The paramedic shut the door of the ambulance fast. The soldiers arrived on the run, rifles at the ready. One of them fired a tear-gas grenade into the air. A passerby muttered a curse at him. The soldiers came to a halt momentarily, consulting among themselves about what to do. But then one of them quickly made his way into the ambulance – a Palestinian vehicle belonging to the Red Crescent organization. The shouts of pain and terror from inside the vehicle, where a wounded man was lying on a stretcher, grew louder.
Inside the ambulance, a violent tug of war took place between the paramedic in his scarlet uniform and the soldier in olive-green, who entered through the sliding side door. The soldier pulled the wounded man toward him, trying to remove him by force from the ambulance; the paramedic pulled the other way, trying to protect the wounded person and keep him on the stretcher. It was an ugly scene, and the shouting reached a crescendo. Additional soldiers approached and opened the two back doors of the ambulance; they too tried to drag the wounded man toward them. By now he was being pulled in all directions.
Another soldier poked his head into the vehicle. His Israel Defense Forces helmet bore the inscription “S.A.” In German, that’s the abbreviation for the Storm Troopers. Probably no one had the foggiest notion of the appalling connotation. Another soldier who looked inside the ambulance wore a helmet with “A.A.” on it, as if to mitigate the impression created by his buddy’s headgear.
In the meantime, a few soldiers succeeded in boarding the ambulance and taking control of it. The paramedic was alone in the face of the assault. The struggle inside the vehicle intensified, along with the patient’s bellowing and screaming. In the background, thick, white clouds of tear gas rose up along the road. More troops arrived, but suddenly they gave up their bounty and left the ambulance. They must have received an order. The doors of the vehicle shut, and it left the scene in a rush, with earsplitting siren wails.
Video footage of the horrific incident appeared on Palestinian social media and was picked up by television stations around the world. This is the face of the IDF.
At home in the small town of Tayasir, in one of the houses closest to the coronavirus checkpoint manned by the Palestinian police, the wounded man from the incident is still fearful and agitated. Fahdi Wahdan, a farmhand of 25, short, smiling and barefoot, lives in his parents’ house but is now afraid to venture out. About one-third of the 3,000 residents in this northern Jordan Valley town, including children, are employed as farm workers in the Israeli settlements in the area, usually for exploitative wages. Wahdan worked with his uncle for Palestinian landowners.
This part of the valley is colored green and brown at this time of the year. Not far away, IDF troops are participating in an exercise, climbing a concrete wall next to the settlement of Hemdat; meanwhile “hilltop youth” from unauthorized outposts drive wedges into the earth and build another fence on stolen land. Their purpose is to block landowners and the other indigenous people here from herding their sheep close to the army’s training areas. Such is life in the Jordan Valley.
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Israeli troops have pulled Wahdan from his bed in the middle of the night three times during the past few years, and each time released him at the Tayasir checkpoint after keeping him bound during the generally cold night. The IDF seems to be enamored of the homes in the eastern part of Tayasir, which are close to its training areas – it’s easy to enter and arrest the residents. Local young people occasionally comb the fields in the wake of the soldiers and collect remnants of the munitions or of the food they leave behind. Afterward the IDF searches homes for those suspected of robbery or of who knows what.
Wahdan is a very simple young man – in the ambulance someone was heard shouting that he is majnun, “crazy” – in the hope of protecting him. In any event, with his short height he doesn’t look as though he poses any sort of threat. On November 24, he took part in a demonstration of solidarity with the residents of Khirbet Humsah, located also in the valley, to the southwest, where on November 3 the Israeli Civil Administration in the territories perpetrated one of its largest acts of destruction in recent months. The villagers were given 10 minutes to grab all their belongings and possessions that day, before the wrecking crew set to work: 18 structures were razed, leaving 11 families – 74 souls, 41 of them children – without a roof over their heads in the rain, wind and cold of the Jordan Valley in winter. In the West Bank a day of solidarity with them was called for November 24.
