The Human Cost of the IDF's 'Nonlethal' Ammunition

Security forces entered a refugee camp to make arrests and fired a sponge bullet at short range at Nafez Demiri, who is deaf and mute, blinding him in one eye.

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Nafez Demiri in Ramallah.
Nafez Demiri in Ramallah.Credit: Alex Levac

Now the man who has never heard anything and never uttered a spoken sound is also half blind: His right eye was shattered and had to be removed.

Border Police troops fired a No. 4557 black sponge bullet at him, supposedly nonlethal ammunition that a year earlier killed a boy in Jerusalem.

For Jerusalem police, these black bullets are now used in place of the blue ones – which were lighter and less deadly. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 18 Palestinian civilians were seriously wounded in the city over the past year by sponge bullets. In addition to the boy who was killed, others who were shot with these bullets lost their vision, suffered fractures in the eye socket and jaw, or cranial bleeding and rupture of the spleen. Many of the victims are children and adolescents.

But Nafez Demiris story is especially wrenching. Hes 55 and has been deaf since birth, exactly like his sister. A resident of the Ras Hamid neighborhood in the Shoafat refugee camp in unified Jerusalem, he never went to school, as there was no suitable institution for him at the time. To this day he cannot read or write.

Nevertheless, he has a charming family – his wife Rada and Alam, their only child, now 15 – and has provided for them over the years. According to his brother, Demiri works as a cobbler in a Jaffa workshop whose address no one in the family knows. The bearer of a blue ID card (permanent Israeli residency), he gets a ride to Jaffa every morning and returns to his home in the camp every evening. Until two weeks ago, he led a relatively good life, despite his serious handicaps.

Sponge-tipped bullets. Credit: Emil Salman

The only way to communicate with Demiri is with sign language, and the conversation with him is conducted through his wife and son. They lead him slowly into the living room of the apartment in Ramallah where we meet, step by measured step. He leans on his wife and son, his gait faltering. His empty eye socket is bandaged, wounds and bruises cover his face and neck, and his suffering, pain and depression are plain to see. Since he was wounded, he has been tormented by powerful headaches and constant dizzy spells. He has to be supported at every step, for fear he will stumble and fall.

Nafez Demiri is a broken man.

We met him in a spacious apartment on the sixth floor of a modern apartment building in the Kafr Aked neighborhood on the outskirts of Ramallah; although its well past the Qalandiyah checkpoint, it is considered part of Jerusalem for some reason. The apartment belongs to his mother and his brother, and Demiri has come here so that his family can take care of him. Everyone is warm and they all clearly love Nafez, whose life is wrapped in eternal silence.

On Sunday, July 12, Demiri set out in the morning with his son to sell the family car. Having carried out the transfer of ownership in the East Jerusalem post office, they made their way home. There is a particularly unpleasant checkpoint at the entrance to Shoafat, which is in effect an imprisoned neighborhood and where there are many incidents. Around midday, large forces of police and Border Police raided the camp in another of their arrest operations, which invariably spark violent resistance.

Alam, Demiris son, relates that the Israeli forces hurled stun grenades and tear-gas grenades in every direction. At one point, he and his father were separated. The boy managed to avoid danger and got home safely; his father entered a grocery store located a few dozen meters from the checkpoint, in the hope of finding a safe haven.

What happened next was caught on film by the stores security camera, a 50-second horror movie. It all happened in a twinkling. Two young people are standing at the entrance to the store, two others enter in haste, and then Demiri and another man rush in, apparently fleeing for their lives.

Demiri, in a white shirt, stands in the doorway, glancing into the store and then out at the street. His glance at the street was fateful: Something slams into his face and he falls, writhing in pain, next to the ice-cream refrigerator. He covers his face with his hands. Immediately afterward, white smoke covers the entrance, apparently from a tear-gas grenade that was fired in the wake of the sponge bullet, just to be on the safe side.

Demiri thrashes about, whether suffering from the tear gas or from his wound, trying in vain to escape the smoke, until he is swallowed up in the store, leaving behind a trail of blood on the floor.

The Jerusalem District Police stated after the incident: Stones were thrown from all directions, including rooftops, at a force of Border Police fighters who had made an arrest in the Shoafat refugee camp, in an attempt to keep them from taking the detainee away. The force used means to extricate itself and left the camp with the detainee. Afterward, locals arrived at the checkpoint with an adult person whom they claimed was wounded by a sponge bullet, and drove him to receive medical treatment.

The Jerusalem Police emphasize again that the attempt to harm the fighters is serious, and that the police will continue to carry out enforcement efforts and will act with uncompromising determination against every attempt to harm policemen who are carrying out their duty with professionalism.

Note the keywords: locals, adult person, they claimed, fighters, enforcement, determination, professionalism.

Attorney Anne Suciu, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has contacted the attorney generals office and the office of the police commissioner twice in recent months, to demand that the security forces stop using the black sponge bullets because of the serious damage they inflict. Both offices were in touch with ACRI recently to obtain more details about the casualties.

According to United Nations data, 1,003 people were wounded in Jerusalem during the second half of 2014 by rubber bullets (which are apparently sponge bullets of different types, since rubber-coated bullets are forbidden for use in Jerusalem). It now turns out that the use of the black sponge bullets continues unimpeded.

For a few minutes, passersby heard cries of pain coming from the grocery store, but it was impossible to enter because of the tear gas. The shouts finally stopped. A few minutes later, someone took Demiri to Hadassah Medical Center on Mount Scopus in his private car. On the way, Demiri called home via his special video phone and tried to explain to his wife in sign language what happened. She saw that his face was covered with blood. Eye-witnesses told the family that Demiri was shot in the eye from a distance of a few meters.

Demiri was later transferred to Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem, where he underwent an operation in which his eye was removed and platinum plates inserted in his nose and forehead, which were also hit. He was discharged four days later and his suffering has not diminished.

His brother still dreams that Demiri will be able to have an eye implant one day and will see again. The family is worried that he will no longer be able to work, because of his impaired vision. His employer in Jaffa, a Jew, called to see how hes doing. Rada says every time she changes her husbands bandage, she is shocked at the hole in his face where once there was an eye.



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