Atta Sabah is sitting on the balcony of his house and releasing his pigeons. His 18 birds, of different kinds, constitute most of his world. They flutter skyward and cruise back to his outstretched hand. He is familiar with the habits of each of them; they are his best friends, maybe his only friends.
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Atta is a smiling, neat boy of 14 whose parents are now building him an elevator at home with 40,000 shekels ($10,000) that they don’t have. Since the summer of 2013 their son has been wheelchair-bound, with both legs paralyzed. Atta says he only threw stones at Israel Defense Forces soldiers once – but that was four weeks before the soldiers shot him, leaving him crippled for life. At the time he was shot, he says, all he was trying to do was retrieve his schoolbag and hadn’t thrown even one stone.
Just before IDF and Israel Police snipers start picking off every child who’s a suspect – in Jerusalem, the West Bank and among the Negev Bedouin, too – they might do well to meet Atta and a few other victims of the previous, supposedly moderate, policy. Atta was paralyzed well before the onset of the new rules of engagement, which allow snipers – including those in the ranks of the Jerusalem police – to shoot anyone who throws stones. There are many other children and teenagers like Atta, yet the stone throwing has not stopped. Nor will it.
The Sabah family’s home is located in the heart of Jalazun, a Gaza-like refugee camp in the West Bank, with narrow alleys through which raw sewage runs openly and where the garbage piles up, uncollected. There are 15,000 people crowded into this camp of 256 dunams (63 acres), situated on the slopes below Ramallah, with the houses of the Beit El settlement spreading across the hilltops opposite.
About 30 inhabitants of this militant camp have been killed since the end of the second intifada, five of them – including three children – in the past year alone, which was supposedly a quiet period. Approximately 100 residents have been wounded since 2014, 60 of them children and teenagers, according to unofficial data collected by UNWRA. Thirty were left with disabilities, six of them in serious condition. Nearly half the camp’s young people (42 percent) are unemployed. In short, this is a refugee camp that has nothing to offer, least of all hope. A place where – however hackneyed it may be to say this – throwing a stone is sometimes the only way for the despairing young people to vent their anger and frustration. Most of those acts target the fence around Beit El, which is only 200 meters from the camp, and the main road.
The last of the youngsters killed in the camp, as of this writing, is Laith Khaladi, who was 15 when he was shot on July 31 after he threw a bottle of paint and a firebomb at the concrete wall of an IDF guard tower in protest of the burning of the Dawabsheh family in Duma. We visited Jalazun after his death (“The Duma flames died down, but the death toll keeps rising,” August 7). Nothing has changed since then. In fact, nothing has changed since Atta Sabah was shot on May 20, 2013.
Atta’s mother, Itimad Yassin, relates that the day before the incident, her son was involved in a fight at the camp’s school. One of the boys threw Atta’s bag into an area behind the schoolyard, which is just 200 meters from the Beit El fence. This, it turns out, is a killing zone, in which residents of the camp are shot if they enter. Atta was in seventh grade at the time. On that day a few schoolchildren routinely threw stones at soldiers and at the fence.
We go upstairs to Atta’s tidy room. He is sitting in his wheelchair, staring outside. The pigeons are fluttering about on the balcony. Covering his bed is a colorful Tom & Jerry blanket with the bitterly ironic inscription, “Luky [sic] to you.” But the day after his bag was thrown over the fence, luck was not with Atta.
He tried to retrieve the bag immediately, but a soldier told him he would get it back only if Atta ordered the other boys to stop throwing stones. Atta tried to explain to the soldier that the stone throwers were bigger boys and there was no chance they would listen to him. Then there will be no bag, the IDF soldier decreed. When he got home, without the bag, his mother tried to comfort him; the school year was almost over and he didn’t really need it anymore. She would buy him a new bag for the coming year.
The next day, before one of Atta’s final exams, a friend told him that the bag was still lying there, in the no-man’s-land behind the school. He decided to try and get it. After the exam, Atta went to the grocery store next to the school to buy a soft drink. His hope was that a soldier would appear at the guard post by the fence, whom he could ask for the bag.
Atta stood there, sipping his drink. There was no stone throwing going on just then, he says.
“Suddenly I found myself falling,” he told us this week. “I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t hear a shot. I told my friend Mohammed to take me away from there, but he thought I was joking. Finally he picked me up, and just then two soldiers camouflaged with leaves came out from behind the olive trees.”
Mohammed ran for his life, leaving the wounded Atta behind. Adults quickly appeared and bundled Atta into a private car. He was driven to the hospital in El Bireh and from there taken by ambulance to the government hospital in Ramallah, where he passed out. He awoke in Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. A bullet had entered his stomach and struck his spine. The soldiers in the ambush had shot him with live ammunition.
After 19 days in the intensive care and children’s units in Hadassah, Atta spent another three months in Reut, a rehabilitation hospital in Tel Aviv. He returned to school and then spent the next summer vacation back in Reut. Thanks to the rehabilitation process, Atta is now able to stand on his legs and take a few hesitant steps using a walker. But no more than that. He’s in 10th grade but had to leave his school due to accessibility problems; he now attends a different school in the town of Bir Zeit. His mother drives him there in the morning and his father picks him up afterward. His dream is to be a veterinarian.
What does Atta have to say to children who continue to throw stones? “I believe that they have to go on struggling, but I don’t think stones will return our land or our freedom. Nothing will liberate our country, only God.” A sad smile flits across his lips.
In the upper section of the camp’s narrow alleys, after dodging water pouring off balconies and passing numberless old commemorative posters of the Jalazun’s martyrs – all of whom are remembered by B’Tselem researcher Iyad Halad, who is accompanying us – we arrive at the home of 17-year-old Amir Fayez. He was wounded here half a year ago, in February, on a day of heavy snow. The soldiers did not suspect him of throwing a stone but rather a snowball. Fayez says that children and teenagers threw snowballs at the soldiers, one of whom shot him in the knee from short range. He’s undergone rehabilitation, but has not returned to his job selling merchandise in the Ramallah mall, as he cannot stand up for long. He’s been at home for half a year and his mother, Fariha, is despondent.
“Stiffening the punishment will not change anything,” she says. “There is no way to stop the stone throwing. These are children of the camp. They live under constant pressure and they want to release that pressure. How will they do that? They have nothing in the camp besides the stones.
“If I have six or seven children, let’s say, I cannot feed them or educate them,” she continues. “Look at me. He’s been at home for six months. Look at the scar on his leg. He has nowhere to go. I am his mother, and I am in despair.” Another of Fariha’s sons, Mahmoud, was also shot in the leg this year and sentenced to five months in prison for throwing stones, a sentence he is now serving. Her eldest son, Aamar, now 23, was shot with rubber-coated metal bullets when he was 13, also in the wake of stone throwing. He was incarcerated for two months as a boy.
A few days after Amir was hurt, a friend of his, Malek Raunama, was wounded in an incident involving stone throwing. He’s 17, and one of his legs is now paralyzed. We wanted to visit him this week, too, but he’s in hospital awaiting another operation.