Palestinian Teenagers Bashar and Yousef Join a Grim Statistic: Shot by Israeli Forces

787 West Bank Palestinians, including 155 minors, were wounded last year by either sponge-tipped or live bullets fired by soldiers and the Border Police. Bashar lost an eye, Yousef has skull fractures. Both will require long convalescences

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Bashar Hamad, who lost an eye to a projectile shot by the Border Police, Qalyandiah refugee camp, West Bank, December 2020.
Bashar Hamad, who lost an eye to a projectile shot by the Border Police, Qalyandiah refugee camp, West Bank, December 2020.Credit: Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Bashar Hamad, 16, of the Qalandiyah refugee camp and Yousef Taha, 17, of Kafr Qaddum don’t know each other. But they form part of the unseen statistic of Palestinians shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last year.

Of the total, 632 were wounded by sponge- or rubber-tipped metal bullets, including 127 minors, while 155 were wounded by live fire, including 28 minors. And that’s on top of the 1,513 who were suffocated by tear gas and needed treatment on the spot or at a clinic, among them 195 minors.

The two teens have something else in common: The soldiers’ bullets hit them in the head. Bashar lost his right eye and was given a temporary prosthetic eye covered by a bandage; he’s now waiting to get his permanent prosthetic eye – maybe in Jordan, maybe in Israel. Yousef suffers from skull fractures, incessant headaches and a loss of balance.

Both can expect a long convalescence and rehabilitation. Neither can yet return to school. Neither talks about his injury – Bashar because he’s sick of talking about it, Yousef because he can’t remember anything about that day.

Each was just a hairsbreadth from joining the statistics of those killed by Israeli fire in 2020 – 25 people in the West Bank, including seven minors.

The view from the courtyard of the Taha family home in Kafr Qaddum is full of round hills, orchards and courtyards adorned with plants. The Hamad family home in Qalandiyah has a lemon tree at the entrance and a few plants, but when you look up, all you see are the dense concrete buildings of the refugee camp.

The Tahas’ home is at the northeastern, higher end of the village. It’s reached by a road whose northern exit was blocked 17 years ago for the benefit of a new neighborhood of the settlement of Kedumim.

Now it’s strewn with the remains of burned tires, thrown rocks and amateur barricades, as well as the tear gas canisters and stun grenades that soldiers fire every Friday at village residents, who have been protesting since 2011 over their right to travel on the only direct road to Nablus and work in their groves.

The Hamads’ home is at the eastern edge of Qalandiyah. Beyond it lies a hilly open area that is barred to Palestinians. Part of it has been taken over by the settlements of Psagot and Kokhav Yaakov.

Bashar Hamad is tall for his age, and despite the sparse mustache, his face retains the expression of a child still discovering the world. But now it’s mixed with exhaustion and pain from his wounds.

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli forces during a protest against Jewish settlements, in Kafr Qaddum, October 2, 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

He and his older brother attend the Al-Umma high school in the nearby town of A-Ram. As they do every day, they were returning from school at about 1:45 P.M. on November 17. They got off the minibus at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, which divides the road out of Ramallah into two. One branch curves to the east, while the other passes through the checkpoint and is open only to cars with Israeli license plates.

This is one of the busiest hours on this not very wide street, which is lined on both sides by stores, workshops, pharmacies, lawyers’ offices, clinics, garages and improvised kiosks. Parts of it have no sidewalks; in other parts, the sidewalks are so narrow that pedestrians, including many children, walk among the cars and food stands.

But someone in the Israel Police saw fit to send a large team from the Border Police to this spot at that specific hour.

Bashar and his brother saw the police and their vehicles leaving the checkpoint. “I assumed they were raiding some place, but I didn’t know which one,” Bashar told Iyad Haddad, a field researcher for rights group B’Tselem, five days later.

A police spokesman told Haaretz that “during enforcement operations at Kafr Aqab, Border Police forces and Jerusalem municipality inspectors seized 40 boxes of firecrackers and 250 boxes of illegally owned cigarettes, confiscated two cars with the wrong license plates and issued eight traffic tickets.”

