Gideon Levy |

Israeli Troops Ambush and Shoot Palestinians Hoping to Make a Living

There are about 30 breaches in the separation barrier near Tul Karm, where IDF soldiers often lie in wait for Palestinians sneaking into Israel to find work. They even shoot at these men, although they pose no danger

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Abdullah Abu Tehaimer, at home this week in the refugee camp. It will be a year before he can stand up and walk again, his doctors say.
Abdullah Abu Tehaimer, at home this week in the refugee camp. It will be a year before he can stand up and walk again, his doctors say. Credit: Alex Levac

The Tul Karm refugee camp. It is a fusion of dire poverty with touching attempts to add a bit of color with potted plants, and piles of garbage everywhere. At the end of a dark alley of about human width, we reach a small, cramped house that is also trying to assume a semblance of cultivation, with rugs on the tiled floor and painted walls. Abdullah Abu Tehaimer, a tall, stocky man of 34, is lying in the narrow living room of his house, covered with synthetic blankets, one leg held in stationary position by an iron splint. He’s been bedridden for two months, tormented by pain, unable to stand ever since Israel soldiers fired three bullets at him from an ambush. Two struck his legs, the other slammed into the ground.

Abu Tehaimer was shot as he tried to enter Israel illegally in search of work, after the expiration of his entry permit. He was shot without warning, with no attempt made to stop him by other means. He was shot the way East German soldiers shot anyone who tried to cross the Berlin Wall. Israel Defense Forces soldiers lay in ambush that day, just as they did when they shot and wounded some 20 other workers during the past two months, as Hagar Shezaf reported in Haaretz on December 23, 2019.

The separation barrier, north of the refugee camp, in the fields of the village of Zeita, a 15-minute drive north of Tul Karm. Plant nurseries, greenhouses, fertile soil, verdant agricultural growth at this time of the year. It is here where Abu Tehaimer tried to cross into Israel. One is confronted here by concertina wire, a deep trench, an electronic fence, a security road and more barbed wire – in short, the separation fence. A drive on the muddy road on the eastern side across the way reveals countless breaches, some of them months or even years old. Abdulkarim Sadi, the field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem in the region, has counted some 30 holes in the fence in this area alone, around Tul Karm. The IDF operates frequent patrols on the security road here; local commanders are certainly familiar with every opening, but apparently no one is thinking about repairing any of them.

There are no soldiers or guards today at the iron gate at Zeita; it’s wide open, as though one can pass through it freely into Israel. Freely? Maybe. But at any moment soldiers might emerge from an ambush and open fire on anyone who approaches, even before they pass through. In order to play it safe, we don’t stay around for long. This soil, the soil of Zeita’s hothouses and nurseries, has been saturated with blood because of the barrier that traverses it and the soldiers who shoot wantonly at anyone who approaches – even though none actually pose a danger to the troops. The IDF could easily arrest the infiltrators by other means, or close the breaches in the fence. But this is a free-fire area, an army shooting range where workers are shot at with abandon. The IDF Spokesman’s Unit states that the army “views with gravity any damage done to the fence,” with so much gravity that soldiers here are at liberty to shoot at unarmed civilians as much as they please.

A billboard advertising the Psagot Investment House, which apparently once sponsored a tennis tournament somewhere, is propped up and being used as a cover against the wind and rain at the entrance to the Tul Karm camp. It’s not clear how the poster came to be here. A pile of garbage lies around here, and people come and add to it. Smaller amounts of litter dot almost every alley. There’s no other refugee camp with so many potted plants in the windows, on rooftops and in doorways. But what the place brings to mind is a Brazilian favela.

A weak light bulb illuminates the dim, windowless living room in the home of Abdullah Abu Tehaimer and his family. A former truck driver, he was born and raised in Amman and is the father of three daughters and a son. A few years ago, he married a woman from the refugee camp, and afterward divided his life between it and Amman. Five month ago, in light of a deteriorating economic situation in Jordan, he decided to move with his family to the Tul Karm camp, having heard that work in Israel was available and at relatively good pay. He rented an apartment and received a work permit for Israel valid until the end of 2019.

Abu Tehaimer started to work in the strawberry fields of Moshav Kadima for 150 shekels (about $42) a day; he would leave home at 3 A.M. and return 12 hours later. But the strawberry season in Kadima ended in October and he had no one to employ him thereafter, as a result of which his work permit was revoked, though he says he was not aware of this.

