Gideon Levy

A Palestinian Boy Loses a Leg to IDF Gunfire, and His Parents Are Barred From His Bedside

During his 25 days in the hospital, Mahmoud Salah, 14, was also under detention: His father couldn't see him, and for half the time, his mother was allotted 30 minutes daily

Mahmoud Salah, 14, back home, after nearly a month under armed guard in the hospital, following the loss of a leg.
Alex Levac

He’s sleeping on the living-room sofa. It’s early afternoon. His parents explain that he returned from his hydrotherapy treatment exhausted. His face is buried in the sofa, one leg lies on the armrest, while the stump of his leg, amputated below the knee, rest on the cushion. The crutches are on the floor.

It’s hard to wake him up, almost impossible. He has a trendy haircut, he’s wearing a hip T-shirt, and on the foot of his one good leg, which is thin, he’s wearing a fashionable sneaker. This teen is immersed deep in a siesta.

Trauma still grips the members of this household in the town of Al-Khader near Bethlehem – the shooting, the wound, the amputation and the boy’s 25 days in hospital under detention, without his father and with soldiers who kept his mother from his bedside for half of that period. Twice they even asked the police to throw her out of the hospital.

A boy loses a leg after being shot by soldiers, and his parents aren’t allowed to be with him. His father, a construction worker with a long-term entry permit to enter Israel and stay overnight, was nonetheless considered a security risk and was prevented from seeing his son. At the hospital, the soldiers let his mother into his room for half an hour a day during the most difficult period, medically, of his hospitalization-detention.

Amazingly, when the boy was released from hospital, the soldiers left and the detention of the dangerous terrorist also ended. The military court at Ofer Prison let him out on bail of 1,000 shekels ($283). His mother says that all her 57 years don’t match the 25 days of torment she spent outside her son’s room in the children’s ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, without being able to look after him properly.

Mahmoud Salah, 14, is in the 9th grade. His older brother Ahmed, 36, is the father of a baby and his wife is pregnant. Ahmed has been in Ofer Prison since April but no one knows why.

The family lives in a nice apartment in Al-Khader, the separation wall looming on the nearby hill. The father, Hussein, who is 60, worked in Israel until the incident. On the day his son was shot, he was working in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv. His wife, Aisha, is a homemaker.

They have two sons and four daughters, two of whom, Amira and Amina, flew in from abroad after their little brother was shot, detained and then discharged from the hospital. Amira lives in Saudi Arabia, Amina in the United States. The granddaughter, Jori, who arrived with her mother from Saudi Arabia, is watching a cartoon on her mother’s phone, very loudly.

May 21. Ramadan. Mahmoud woke up late, in the afternoon. After the iftar meal ending the fast day, he showered and went out. It was about 9 P.M. Half an hour later, two boys his age showed up at the house, frightened and distraught, to tell Mahmoud’s mother that he had been wounded.

Aisha was home with her 13-year-old daughter Ala. Her husband was sleeping over in Petah Tikva at the construction site where he worked. Arwa, the fourth daughter, who lives nearby, said afterward she had heard shooting from the direction of the wall but took no notice. No one imagined that Mahmoud had been shot.

Mahmoud Salah.
Alex Levac

When talking to us, Aisha is wearing a traditional black dress and a scarlet hijab. On that day in May, when told that her son had been wounded, she put on the hijab and rushed out to look for him. She ran toward the separation wall, which is visible from the window of their home on the hillside, but neighbors told her that access was blocked because of the incident. An eyewitness told her that the soldiers had already moved her son to the other, Israeli, side of the wall.

A Red Crescent paramedic who saw her offered to escort her. The road was closed to traffic. The Red Crescent ambulance tried to reach the wounded boy. The paramedic suggested that Aisha wait by the side of the road; this might make it easier to get the soldiers to release the boy. But the paramedic soon returned to tell her that he hadn’t been allowed to reach her son. He had no idea what his condition was.

Aisha returned home and read on Facebook that Mahmoud had been taken to a hospital in Jerusalem, Hadassah or Shaare Zedek. In the meantime, the apartment filled up with people. Hussein, the father, set out from the Petah Tikva construction site and finally arrived at 4 A.M. Aisha, deeply distressed, didn’t sleep at all, worried about her son. Early in the morning she hurried to the offices of the Red Cross and to the Palestinian Prisoners Club in Bethlehem, to try to find out where Mahmoud was. At first, no one knew, but finally she was told that he was at Shaare Zedek. Aisha set out for Jerusalem.