Wahdan waited that day at the entrance to Tayasir, where people from all across the West Bank gathered, about 1,500 demonstrators in a protest march that proceeded slowly over the short distance to the Tayasir checkpoint. It is generally not manned, but this time Israeli troops were waiting in large numbers. Khirbet Humsah is about 30 kilometers from the checkpoint, but the demonstrators knew that the IDF would not allow them to march there. Predictably, the troops began to fire tear-gas grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets, as well as live ammunition, in the air. Young Palestinians threw stones at the checkpoint.
Aref Daraghmeh, the head of the Palestinian regional council of the northern Jordan Valley and a local field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, estimates that at least 100 soldiers faced off against the protesters.
The demonstration was brought to a halt opposite the checkpoint, but the clashes between the soldiers and the protesters went on for around two hours. About 100 meters separated the demonstrators from the troops. It was “like a war,” Daraghmeh recalls. Twenty-one demonstrators were injured by the tear gas, two requiring hospitalization. The soldiers also fired stun grenades at the protesters, most of whom were affiliated with the Fatah organization that organized the protest. They shouted chants against the occupation forces: “Go away, terrorist army, get out of here.”
Wahdan was wounded about half an hour into the clashes. Struck in the stomach by a rubber-coated metal bullet, he fell to the ground, writhing in pain. He tells us now that his belly seemed to be exploding and that he felt he was losing consciousness. “I was just acting regularly, like all the people, I didn’t do anything [out of the ordinary],” he says. Young demonstrators picked him up and rushed him to an ambulance that was waiting, as at every such demonstration. Then came the attempt by soldiers to snatch him from the ambulance.
Wahdan says he was very frightened of the soldiers who entered the vehicle. He can’t explain why he screamed in such horror. The ambulance eventually took him to the Turkish Hospital in the nearby city of Tubas, the seat of the district government. After X-raying him, the physicians wanted to hospitalize Wahdan, for fear of possible internal bleeding in his abdomen, but he refused and quickly made his way home by taxi.
Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit why soldiers tried to abduct Wahdan from the ambulance, why they finally dropped the idea and, in general, whether the soldiers had acted properly. The reply: “On Tuesday, November 24, 2020, a violent disturbance developed, involving about 200 Palestinians who threw Molotov cocktails and stones at IDF forces near the village of Tayasir, in the territory of the Jordan Valley Brigade. The IDF forces responded with crowd dispersal means.
“The suspect who appears in the clip took part in the disturbance, threw Molotov cocktails at IDF fighters, and in order to evade arrest, fled and hid in an ambulance at the site. When the soldiers noticed the suspect was wounded, they allowed the ambulance to take him for medical treatment. An allegation that the suspect was only superficially wounded by a smoke grenade has become known. We emphasize that no firing of rubber [-coated bullets] took place during the disturbance.”
Was Fahdi Wahdan indeed wounded during the incident, as the spokesperson’s unit acknowledges toward the end of that statement, or was he just hiding in the ambulance to evade arrest, as claimed at the beginning? There seems to be no limits to the verbal acrobatics of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
Wahdan’s mother, Umm Jihad, a heavyset woman, was in Tubas that day with Fida, Fahdi’s twin sister. Her sister-in-law called around midday and told her, “Fahdi took a bullet. It was on Facebook.” Umm Jihad says she was so frightened that she collapsed on the street. No one could tell her anything about her son’s condition. Someone from a nearby restaurant brought her water and tried to calm her down. She hurried home in a shared taxi, totally distraught. In the evening, Fahdi appeared at the door. “God helped me,” she says now, smiling.
But Fahdi’s life did not resume its normal course. Far from it. Since the incident, whenever he hears soldiers entering the town, his impulse is to escape, and he tries to find a place to hide in the house. For the first three nights after the event he couldn’t sleep a wink. During the first week he didn’t leave home; only afterward did he gradually start to go out to work again. He used to work with his uncle in fields near Jericho, but since the incident he doesn’t dare approach the Tayasir checkpoint, afraid that the soldiers will try to grab him again. These days he works only near Tubas, in a place that doesn’t necessitate crossing an army checkpoint. Every so often, he views the video of the attempt to pull him from the ambulance. He says he’s already seen it hundreds of times.