The old man threw me a helpless look, collapsed and fell to the ground, losing consciousness for a moment. The young men around him rushed to give him water and then carried him to the van and left.
He was a worker from distant Tul Karm, much older than the rest of the group, and he was trying to return home because Palestinians were prohibited from staying in Israel on Independence Day, and he had spent the past two weeks working and sleeping in hiding there. When he tried to go through the breach in the fence in the southern Hebron Hills, between Kibbutz Lahav and the Bedouin refugee town of al-Ramadin, dogs led by soldiers suddenly appeared. He ran for his life until he eventually collapsed on the hill where we were standing, overlooking the valley east of the fence, in the West Bank. The young men showed us their torn trousers and their wounds where the dogs had bitten them this morning.
We stood on that hill for a long time. In the fields of Kibbutz Lahav just across the way, the Israel Defense Forces jeeps waited in ambush; in the shade of a distant grove of trees stood a group of workers who had been caught, their hands bound since the morning.
On the horizon, more and more workers were becoming visible, waiting for an opportune moment to return home because of the Independence Day closure. From our lookout on the hill, we could see the van drivers waiting to collect the men on the run, warning them about the soldiers and the dogs on their Mirs cell phones.
The sophisticated, electronic separation fence, hundreds of kilometers long, ends near al-Ramadin. In its stead a simple iron fence has been erected, which already has many gaping holes in it and a stretch at the center that is completely open. "Israel opens one eye and shuts the other," one of the workers remarks. "If it wanted, not even air would pass from here to there."
From here they slip into Israel with the help of a fleet of vehicles driven by Israeli Bedouin to locales in the south, both Jewish and Bedouin, for day jobs - mainly in building and renovations. Every week or two, they return home after a few days of working and sleeping on the construction sites.
Every night, thousands of young Palestinian men from throughout the West Bank flock to this point to cross the fence on their way to work in Israel. In recent weeks, it is not only soldiers who wait here to ambush them, but dogs as well.
At the gas station located in the small southern town of Dahariyeh, Al'a Hawarin appears with two fingers of his left hand bandaged. There are also scars on his right knee. He is 22, his divorced mother's only son and sole provider; he's completed only two years of schooling. Men over 30 don't stand a chance of obtaining permits to work in Israel, or, for that matter, of finding employment in the West Bank. In recent years, Hawarin has been working in Sderot, Ashdod, Rahat and Lakiya.
On April 10, he headed toward the fence before dawn, paying a driver NIS 100 to get there. They were five friends from Dahariyeh and the morning light had not yet broken over the fence near the border town of al-Ramadin. A Bedouin driver's car was waiting on the other side of the broken fence. The five moved ahead quickly in a line, with Hawarin bringing up the rear. Suddenly he felt someone attacking him from behind.
He was convinced it was a soldier, but when he turned around he saw a large dog. The dog first sank its teeth into his buttocks and then grabbed his hand. Hawarin started to scream, and then four or five soldiers leaped out. He managed to free his hand from the dog's jaws and push his way into the van. The soldiers, he relates, did not try to stop him, and the van set off in the direction of the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the Negev. His hand was bleeding, and he was in great pain.
In Lakiya the workers were unable to get help, so they headed back in the direction of the fence in order to reach a place where Hawarin could get medical care. Near the fence he saw that in the meantime the soldiers had arrested nine other workers, one of whom had also been wounded by the dog. Hawarin found another way to get through and eventually ended up in Alyah Hospital in Hebron, where his fingers were stitched up and he was told that he would never be able to bend them again.
The next day, Musa Abu Hashash, an investigator from B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, suggested that Hawarin file a complaint with the police. He went to the Kiryat Arba police to complain - and was arrested. The charge: damaging the fence. It was only through the intervention of B'Tselem lawyers that he was released the following day on bail, and he is now awaiting trial. When he has use of his hand again, he told us, he will go back to infiltrating the fence. He has no alternative.
B'Tselem has documented seven additional cases of attacks by dogs in recent weeks, but clearly, there are others that have gone unreported. Forty-four-year-old Hatem Talahma, from the village of al-Burj, recently underwent open-heart surgery at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. A day after Passover, he tried to infiltrate for a follow-up examination at the hospital, after he had been unable to obtain an entry permit. He was attacked by a dog, arrested and sentenced to 31 days in prison for damaging the fence.
In another case, 20-year-old Mohammed Abu Qa'ut, a son of Bedouin refugees, was returning to his home in al-Ramadin on April 9 when he, too, was bitten by IDF dogs. He has scars along his waist and his leg and also on his arm. A soldier ordered the dog to jump him, and his soldier-friend filmed what was happening on an iPhone. It was several minutes before the soldier ordered the dog to release him, but the dog only let go after the soldier stunned it with an electrical device.
The soldier bandaged Abu Qa'ut's arm to stop the bleeding and then handcuffed him. He was taken to a military base where his wounds were disinfected and instructions were given to send him to Soroka. The soldiers refused to send him to the hospital and said they would take him to the Tarqumiya crossing point. "Let the Red Crescent take care of him," Abu Qa'ut quotes them as saying. Flies swarmed around his wounds. He asked for water, but the soldier who was guarding him refused and said to him, "Let the flies stay."
At 3:30 P.M., half a day after he was wounded and arrested, Abu Qa'ut was released at the crossing point, and from there a Palestinian ambulance took him to a hospital in Hebron, where he was hospitalized and treated. His friend, Yusuf Zararna, who was arrested with him, is still in prison. Abu Qa'ut has been under the care of psychologists in Hebron from Doctors Without Border since the incident.
We asked Abu Qa'ut whether he will go back to working in Israel. "It's my living," he replied. "Where can I go?"
The workers who had been arrested and were still sitting handcuffed in the shade of the grove said they had been there since 4 A.M. The jeeps were still lurking, with their headlights on, among the haystacks. Every so often, one of them rushed out for a foray, raising clouds of dust behind it. The dogs were kept out of sight. The van drivers continued to shout warnings. The lucky ones who managed make it through the fence, a group of sturdy young men, were waiting for transportation back home. After the holiday, they will be back.
The IDF spokesman issued the following statement in response: "In the area of al-Ramadin in the southern Hebron Hills, during the past several years, damage to the infrastructure of the security fence has developed into a serious problem and has enabled elements engaged in terrorist activity to infiltrate the State of Israel. This phenomenon jeopardizes the security of the citizens of the State of Israel and causes damage amounting to millions of shekels annually.
"To prevent damage to the security fence infrastructure, the IDF is employing various means, including the dog-handlers unit, which makes use of trained dogs while taking adequate precautions to prevent unnecessary injury."
The statement added: "The purpose of using dogs, in a broad perspective, is in fact to reduce bodily harm, and they are meant, among other things, to reduce reliance on other means."
The spokesman also assured Haaretz that "every detailed complaint received by the military prosecution is examined and dealt with accordingly."
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