The boy has an exam today. He leaves home early, so he’ll have time for coffee with his friend in a nearby café. They meet there every morning on the way to school. Because of the exam, he takes only a textbook and a pen with him as he quietly slips out of the house. His father is still sleeping. It’s 7:30 A.M. in a tranquil residential neighborhood in the center of El Bireh, a town adjacent to Ramallah.
As he walks up the street toward the café, he notices a group of Border Policemen huddling at the intersection below. So as to avoid encountering them, he looks for an alternate route, and begins to run. The book slips out of his hand and he bends down to pick it up – an action that, it emerges, could have cost him his life. The troops are across the way from him.
Suddenly two Border Policemen appear on his right, ascending the steps on a path wedged between two of the street’s houses. One of them closes in on him, apparently at a run, and shoots him with a sponge-tipped metal bullet from a distance of a few meters – in the head. The boy falls, sprawling in his blood. That’s all he remembers. When he wakes up in the hospital, after a five-hour operation, he’ll learn that his life was saved by a miracle. A happy ending to a terrible story. That’s how it is on the way to school in El Bireh, or anywhere under the dark skies of the occupation.
The night before, around midnight, Palestinians had opened fire at a bus full of settlers close to the nearby settlement of Beit El. No one was hurt, but windows were shattered, and the shooters fled. The security forces immediately launched a manhunt, in which everything is permitted, of course. A Border Police unit raided El Bireh and began to confiscate the security cameras of the stores and cafés in the neighborhood where the teenager lives with his family. This was on the morning of Sunday, January 6.
The boy is Fawaz Abed; he’s 16. His father, Maher, 45, is an inspector in the El Bireh municipality, a Peruvian-born Palestinian who still has Peruvian citizenship and speaks English with a heavy Spanish accent. Maher spent much of his life in exile with his family, first in Peru and afterward in the United States, before returning to his parents’ village, after his brother, Moussa, was killed during an armed robbery in Brooklyn. His three sisters remained in Peru with their families.
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Maher was born in Ica, a desert city that lies amid dunes, 300 kilometers south of Lima. He was 16 when his family moved to Brooklyn, and they lived there for the next 12 years, running a small supermarket, until the armed robbery that sent them back home, to the serene, secure life in occupied El Bireh, where Fawaz was born.
Getting to El Bireh was again difficult and complicated this week. The District Coordination Office checkpoint north of Ramallah was still closed to traffic, as collective punishment for the recent shooting incidents in the area; at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, to Ramallah’s south, traffic was backed up for kilometers. When we finally passed through that checkpoint, we saw that the other side – for those wishing to leave the city – was closed. Black-uniformed Border Policemen stood with weapons at the ready, aiming their rifles at the endless line of cars opposite them, preventing any movement. Why this part of the checkpoint was blocked, or for how long, wasn’t clear. Hundreds of frustrated drivers, whose time and dignity are always dispensable, and especially the truck drivers, vented their anger by honking their horns in an earsplitting cacophony. The blasting of horns is apparently the only form of protest that’s allowed here. Together with the characteristic, chaotic squalor of Qalandiyah all around, like the setting of a horror film, it made for a frightening, despairing spectacle, albeit routine for Palestinians.
The incident involving Fawaz occurred on Al-Balad al-Qadimah Street, in the heart of El Bireh’s old section. The quiet there is deceptive: Within minutes, when Israel Defense Forces troops or Border Police invade, the streets can turn into a killing field.
Opposite an electrical appliances store is an an animal pen that holds two goats, a donkey and its foal, which are now standing at the spot from which the Border Policeman shot Fawaz in the head, and nibbling at scraps of food and plastic bags. A large bloodstain has almost completely faded from the road, in the interim.
On that Sunday morning, Fawaz had left his house on the way to Amin al-Husseini High School, to have coffee with his friend Amjad Quran, who attends a different school. At the same time, the Border Police were gathering the security cameras from the stores and cafés down the street. While they did that, a few boys were throwing stones at them and drawing tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets in return.
According to the investigation conducted by Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the police engaged in a shouting match with Fawaz. Hadad thinks this was probably to distract Fawaz while two members of the unit approached, took him by surprise from the right and shot him.