Though north of the separation barrier, the narrow, crowded, battered main road down which the brothers walked on their way home is officially within Jerusalem’s municipal borders. Jerusalem’s jurisdiction also covers the entrance to the refugee camp and the first row of houses on each side of the road, as well as Kafr Aqab and Samiramis – two Palestinian villages that have become urban jungles of tall, crowded apartment buildings.

Bashar and his brother entered the refugee camp. Bashar noticed that several policemen had entered some of the buildings at the entrance to the camp, including an UNRWA clinic, the office of the Popular Committee (a kind of volunteer local council) and a children’s-activity center. He also saw a tear gas grenade launcher mounted on one of the two police patrol cars.

Mohammed Hamad, left, and his son Bashar after the younger Hamad lost an eye in an encounter with the Border Police, Qalandiyah refugee camp, West Bank, December 2020.Credit: Amira Hass

According to the police, “During the operation, disturbances of the peace broke out involving about 100 rioters, who threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces .... Border Police fighters responded to the rioters, who endangered their lives, by firing riot dispersal weapons, in accordance with the regulations. There was no use of live fire.”

Moreover, they said, one member of the Border Police was “wounded in the head and taken to the hospital with severe abrasions on his face.”

‘As if my eye had left its socket’

Bashar remembers the stun grenades and tear gas fired by the Border Police as he entered the camp. “People began running away, and shop owners closed up,” he told Haddad of B’Tselem.

Then, he said, teens and young men from the camp began confronting the police. They piled up tin and other scrap metal on the road to block access to the camp and threw stones. He didn’t mention any Molotov cocktails in his detailed account to B’Tselem.

He estimated that about 30 members of the Border Police faced off with around 100 Palestinians, most of them between 15 and 17.

Bashar and his brother were caught between two groups of Border Police who had deployed at different locations. The stun grenades, tear gas, sponge-tipped bullets and rubber-coated metal bullets prevented the boys from continuing on their way home.

At around 2:30 P.M., Bashar’s brother ran toward a nearby school, while Bashar hid on the street corner next to the big mosque. Suddenly, he saw some kind of ammunition flying at him. A steel bullet? One tipped with rubber or sponge? Maybe a tear gas canister? He doesn’t know.

All he remembers is that this hard object hit the ground; then he felt something hit his eye and something explode inside it. He believes the shooter was one of the policemen deployed on rooftops at the entrance to the camp.

“I immediately felt as if my eye had left its socket,” he told B’Tselem with impressive clarity. “I put my hand on my wounded eye and felt how the blood was flowing. I began screaming, ‘I’ve been hit, I’ve been hit.’ I wanted to get away, but after walking a few steps, I couldn’t see anymore. I lost my balance and fell down.”

People rushed to his aid and sought a car to take him to the hospital. The main road was basically blocked because drivers and passengers had fled the cars swathed in clouds of tear gas, fearing they would be hurt by the stun grenades, tear gas or bullets.

Israeli soldiers hold their weapons during a Palestinian protest against Jewish settlements, in Kafr Qaddum, the West Bank, November 13, 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

A man Bashar didn’t know volunteered to take him in his car. Bashar sat beside him, his eye bleeding, trying to mop up the blood with the tissues that were in the car.

“I was confused and frightened,” he told Haddad. “The guy who drove me kept trying to calm me down, telling me, ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid; we’ll soon be at the hospital.’”

The driver went through back alleys but eventually hit a dead end in the north of the refugee camp. So he and Bashar left the car and walked about 20 meters on foot, Bashar pressing on his bleeding eye with a wad of tissues. The driver found another car that took Bashar through the alleys of Kafr Aqab until they met an ambulance, which took him to the main hospital in Ramallah.

By then, someone had told his father about his wound, and Mohammed Hamad raced to the hospital. After a series of tests, the hospital said it didn’t have a unit specializing in eye injuries, so it sent the Hamads to an eye clinic in downtown El Bireh nearby. Due to the severity of the injury, that clinic sent them to a private hospital north of Ramallah, which also turned out not to have an ophthalmology ward.

