Price of Protest: Rubber Bullet Lands Palestinian Boy in Vegetative State

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Fares Bayed in the hospital in Ramallah.
Fares Bayed in the hospital in Ramallah. Credit: Alex Levac

Tubes are stuck into his mouth and other parts of his body, which rises and falls at the behest of the mechanical ventilator on which his life now depends. Ashen face, a dead gaze fixed on the ceiling. He’s in a vegetative state and his chances of survival are poor. Mortal damage to his brain. He’s a boy of 15 and this is the intensive care unit on the second floor of the Government Hospital in Ramallah. There’s lots of hustle and bustle in the crowded yard outside and in the corridors: injured people, sick patients, family members and legions of armed Palestinian policemen.

Fares Bayed, the critically wounded teen, is alone. No one sits by his bedside nonstop; afternoon visiting hours begin at 4 P.M., which is when we arrived on Monday. The waiting room outside the ICU is packed with dozens of relatives of patients, among them Ziad, the father of Fares, a 44-year-old day laborer. For the past month, he and his wife, Ayman, have been sitting there day and night, taking turns, not far from their dying son’s room.

Shock is written all over Ziad’s face; he doesn’t know what happened to his son, what exactly transpired a month ago, on Oct. 15, at the entrance to the Jalazun refugee camp, near Ramallah, where the family lives. He didn’t ask the other children who were nearby at the time of the incident, but he’s positive that Israel Defense Forces soldiers should not have shot Fares in the head.

“They could have shot him in the arm, the leg, but why the head? They wanted to kill him. They shot to kill,” says Ziad.

Eyes bleary, unshaven for days, wearing tattered shoes and two faded shirts, one on top of the other, Ziad Bayed is sitting and waiting for God to redeem his son. The doctors have told him that all that’s left is to pray. A rubber-coated metal bullet shattered his brain. Children from Fares’ class occasionally visit, but in diminished numbers now, and less frequently.

The entrance to Jalazun is a short drive from the hospital. Garbage is piled up on the other side of the road, and opposite the camp looms the large settlement of Beit El, which sprang up in the refugee camp’s backyard. The settlement and the camp are separated by the road to Ramallah and by a small valley where olive trees grow.

At the edge of the valley, opposite Beit El’s watchtower and fence, are two schools run by the United Nations refugee agency, UNRWA, one for boys and one for girls. The area between the schools and the mega-settlement is dotted with numberless black stains, the remains of burnt tires. Demonstrations and disturbances are routine here: the children of Jalazun versus Beit El’s residents and the soldiers who protect them. There are also quite a few children’s shoes strewn about – some of which may belong to kids who ran for their lives to escape the soldiers. A Palestinian flag hangs from one of the olive trees.

As we watch, a group of soldiers emerges from the area near the armored guard tower in the settlement and heads for the road. Two children try to provoke them with shouts from a distance. Thirteen-year-old M. and his 9-year-old friend A. left school this morning to taunt the soldiers and maybe to throw stones at them. They are both from destitute homes; one has lost his father. Their appearance bespeaks neglect; their faces are covered with sores, M.’s clothes are wet though it’s not clear from what. Occasionally, they tell us, the two earn a few shekels by helping a greengrocer who sets up shop on the main road to load or unload his fruit and vegetables.

These are the children of the resistance here.

October 15 was a day of demonstrations and disturbances here. In a hall within the refugee camp a memorial ceremony was being held for Ahmed Sharqa, a 15-year-old who had been killed exactly a year beforehand, at the start of this wave of resistance, next to the neighboring city of El Bireh. The remarks by the boy’s teacher at the ceremony apparently roiled the children. A few dozen of them crossed the road and advanced toward the area of the burnt tires opposite the settlement. A year after their friend Ahmed’s death, they were out to vent their range on the soldiers across the way.

There were between 40 and 50 youngsters, most of them aged 14 to 16, and a few of them a bit older. The memorial service had taken place at 4 P.M., by now it was almost 5 o’clock. The young demonstrators started to shout at the soldiers guarding Beit El, trying to provoke them to come out; the gate of the settlement was about 300-400 meters away. As soldiers began to emerge, the Palestinian youths started to throw stones at them, but the teens were too far away to do any damage. A group of settlers stood behind the fence, watching the spectacle.

After about another quarter of an hour, some eight or 10 soldiers suddenly swooped down close to the stone throwers, taking them by surprise by coming through a drainage ditch. The soldiers threw stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets. One of the boys hurled an improvised firebomb, made of fuel and sand, at the soldiers. He was shot and lightly wounded by a rubber-coated bullet.

These details are contained in a report drawn up by Iad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, based on testimonies that he collected. According to Hadad, two IDF soldiers outflanked the demonstrators from the north. After two more improvised firebombs were thrown – to no effect – the soldiers began to use live fire. A 23-year-old Palestinian was wounded lightly by shrapnel. No soldiers were injured.

The troops advanced and the children retreated in the direction of the refugee camp. The soldiers had a clear-cut strategic advantage, inasmuch as they positioned themselves atop a huge mound of gravel at the entrance to Jalazun, from which they could fire at the demonstrators on the slope below. The youths withdrew toward the camp. In this situation, and with the means at their disposal, they could not pose a threat to the troops.

A group of five or six teens found themselves surrounded by soldiers. One was Fares Bayed, who had celebrated his 15th birthday the day before. According to testimonies, he was holding two improvised firebombs, which were not lit. Hadad says he is sure Fares could not have harmed the soldiers, who were anyway at a distance of 30 to 40 meters from the youth, as the crow flies. One soldier – it’s not clear where exactly he was standing – fired a rubber-coated bullet that struck Fares in the head. At that distance, such projectiles can be lethal.

A private car evacuated the wounded Fares, but the soldiers went on shooting and his evacuation took place under fire. From the car he was transferred to a Palestinian ambulance that was waiting close by, as is always the case when such clashes erupt. The ambulance took him to the Ramallah hospital, where we are now. The medical report states that the youth was admitted with a bullet lodged in his brain. The bullet entered in front, above his forehead, and stopped at the back of the skull, not before causing bleeding and other damage throughout the brain. He underwent surgery, which is when a tube was inserted into Fares’ respiratory tract to enable him to breathe.

“I don’t think a 15-year-old boy could have hurt soldiers who were standing high above him,” says Hadad, the field researcher. “The soldiers could have protected themselves and not used direct fire, certainly not at the head. And why did they run after the children toward the camp in the first place? The children had already backed off.” After shooting Fares, the soldiers returned to their base next to the settlement.

The Spokesperson’s Unit of the Israel Defense Forces, in response to a request for comment from Haaretz, stated this week: “On October 15, 2016, there was a violent disturbance, with the participation of some 50 Palestinians, who threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the fence surrounding the Beit El settlement, and endangering its residents. An IDF force responded to the disturbance using methods for breaking up demonstrations.”

“It’s all in God’s hands,” Fares’ father tells us now. At first, he adds, he was told his son had been killed. It was only when he got to the hospital that he discovered that Fares was still alive and undergoing surgery.

Fares occasionally opens his eyes, but he does not react to his surroundings. His father says he can no longer afford to buy diapers for his son – the hospital doesn’t supply them – and he doesn’t know what he will do. On the morning of the day he was critically wounded, Fares asked his father for money. He had intended to go to a wedding that evening.

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