Why was he shot? It’s still not clear. Maher thinks his son aroused their suspicion when he tried to run away. Fawaz’s grandmother, Therwa says they shot him because he’s tall. It was hard to find more persuasive explanations for the shooting, this week.
Fawaz denies that he was involved in stone throwing. His father backs him up: “He never throws stones. What for? I raised my children not to do things like that.” According to Hadad, from B’Tselem, the street was quiet before the incident. Why did the Border Police shoot Fawaz in the head from just a few meters away, when they could have at least aimed for his legs, if they had to shoot him? Why shoot an unarmed high-schooler at all from short range, at a distance from which sponge-tipped bullets are lethal? For this, there is of course no justification.
According to Hadad, Fawaz fell to the ground, lost consciousness and was bleeding from the head, a pool of blood forming around him. All he remembers now is that he felt that he was losing air and choking. He collapsed, falling onto his back, and can’t remember anything else. Amjad, his friend, distraught, ran home, just a few meters from the site of the incident, and tried to summon help. His grandmother, Hilala, his mother, Ola, and his sister Mazuza all ran into the street, screaming. An enraged Ola yelled at the Border Policemen: “You are murderers, look what you did, why did you shoot? What did he do?” The troops aimed their rifles threateningly at the women to get them to back off.
Hadad estimates that Fawaz lay on the street, bleeding, for five to 10 minutes before help was summoned. In the meantime, members of the Border Police kicked him and stepped on his arm, or perhaps only turned over his body with their feet to check his condition. When the teen arrived at the hospital, one eye was swollen. His hand was still bruised this week and he had difficulty moving it.
Asked for comment, the Israel Police made the following statement to Haaretz: “An investigation of the incident presents a very different picture, one that does not match your claims. The suspect was part of a group of rioters that were disturbing public order in the area: He threw stones at the soldiers and was wounded by a sponge-tipped metal bullet – an accepted method for dispersing disturbances – shot from a distance of approximately 50 meters. Contrary to your claim, when the soldiers realized that he had been wounded, they asked a passing driver to evacuate him for treatment, and to call the Red Crescent ….
“It should be noted that in recent months, fighters from the Border Police and the security forces have been working to foil attacks and arrest terrorists In the Ramallah area. Unfortunately, nearly all of their activity is met by violent disturbances, in which hundreds of locals take part, throwing incendiary devices, burning tires, and throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers. The rioter in this case was one of these. The Border Police will continue to act with determination against every threat and violent demonstration, on behalf of the security of the citizens of Israel.”
The police spokesman did not respond to what is the perhaps the most important question: Why did the force shoot Fawaz Abed in the head?
The troops meanwhile pulled out, leaving the wounded boy on the road. The women who had gone out to the street called a Palestinian ambulance, and when it was slow in arriving, a neighbor took Fawaz and rushed him to the local Red Crescent clinic. After getting first aid there, he was taken by ambulance to the Government Hospital in Ramallah.
The physicians found that he had a fractured skull and hemorrhaging within his brain, and thus rushed him into surgery. Maher, who arrived at the hospital in a state of agitation, was told that his son’s life was in danger. “You wouldn’t want to see Fawaz in the condition I saw him,” he tells us now. “Lying in bed, covered in blood, eyes open, a breathing tube in his mouth – and not moving.” The doctors promised to do all they could to save him.
A program in Arabic is blaring in the background on the Cartoon Network. This Palestinian-Peruvian family is very sociable. The father speaks Spanish and English; the mother is an El Bireh native. They have two daughters and three sons. Fawaz has never been to Peru.
Fawaz regained consciousness quickly after the surgery. His recovery was amazingly rapid and he was back home in a week. The physicians call it a miracle, and that’s the feeling at home, too. He’s walking around with his head bandaged, and covered by a red hood. Still, he finds it hard to sit with us – within a few minutes he returns to his room. Maher says his son is incapable of focusing on anything, and even when he uses Skype, he stops after a few minutes and complains of headaches. He’ll have to wait a month before returning to school, the doctors say. In the meantime, his teachers and friends visit constantly, and the teachers have promised that he won’t lose the year.
“We lived together for so many years,” says the grandmother, referring to Israelis and Palestinians. “What’s happened?” The question hang in the air.