It was the period of the Jewish holidays and a closure was in effect across the West Bank. He planned to enter Israel in search of new employment after the holidays. On October 23, the day after isru hag of Sukkot – the day that follows the conclusion of the pilgrimage festivals (and yes, the Palestinians also suffer on isru hag) – he set out as usual in the middle of the night for the Ephraim Gate checkpoint, only to be told that his permit had been revoked and that he was denied entry to Israel. He returned home and decided to try an alternate route.

The fact that the Zeita gate had been open on the preceding days, without a military presence there, led him to think that he could pass through freely, or fairly easily, there. His plan was to get to Taibeh or Netanya and look for odd jobs on a daily basis until he could find permanent employment. After all, he has four children and a wife to provide for.

A shared taxi took him to the village of Zeita, about a quarter of an hour from the refugee camp. From there he started to walk toward the fence, then along it, looking for a breach. He didn’t know the area, he’s a newcomer, and the route was longer than he’d thought. Around 8 A.M. he found a large opening in the barrier opposite the Israeli Arab city of Baka al-Garbiyeh. Another few dozen other workers were also trying to get through.

Abu Tehaimer was about half a meter away from the fence when he suddenly heard gunfire. He didn’t immediately notice that a bullet had struck his left leg; the pain hit him a few seconds later. As he looked westward to see who had shot him, he heard another gunshot. The second bullet hit him in the shin of the right leg. Unable to stand, he collapsed into the trench, which was about two meters (6.5 ft.) deep. The first bullet had sliced through flesh and exited. The second shattered his bones with far more serious consequences. He tried to get up, but couldn’t. Soldiers arrived and told him not to move.

He raised his hands to show the soldiers that he wasn’t carrying anything. In the meantime, one of them approached him, tore open his pants and bandaged his legs. The soldiers dragged him from the trench to the western – Israeli – side of the fence, through the breach he hadn’t managed to traverse. There were about 15 soldiers, he recalls, who had been lurking in ambush. Suffering from excruciating pain in both legs, he was taken to a military ambulance and given a painkiller.

Abu Tehaimer wasn’t interrogated, no questions were asked; they only wanted to see his ID card. He told them it was in his back pocket but could not manage to reach it himself because of all the pain. Shouting in agony, he told a soldier to take it out. At present he doesn’t remember now how long he was in the ambulance, but it took him to the Bartaa checkpoint, where a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance was waiting to take him to Khalil Suleiman Hospital in Jenin, where he was given first aid.

Fearing that his family would think he was dead, he asked to be transferred quickly to the hospital in Tul Karm, where they could visit him. In the city’s Thabeth Thabeth Hospital, he underwent surgery and was hospitalized for four days. His right leg was found to have eight fractures from the fragments of the bullet, apparently fired with a Ruger sniper’s rifle. A few weeks later, in mid-November, he returned to the hospital to have the iron splint placed on his leg. In the weeks ahead, he tells us, the physicians will see whether he needs another operation to insert a metal pin into the leg. In the meantime, the fractures have not mended properly and he is suffering terribly. It will be a year before he can stand up and walk again, the doctors say.

He’s not sleeping at night, he tell us, because he was taken off the strong painkillers for fear he would develop an addiction to them. Why did they shoot him, among all the others? Maybe because he was seemed to be the stockiest and tallest of the workers trying to get through the fence. It’s hard to think of any other reason. Why did they fire live ammunition at a laborer who only wanted to find employment in Israel? And why did they shoot at all? And why without any warning, not even prior shooting in the air?

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit sent the following response to Haaretz this week: “The IDF acts every day with a variety of means and according to the rules of engagement against those who try to damage the separation fence, because of the security danger that poses. As to the incident in question, an investigation shows that the shooting was done in accordance with said rules, after soldiers gave a verbal warning and shots were fired into the air.

“The IDF operates at present and will continue to do so in order to cope with the security threat that stems from damage to the fence and infiltration of individuals into the State of Israel. The IDF examines and investigates every incident individually, with the aim of preventing security damage and injury to innocent civilians.”

In the early afternoon of this past Monday, after visiting him at home, we visited the site where Abu Tehaimer was shot. An eerie silence pervaded the place. We could see farmers from Zeita working in their greenhouses, as a military vehicle sped along the security road between the fences. A young man carrying a large backpacked waited until the vehicle passed and then darted through the system of obstacles, under the eyes of an Israeli security camera. He made it through a hole in the barbed wire, another in the first fence and a last breach in the second fence. To judge by the size of the backpack, he was planning to stay and work in Israel for a long time. A moment later he was swallowed up between the cafés of Baka al-Garbiyeh on the west side of the fence. This time no one shot at the infiltrator.

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