This 13-year-old Palestinian Is the Third Intifada's First Amputee

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Isa al-Muati.
Isa al-Muati.Credit: Alex Levac

Here is the brutal, shameful photograph. His mother took it secretly, far from the view of the warders who were guarding her son. She shows us the clipping from a Palestinian newspaper: A boy is lying in an Israeli hospital bed, one leg completely shattered, its wounds exposed, the other in bandages. The crippled boy, Isa al-Muati, is bound to his bed with an iron handcuff. He spent 28 consecutive days like that – badly wounded and bound – at Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Karem, before his guards left and his hand was freed. He then spent another two months in the hospital – for a total of three months. The physicians tried to save his right leg, but after two months of futile efforts they amputated it, in stages. First the foot, then the shin. Isa is a boy of 13. Israel Defense Forces soldiers shot him no fewer than five times.

The 13-year-old threw – or did not throw – a Molotov cocktail at the soldiers within the fortified IDF watchtower next to Rachel’s Tomb, at the edge of his city, Bethlehem, where the intimidating concrete wall begins. The soldiers did not make do with one bullet, or two, or three, not even four – they pumped five rounds into him.

Isa will be an invalid all his life; it’s unlikely that his impoverished family will be able to raise the means for rehabilitation and a prosthesis. In the meantime, he’s been at home for a few months, without the leg, doing nothing, having dropped out of school in the wake of the injury. Maybe he’ll return to school next year, he says, as though to please us, though it seems very unlikely that he will go back.

The family home is an old stone structure behind the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, not far from the Church of the Nativity, amid stores that sell olive-wood souvenirs to tourists. The family’s laundry is hanging outside. The house, which the family rents, is crowded. Isa shares a room with his two brothers and his grandfather. His father, Ahmed, is a painter, but the walls here are only partially whitewashed. His mother, Rada, was looking after her infant son, who was only three months old at the time, when Isa was wounded. During the first month, she did not leave his bedside, and so was unable to care for the baby. She was the only one who received a permit to be with Isa in Israel – the baby was left without his mother for a month. When Isa’s father received a permit to be with his son, Rada went back to the baby. She is carrying him in her arms now, too; soon he’ll be a year old.

Isa enters the room where we are sitting, hopping quickly on his crutches, his amputated leg covered by his pants. He’s a beefy boy who looks older than his age, with the first traces of a mustache. It’s midday, but it’s clear that he has just woken up. The incident happened on September 18, 2015, a Friday, a few days after the eruption of disturbances on the Temple Mount that led to the wave of resistance in this intifada of loners. Isa, along with his younger brother, Adnan, who’s 11, attended the Friday prayers at the Mosque of Omar, near their home in Bethlehem. In the evening, Adnan did not come home with Isa. The worried parents, who knew that violent clashes were taking place near Rachel’s Tomb, and were concerned that Adnan may have gone there to throw stones, sent Isa to look for his brother, Isa and his mother tell us.

Isa relates that he didn’t see his brother among the stone throwers. He did see glowing explosions of Molotov cocktails as they were thrown at the scorched concrete tower, and noticed that the soldiers were starting to shoot at those who were throwing the incendiary devices. It was later, and there were very few demonstrators at the site, between four and six young people, though all of them older than he.

At first two dumdum bullets struck his left leg. How does he know they were dumdums? Because, he replies, he saw the wound spread through his leg and shatter it. He tried to run, but immediately afterward three more rounds, this time live-fire, hit his right leg. Isa collapsed to the ground, bleeding profusely. Initially, no one came to his aid, he says, and a Palestinian ambulance that did come was prevented from taking him to hospital; finally, though, soldiers took him to their nearby facility, removed his clothes and stanched the bleeding with an arterial tourniquet. After about half an hour, an Israeli civilian ambulance took him to Hadassah. The next day, Military Policemen arrived and handcuffed his left hand to the bed, which is how it remained for the next 28 days, while he was also guarded day and night. His mother was allowed to be with him, though. Only after four weeks did the lawyer his parents hired reach an accommodation with the authorities for his release, after posting bond of 7,000 shekels ($1,850). Only then did the guards unshackle his hand and leave.

The decision to amputate was made after about two months, when Isa developed complications. The doctors began with his right foot, but when, within a few days, it emerged that this was not sufficient, they had to amputate the leg below the knee.

Isa’s agony did not end there. One day he fell in the hospital bath and broke his hip. There was another operation, in which a plate was inserted in the stump of his right leg. His left leg healed well. Isa and his mother have complaints about the policemen who guarded his room, who they say made noise and insulted them. They have praise for the medical staff. One of the doctors wrote: “Was wounded by gunfire in the shins while attempting to throw an explosive device, according to the army’s report. Bleeding of a medium amount The mother reports that he sometimes smokes secretly. Left: entry wound with no exit wound. Right: 2-3 entry wounds.”

According to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, on the day in question, “there were violent disturbances in the city of Bethlehem. Isa al-Muati took part in the disturbances and in the throwing of Molotov cocktails. In response, an IDF force that was present shot at the lower section of [his] body. When it became clear that he was injured, al-Muati was taken to hospital for treatment. Afterwards, he was arrested and charged in a military court with attempted throwing of a flammable device, and transport, possession and production of a weapon.”

At the hospital, the police told him he was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail. He denies the accusation vehemently. He says that firebombs were thrown at the soldiers, but not by him, that he was only there to look for his brother. Adnan, who is now sitting with us, is a small, lean, shy boy. It turned out that he had returned home that evening before his brother was shot.

Isa says that only once in his life did he throw stones at soldiers, next to Rachel’s Tomb. That was a year earlier, when he was 12. His father was angry at him and even hit him for what he did, and since then he doesn’t remember going back there.

His days now are white, empty and lonely. Friends visit occasionally, and he sometimes makes his way to the steep street that ascends from his house to the Milk Grotto church. This week, friends took him for a dip in a nearby natural-water pool. He learned how to walk by himself, without any instruction, and no one is talking about professional rehabilitation at the moment. His family heard about an organization in the United States that takes children and fits them with prostheses, but for now that is no more than a dream hanging in the air.

Isa was the first casualty of the third intifada, and possibly the youngest of its invalids.

What does he want to do in life? He has no idea, he’s only 13.