She got to the hospital and looked for Mahmoud, first in the emergency room, where she went from bed to bed in search of someone who spoke Arabic and could help her. But then her daughter Arwa called to say that a lawyer from the Prisoners Club was already at the boy’s bedside on the seventh floor, in the children’s intensive care unit. A doctor and a hospital social worker accompanied her and explained that her son’s leg was in danger, but everything was being done to save it. She says she didn’t hear a thing, she only wanted to see Mahmoud. Aisha tells all this in considerable detail, as if the details changed anything.

Two soldiers stood guard over Mahmoud, who was in an induced coma, and only after the hospital staff intervened was his mother even permitted to see him. At the sight of her son – unconscious, tubes sticking out of his body, his bandaged leg suspended in the air – she screamed hysterically. The soldiers refused to let her take his picture so she could send it to his father and sisters, but she did so secretly and sent the images on to Al-Khader, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The soldiers later also prevented her from having Mahmoud talk to his father by phone.

In the following days, his mother was allowed into his room only for brief stays. At first he was still in an induced coma. On the fourth day of his hospitalization, Aisha was told that there was no longer any chance to save the leg. The bullet had damaged most of the blood vessels in his leg; the surgeons’ bypass efforts had failed.

Aisha signed a consent form for the amputation of Mahmoud’s leg, from below the knee. Throughout his hospitalization, she was alone at Shaare Zedek – Hussein’s request to join her was rejected despite his advanced age and permanent-entry permit to Israel. The father had become a security risk – maybe he’d try to avenge his son’s shooting while the boy was still in intensive care at an Israeli hospital. Standard policy.

She sat by herself next to the operating room the same way she sat by herself next to his room, reading verses from the Koran and praying for him. After emerging from surgery, Mahmoud was in a daze and wasn’t aware he had become an amputee. Four days later, he was operated on again, and only then did he discover, while groping with his hand, that he didn’t have a leg.

He started to shout, Aisha says, to tear at his hair and punch and pinch himself. He was angry at his mother for keeping the news of the amputation from him. “Where’s my leg?” he shouted over and over. “Where’s my leg?”

Four days later, he was transferred to a regular ward, where Aisha was allowed to stay by his side and help with his care. The soldiers never left his bedside. Twice they demanded to see an entry permit – which she didn’t have – and called the police. She explained to the officers that she had entered Israel legally; at her age, she doesn’t require a permit. The hospital staff stood by her side and insisted to the soldiers that it was important for the mother to be with her son.

She spent 12 days in the waiting room and 13 days in her son’s room, sleeping on an armchair next to his bed. On Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, she was alone in the foreign hospital. Whenever she had to leave the room, Mahmoud shouted, “Don’t leave me.”

When his physical – as opposed to mental – condition improved, an interrogator, probably from the Shin Bet security service, arrived to question him. On the 21st day of his hospitalization, in his absence, the military court at Ofer met to discuss whether to extend his detention.

We’re talking about a 14-year-old boy who lost a leg. The army suspected that he had thrown a firebomb over the wall onto the adjacent road. He said he was playing soccer with his friends that evening and that he had approached the wall to retrieve the ball.

While Mahmoud was undergoing his third operation, Arwa phoned Aisha to tell her that the court was releasing him on bail. Two more days went by while they raised the bail money, the soldiers left, and Mahmoud was discharged from the hospital in a police van. Aisha asked the officers to drop them off at Checkpoint 300 at the entrance to Bethlehem, which is near their home, but they insisted on taking them to the distant Qalandiyah checkpoint. There was great joy at home. The sisters from abroad arrived a few days after their brother came back.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit made the following statement to Haaretz this week: “On the evening of May 21, 2019, IDF soldiers identified suspects who intended to throw firebombs toward Highway 60, next to the village of Al-Khader, which is located in the Etzion District. The soldiers acted in accordance with the rules of engagement, and wounded one of the suspects, who was about to throw a firebomb toward the road. The suspect was arrested, received medical treatment from the soldiers and was evacuated for further medical treatment shortly after.

“The remand of the suspect, who was represented by a lawyer, was extended several times by the military court, which determined that there was evidence linking the suspect to the allegations against him. On June 13, 2019, with the approval of the sides, and considering his medical condition, the suspect was released on bail.”

Mahmoud now has therapy every two days and is waiting to find an organization that will help him obtain a prosthetic leg; for its fitting he might have to go abroad. When he wakes up from his afternoon nap on the sofa and sees two Israelis in the living room, he’s astonished and doesn’t utter a sound.