“Just imagine it,” Mohammed Hamad said. “Only at 10 P.M. did we finally get to a place that could treat him – the hospital at An-Najah University in Nablus. He went into surgery at about 10:30.

“The doctors told me, ‘Even if there’s a 1 percent chance of saving his eye, we’ll try.’ But about half an hour after they began the operation, under general anesthesia, the doctor came out, apologized and asked me to sign off on permission to remove the eye.”

That is how young Bashar joined the 46 other Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) who, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have suffered eye injuries or lost their sight due to shooting by soldiers and police since 2008.

The Hamad family is originally from the village of Saris west of Jerusalem. Mohammed Hamad was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his activity in Fatah. Like all loyalists of the organization and its former leader Yasser Arafat, he was certain they would achieve independence and peace.

Now his hopes have shrunk to his daily concerns for the safety of his children. “Bashar is one of those quiet children who study,” he said. “He’d play a bit of soccer and then come home. I was released from prison in the mid-’90s, during a kinder time, and I hoped my children would also be able to live in such a time.

“I’ve never seen Saris, but I’m a Sarisian,” he added. “They expelled us from there. Now, in Qalandiyah as well, they don’t let us live in peace, with all their raids.”

‘I still don’t remember’

Yousef Taha of Kafr Qaddum was hit in the back on November 27, apparently by a rubber-coated steel bullet. The force of the impact made him fall on his face. Fractures were later found both around his eye and in the back of his skull.

A neighbor saw him leaving an unfinished building. Apparently, he had wanted to watch from there as soldiers clashed with a handful of teens and young men from the village who were still daring to come to the place where the blocked road passes through the orchards, to which access is also blocked. The building is a few dozen meters from the site of the confrontation.

As Yousef reached the stairwell, the neighbor heard a shot and saw him fall. He looked up the hill and saw seven soldiers around 15 meters from the building.

He ran toward Yousef and called an ambulance. Once Yousef was inside it, he also called the boy’s father, Abd al-Fatah, who rushed to the Rafidia Hospital in Nablus in another car.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit said a group of rioters had been burning tires and throwing stones there. “The force at the scene used crowd control weapons to disperse the rioters and ensure the safety of residents of the area,” it added. “We are aware of the claims about a wounded Palestinian.”

Because Kafr Qaddum’s direct road to Nablus is blocked, the ambulance, instead of driving due east, took the wounded boy west along a road that winds through the orchards. It then turned south to the village of Hajjah, went from there to the village of Al-Funduq and finally turned east toward Nablus. So instead of taking around 15 minutes, the trip to Nablus took about 40.

When Yousef’s father arrived at Rafidia Hospital, he found his son oscillating between consciousness and unconsciousness.

“One day I woke up and found myself in the hospital,” Yousef said in a faint voice. “I didn’t remember anything about what happened, and I still don’t remember.” Despite his internal bleeding, the doctors opted not to operate, choosing instead to let the fractures heal.

Throughout my conversation with his father about two weeks ago, Yousef was lying in the living room under a floral-patterned blanket. He didn’t speak much but listened with interest, sometimes glancing at his phone.

When he reads, he closes his right eye, which was injured in the fall. Yes, it hurts, a lot, he admitted. He takes pain relievers “moderately, so as not to get addicted,” his father said. He preferred that his son not be photographed in this condition.

Altogether, 214 residents of Kafr Qaddum have been wounded by IDF fire this year, including 36 minors. Of these, 139 suffered damage from tear gas and needed medical treatment on the spot or at a clinic, 65 were hit by rubber-coated metal bullets and five by live fire. Another was hurt by a tear gas canister that hit him directly. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which collects data about all the wounded, said its statistics don’t include the number of people traumatized by the violence they experienced.

Abd al-Fatah Taha went to Amman to finish high school immediately after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. He then trained to become a pilot in Morocco and joined the PLO. Later, he became a civilian pilot, and he returned with Arafat in 1994, serving as one of the eight airmen who piloted Arafat’s helicopter until the second intifada erupted in 2000.

“My children ask me why I came back, saying it would surely be better abroad,” he said. “And I tell them I always dreamed of returning, and I even was willing to live in a cave on our own plot of land, which we leased to shepherds.”

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