“They call me a Tel Avivian,” he tells us with a nice smile, which gives way to groans of pain. The back and neck of Mohammed Amla − a young man of 29 with two daughters − are scarred along their entire length from the grip of an Israel Defense Forces dog. Soldiers set the dog on him recently as he was trying to sneak across the border, as usual, to his place of work and hideout apartment in Tel Aviv.
For the past 12 years, Amla has been working in the center of the country as a handyman, and he has been arrested several times for his efforts. In recent years, he managed to obtain a work permit, but after his deaf daughter required a costly ear operation, he couldn’t afford to pay the money to ensure that his contractor would extend the permit.
Palestinian laborers are forced to pay a sum of NIS 2,000-NIS 2,200 a month to their work contractors, so that the contractors will get them work permits. The relevant authorities don’t lift a finger to stop this exploitation. When he is working legally, Amla spends most of his money on this bribe and on travel expenses. Every time he sneaks into Israel it costs him NIS 200, and the trip home costs NIS 100 when he has no permit. Rent is NIS 500 a month for a laborer. And for a day’s work, Amla’s wages are NIS 200-NIS 250. He says that, after deducting expenses, he is left with NIS 1,500 a month − and for that sum, all the risk is worthwhile.
Sometimes he is caught, and this time the soldiers also sicced their dog on him. It’s a practice that was in use until less than two years ago. We thought it was over, but apparently it has come back.
Usually Amla stays in the city for a week or two, in a miserable apartment on Ha’aliyah Street in south Tel Aviv, which he shares with another six Palestinian laborers. Then he returns home to spend the weekend with his family. He lives in the town of Beit Ula, west of Hebron, and he used to sneak into Israel through a breach in the separation fence near the village of Ramadin.
About a month ago, he and his two friends decided to try their luck through a different opening − one that was torn in the fence a long time ago and that nobody bothered to repair, in the area of the West Bank just opposite Beit Guvrin. A well-oiled system of contractors and drivers, on both sides of the fence, transports the workers to their place of work. If they’re caught, the incident usually ends with the workers being returned to the other side of the fence. Sometimes they have to pay a fine of NIS 1,000-NIS 3,000, and once Amla was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for the crime of illegal residence.
The difficulties of earning a livelihood in the West Bank are forcing thousands of young men to cross the border every night, for lack of another source of income. The same happened on the evening of May 15. Although Amla’s work permit was still valid, the contractor had confiscated it because he hadn’t paid the bribe for the following month. With no alternative, he decided to sneak into Israel again.
‘We were afraid’
Those who cross the border illegally advised him to do it in the evening. He left his home at about 6:30 P.M., together with Jihad and Omar, his coworkers from Beit Ula. Shortly afterward they reached the fence, in which, at the time, there were two large openings, 3-6 meters in diameter. The three young men waited a few minutes to make sure there were no soldiers in the area − “to see who-what-where,” as he puts it − and then they began to walk quickly toward the opening.
Even before they managed to cross the fence, eight to 10 soldiers jumped out from a hiding place, where they had been waiting to ambush infiltrators. The soldiers shouted at them to stop, otherwise they would shoot and kill them. Amla says that the three tried to run back. “We were afraid,” he says.
The soldiers started firing rubber bullets at them, and then another group of seven soldiers emerged from the Palestinian side of the fence. They were masked and accompanied by dogs. The frightened young men tried to continue in their flight back to their village, and then the soldiers unleashed the dogs on them.
“The dog jumped on me,” says Amla, “grabbed me forcefully, put his claws on my back and then also grabbed me by the neck with his teeth. He had no muzzle on his mouth. I fell facedown. I was suffocating. I felt that I was dead, dead. Unbelievable pain. And I was shouting to the soldiers: ‘Take it [the dog], release me,’ and they didn’t do anything. They were 100 meters away. I tried to get the dog off me. I held its head, but it held me and pressed harder.
“After at least seven minutes, the soldiers came and removed the dog from me. I heard them telling it to calm down. And it took another two minutes until the dog released my neck and only my shirt remained in its mouth. The soldiers told me to take off the shirt. My entire back was full of blood and pain, and I felt that I was dead. And the other guy, Omar − the dog grabbed his hand, and Jihad got a rubber bullet in his leg.
“After the soldiers detached the dog from me, they bound my hands behind me with handcuffs, very hard. One soldier put his leg on my back while I was still lying on the ground and another soldier kicked me in the ribs. My face was on the ground and they were kicking me. They put a rag on our eyes and took us to their jeep. They took us to their base in Tarqumiya. Omer shouted: ‘My hand,’ and I shouted: ‘My back and my neck.’ Afterward, a soldier came − apparently a paramedic − and put ointment on my back. An hour and a half later, an ambulance came and took me and Omar to Barzilai Medical Center, in Ashkelon. They released Jihad at about midnight at the Tarqumiya checkpoint, after he told them that he had chest pains.”
The two wounded men were brought to the hospital blindfolded and handcuffed. The doctors examined them, bandaged them and instructed that they be hospitalized in the surgical ward. Amla was placed in a bed, but there was no room for Omar, who was forced to sit in an armchair all night. Two soldiers guarded them. They were not allowed to phone home. The doctors ordered that they be hospitalized for 24 hours, but 12 hours later, at noon, they were taken from the hospital.
Amla says that he sat handcuffed for about seven hours on a bench outside the hospital, together with a soldier who was guarding him, until the car that was supposed to evacuate them arrived. He says that he was in great pain from his wounds. The Barzilai Medical Center release form said: “Principal complaint: dog bite. Subcutaneous emphysema spread over the neck and extrusion of ... bites in the back part of the skull, on the back of the neck ... open wounds ... an invasive wound on the back part of the neck.”
The two men were taken to the Kiryat Arba police station. At 1:00 A.M., Amla received a summons to a trial, which is scheduled for December. The police said that they could be released if they posted bail of NIS 1,000 each. They didn’t have such a sum, and they phoned their friends in the village, who arrived at 4:30 A.M. with the bail money. “Yalla, go,” said the policemen, and they drove straight to the Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron, where Amla was hospitalized for another 24 hours. Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for B’Tselem who visited him there, took his testimony and photographed his wounds.
The IDF spokesman told Haaretz this week that the matter is being looked into.
The wounds have yet to heal. Amla is walking around bent over; one shoulder is sloping. At night he can’t find a comfortable position. The soldiers told him that it was a “kalb alman” − Arabic for “German dog” − that is a German Shepherd. In December he will stand trial, but for now he is looking for a way to sue for compensation from those who set the dogs on him. He says he won’t try to get to his place of work again in the near future. He is still unable to do physical work, and above all he is very frightened.