He’s in room 3 of the surgical ward for men on the second floor of Al-Hussein Government Hospital, in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem: a 16-year-old with a shy smile and feeble speech, who groans with pain whenever someone even approaches his two wounded legs, both of them bandaged along their whole length.
Last Thursday, soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces’ Commando Brigade shot the teen twice with live ammunition, after his hands had been bound behind him and his eyes covered with flannelette. They shot the momentarily blind and handcuffed boy even though they could have easily grabbed him without incurring any injury. They were standing next to him, at zero range. How fast can a bound and blindfolded youth run? But no. They didn’t try to catch him. Why would they? Commandos, you know: First you shoot, then you shoot again, and only then do try to clarify what happened.
There is one photograph of the bound youth, kneeling on the ground, curled up like a lump of dough, as an Israeli fighter stands over him, aiming his sniper’s rifle at him; then another photo of the same tall teen, dressed in black, suddenly getting up and trying to run for his life, with hands bound and eyes covered. Those are among the most iconic images of the very recent past. Nothing illustrates better the nadir to which the army has deteriorated, with even soldiers from its elite units no longer in control of their trigger finger.
These are not soldiers from the ultra-Orthodox battalion or Border Policemen. This is a commando brigade. Hey, hey, get out of the way! They too fire live ammunition indiscriminately, injudiciously, uninhibitedly, unrestrainedly – at everything Palestinian, whether a bound teen or a dangerous terrorist. That’s how they were trained, such conduct is apparently the pride of their unit. The fact is that no one was arrested in the wake of this disgraceful incident a week ago, no one was even reprimanded.
The video clip shot by a Palestinian eyewitness a few minutes later, which was obtained by Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, also makes for difficult viewing. The teen, shot twice by the soldiers, is lying wounded on the ground, blood pouring from his groin and spreading across the soil of the olive grove.
A masked IDF paramedic tries to staunch the blood and dress the wound. A Palestinian woman is also bent over the youth; a furious crowd is demanding that he be evacuated; another woman tries to approach and a soldier draws his weapon and threatens her. The soldier, who seems to be out of control, screams that he will shoot anyone who tries to come close in the head. He’s waving the rifle all over the place.
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The locals just want to get the victim to a hospital and there’s a great hullabaloo, until a few men manage to break through the ring of soldiers, pick up the youth quickly – only just that moment had his shackles been released – and attempt to carry him away. The soldiers, who apparently don’t know what to do, try again to chase away the men; they fire one shot that doesn’t hit anyone, apparently tear gas, but then quickly relent. The wounded boy is evacuated. His life is saved. A main artery was hit in one leg and he could have bled to death very fast, we’re told by the physicians in the hospital a few days later.
This week the area between the South Hebron Hills and Bethlehem looked more than ever like a collection of prison compounds. Towns and refugee camps alike were blocked and sealed with iron gates. It was Passover week, and settlers were cruising in masses to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Traffic was backed up.
There was a particularly grim scene next to Al-Fawwar refugee camp, south of Hebron: Just inside the closed gate to the camp is a group of armed soldiers – they’re now the warders there – while dozens of cars were parked on the roadside and hundreds of residents were begging the troops to let them leave. Well, it’s the Festival of Freedom.
“Be calm,” says a poster at the entrance to Al-Hussein Hospital. Osama Hajajeh is lying in his bed; his father, Ali-Mohammed Hajajeh, never leaves his side. The lunch tray remains covered; the patient hasn’t touched his food. He comes from the Palestinian village of Tuqu, where he’s a 10th-grader in the local high school. Every morning before heading off to school, he milks his father’s small flock of sheep, and when he comes home, he takes them out to pasture. That’s his world. On his right cheek is a bruise that’s healing, a mark made by the fist of an Israeli soldier who wanted to shoo away one of the women who tried to attend to the teen and hit him by mistake.
It all started last Thursday with a road accident in which Fatima Suleiman, a local teacher, was killed. Lately most of the access roads to the village have been blocked by the IDF, leaving one entrance, which opens dangerously onto the main road. That’s where Suleiman was killed. Osama Hajajeh attended the funeral, along with most of Tuqu’s residents, who are angry about their village being choked off by roadblocks. After the funeral, the young people went to demonstrate, some of them by throwing stones at military vehicles.
Suddenly Hajajeh, a shepherd boy who had never been arrested, felt someone grabbing him from behind and throwing him to the ground. Between the olive trees, soldiers from the IDF unit had laid an ambush for the stone throwers. There were four to six soldiers, and after hurling the boy to the ground they handcuffed him behind his back, blindfolded him and began to drag him toward their jeep. At one point he remained kneeling on the ground, a soldier standing over him. The ground was thorny, Hajajeh relates now, from his hospital bed, so at one point he tried to get up for a minute and shake off the thorns. He now tells us, contrary to the published reports, that he had no intention of escaping – only to stand up. “How would I escape? With hands bound behind me and blindfolded?” he asks.
The moment he stood up, a shot rang out. He says he didn’t feel anyone trying to grab him before the shot was fired at him. The bullet hit him in the right leg. Frightened to death, Hajajeh started to flee for his life. He didn’t yet feel pain in the leg, he says now, but he knew he was wounded. He had stumbled only a few steps before the second shot came, the bullet slamming into his left leg. Both shots struck him in the thigh, by the groin, but the second one hit a major blood vessel. He collapsed to the ground.
He didn’t black out, but in the video clip he looks stunned. He remembers only that the woman from the village who reached him – also a teacher – removed his blindfold as he lay there.
Ali-Mohammed Hajajeh, a construction worker of 47 with six other children – Osama is the third oldest – is a smiling man who understands that his son’s life was saved almost by a miracle. Osama remembers lying on the ground as the soldiers fired tear gas and brandished rifles at anyone who approached and tried to get him out of there. He was finally placed in the car of a village resident who rushed him to the local clinic; from there a Palestinian ambulance took him to the hospital. About half an hour passed from the moment he was wounded until he was evacuated.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following statement to Haaretz: “Last Thursday, a violent disturbance occurred in the area of the village of Tuqu, which included massive stone throwing at IDF forces and at Israeli vehicles traveling on the road, endangering the lives of the civilians and the forces. The fighters responded with crowd-dispersal means and at the same time arrested one of those taking part in the disturbances, who tried to escape after his arrest. The arrestee was detained at a nearby spot, and after a short time tried to escape from the force. The fighters gave pursuit, in the course of which they fired at his lower body. The troops administered immediate medical aid to the Palestinian. The incident will be investigated.”
Hajajeh underwent surgery. The damage to the blood vessels was severe, and some had to be transplanted from his right leg to the more badly injured left leg. Dr. Samr Khalifa, from the department of surgery, confirmed that Hajajeh arrived with two bullet wounds, one in each leg, with entry and exit holes in both. Signs of gangrene were already discernible in the left leg.
Hajajeh’s father says that his son likes to work the land. To the question of whether he’s a good student, father and son exchange a smile and reply that he is. Where did he summon the courage to get up and try to escape? Here his father intervenes: “Osama is not a hero. We only want to live, not to be heroes. Because he was afraid of the soldiers, he started to run.”