 8, and Adam, 3. Despite Sandukeh’s (relatively minor) handicap, life was good to him.
In the summer of 2014, while between jobs, he worked for a few months on a project with his brother, an electrical contractor, as a foreman. At the time, they were doing work in Tel Aviv schools. On Friday, July 4, 2014, they were on their way home from Tel Aviv.
That was the day of the tempestuous funeral of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, an Arab teenager who was burned alive by Jews in the Jerusalem Forest. Driving toward Shoafat, where the funeral was being held, Sandukeh and his brother discovered that all approach roads were closed. The two decided to park in French Hill, a Jewish neighborhood, and walk home. Border Policemen tried to block their entry into Shoafat even on foot, but let them pass when they told them that they lived there. They had proceeded a few dozen meters when they saw the funeral procession advancing toward them. Behind them was a huge, gathering force of Border Policemen; in front, a large mass of mourners. The men were caught in the middle.
Sandukeh’s brother suggested they cross the road and use a circuitous route. Before crossing, Sandukeh turned to glance at the policemen, a few dozen meters away. That was the last image he saw: mourners and the heavily armed Border Police. He would never see anything again.
Sandukeh felt a powerful blow in his one good eye. He crumpled to the ground and blacked out, regaining consciousness in the ambulance taking him to Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. Hussam Abed, who was at the time employed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and is currently a field researcher for the B’Tselem Israeli human rights organization, carried him to the ambulance. There were already three other wounded people in the vehicle.
Once at the hospital, the physician who removed the bandage from his eye recoiled, appalled at the sight. “Your eye is exploding,” he told Sandukeh, and had him transferred to the St. John Eye Hospital. When it became clear the staff there could do nothing for him, they sent him to Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem.
Before being taken into surgery, a physician asked him to sign a form. Sandukeh, who could not see anything, asked what he was signing. “We might have to remove the eye,” he was told.
“But it’s the only one I can see with,” Sandukeh protested.
Following a seven-hour operation, he awoke to a permanent state of blindness. He was hospitalized for about a month, undergoing various procedures including a cornea transplant, in a final effort to save his vision – but in vain. “I felt that I couldn’t take anymore, that my life was finished. I was in a very bad mental state. I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself,” he recalls now.
Five months later, his wife left him, taking their two children; their marriage had not withstood the crisis and they got divorced.
“With the first eye, I said alright, and for 18 years I got along,” Sandukeh says. “But for someone who’s seen life to go blind? Everything fell apart: my home, family, life. My son Adam was a baby at the time – once I stepped on him when he was crawling on the floor, and another time I fell on him.”
Sandukeh’s world collapsed. He received help from the Jerusalem branch of the Social Affairs Ministry’s Multi-Service Center for the Blind, where the staff taught him how to get around with a cane. At first he fell a lot and suffered bruises, but gradually he became skilled at getting around. An observant Muslim, he will not avail himself of a seeing-eye dog, since dogs are considered to be impure animals.
He subsequently remarried, to a woman from Beit Hanina, a neighborhood north of Shoafat; they are now expecting a child. He meets with his two sons when they sleep over on Thursday nights.
“I bring my children over but don’t see them,” he says. “I don’t see how they are growing up. What I miss most is seeing the children.”
As a resident of Jerusalem, Sandukeh receives a disability allowance from Israel’s National Insurance Institute – he is classified as 100 percent disabled. But with the alimony payments and the rent, the NII allowance of 6,000 shekels ($1,640) is not enough to make ends meet. He needs another source of income.
For a month Sandukeh worked in a Jerusalem plant that accepts disabled workers, closing electrical boxes with plastic covers. But he couldn’t cope. About a week ago, he got a job with another rehabilitative workplace, Avi and Ofer Catering Services – they make sandwiches for institutions – in the Atarot industrial zone north of the city. Thus he also returned in a way to his profession. He works six to eight hours a day for 13 shekels ($3.55) an hour. He hopes to stick this job out, but it’s tough, says Sandukeh, despite the good treatment he receives. He goes to work alone via two buses.
At home, he sinks into depressing thoughts about the way things used to be and about his current predicament. Most of his friends gradually abandoned him after the injury. Only a few remain, including the affable young man with the ponytail and cap, who accompanied him to our meeting: Fayez Abu Ramila, a photography student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Rolling up his pants a bit, Abu Ramila reveals a scar from a rubber-coated bullet that struck him two days after Sandukeh lost his second eye.
“It doesn’t end when the soldier or Border Policeman stops shooting,” Abed, from B’Tselem, says. “Whole families are destroyed and entire lives, too. Behind every shooting is a family tragedy. Think about the emotions generated among the children of those who are wounded, think of all the rage that accumulates.”
Since being wounded in 2014, Sandukeh has been trying to obtain compensation from the state through the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. The process is still in its early stages; it’s long and exhausting, almost hopeless. A special report published by B’Tselem this week shows how Israel has been negligent in its duty to compensate Palestinians for damage done to them by the security forces since the second intifada. In fact, the compensation suits have stopped almost completely, because there is so little chance of being awarded anything.
In regard to Sandukeh, it turned out that the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police officers closed his case on the grounds that the Border Police were not using sponge bullets at the time. But about a month after Sandukeh was shot, 16-year-old Mohammed Sunuqrut was killed when a sponge bullet hit him in the head. In his case, too, the ministry unit ruled that the Border Policeman who fired the shot would not face trial. A 2016 report by ACRI shows that 30 or so Palestinians were shot with sponge-tipped bullets in the two years leading up to the report, half of them minors and 14 of whom lost an eye. But as far as is known, Sandukeh is the only one to have lost both eyes.
Last year, the photographer and activist Tali Mayer mounted an exhibition of portraits of victims of sponge bullets, including Sandukeh. (Two days before Sandukeh was shot, Mayer was struck by a sponge bullet in the jaw while photographing the disturbances in Shoafat.)
“I never took part in any action against the state,” says Sandukeh, his face bespeaking infinite sadness. “I was on the way home from work. Why? What did I do? I know three people who have lost an eye from rubber and sponge bullets fired by police. But they had two eyes.”