The bullet entered from the back of his neck and exited through the eye socket, shattering his head and face. A single bullet fired by an Israel Defense Forces soldier lurking in ambush with his buddies in the shade of olive trees. The soldier sees the person approaching the fence, unarmed, not endangering anyone, a slim teenager, dozens of meters away – but still shoots him in the head with live ammunition, wounding him seriously, destroying his life and that of his family, probably for all time. At first the IDF claimed that the soldier had thwarted a knifing attack, and later that the teen had “put his hand in his pocket in a suspicious way.”
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In the end, it turned out that the Hamed al-Masri hadn’t done anything wrong at all.
Masri, a 15-year-old 10th-grader from a poor family in Salfit, a West Bank town east of Petah Tikva, collapsed on the rocks, his face covered in blood. As his friends ran for their lives, a soldier went over to him and, with his foot, turned the teen over. The soldier saw there was nothing in the boy’s hands.
Ambulances and a helicopter were summoned, and in the end Masri was flown to Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva. Since the incident occurred, 10 days ago, Hamed has been unconscious, undergoing operations on his head, with his parents by his side day and night in the intensive care unit. His father, Omar al-Masri, who is unemployed and not in good health himself, only asks, repeatedly, “Why did they shoot him? And why in the head?”
There’s no answer, of course, nor will there be.
The way from the settlement of Ariel to Salfit spans scorched roads and makeshift stone barriers, remnants of burnt tires, IDF bullet casings and empty tear-gas canisters. Once again, as during the periods of the intifadas, we’re escorted (apparently for our protection) by an armed member of the Palestinian security personnel on our way into the town, to collect journalistic testimony about Hamed al-Masri’s shooting. Eyewitnesses and relatives were brought to the offices of the Palestinian Authority to speak to both us and Abed al-Karim Saadi, a field researcher of the human rights organization B’Tselem, about what happened on December 12 next to the fence near Ariel. Hamed’s parents did not want to be interviewed.
School had ended early that day, at 10:30, as it does every Tuesday, and everyone went home. The day before, serious clashes with the IDF had taken place, in the wake of President Trump’s declaration the week before about Jerusalem. A group of seven youths wanted to see the site of the confrontations for themselves, after viewing them a day earlier on Salfit’s Facebook page.
A narrow road, in parts a dirt trail, ascends to the fence, which winds along a path. The barrier that protects Ariel actually consists of two electronic fences with a smooth strip of sand between them for intrusion detection and tracking, barbed wire, sensors, yellow gates and a fortified watchtower of the IDF which overlooks the area. A large rocky expanse, hundreds of meters wide, lies between the access road to Ariel and the fence. It was there that Masri was shot.
Y., a classmate, had been Masri’s best friend since first grade. Slight of build, in ripped jeans, gray sweater and designer haircut – he’s apprehensive at first about talking to strangers, especially Israelis. He has a childish, reedy voice. Y. was with his friend up until he was shot. He could have been wounded just like him. “How is Hamed?” he asks in a frightened voice. “Has something happened?” His eyes dart about.
Masri didn’t go with the group to the fence that day, he joined them later. A doctor from the Palestinian Health Ministry who’d visited his school a few days earlier had sent him to have dental treatment. Ironically, just hours before his face was shattered, the teen had his teeth looked after. He then caught up with his friends.
Not seeing any soldiers, the group went on. This is their after-school activity, their adventure: to approach the fence, especially during tense periods, and sometimes to throw stones at it. This time there was no stone throwing, Y. says. But when the teens were a few dozen meters from the fence – Y. can’t say exactly how far – they suddenly heard shooting. Three shots, apparently. With no warning, no shots in the air, Y. tells us. They didn’t see anything. In a panic, they scattered every which way, running back toward the first houses in town. Not until they were some distance away did they notice that one member of the group was missing. Hamed. They hadn’t seen him crumple to the ground.
In the meantime, Anas Dahloul who lives nearby, rushed to the site of the shooting, after hearing the gunfire. The frightened youths told him their friend was missing. Dahloul, who also spoke with us at the PA office, tried to make his way to the fence. He tells us that he saw a few soldiers, possibly medics, standing around the wounded boy, who was lying on the rocks, but he couldn’t get close enough to see who it was or what his condition was. What he did see was someone bleeding profusely in the face. Dahloul told the youths to leave the site immediately, as more and more agitated residents, who had heard the shots, gathered at the scene. According to Dahloul, a few Israeli ambulances arrived, and the wounded individual was taken to Ariel. Palestinian ambulances were not allowed to approach.
About half an hour later, Hamed’s father, Omar, arrived at the site, distraught. First he was told that his son was wounded in the leg, but then an army officer came over and informed him that Hamed had been wounded in the head and was being flown by helicopter to a hospital in Israel. Omar fainted and was evacuated by a Palestinian ambulance. It was only the following day that he managed to get an entry permit to Israel for himself and his wife, Nura, so they could be with their son.
A medical document issued by Schneider Medical Center, which was given to the parents, states: “15 years old. Hospitalized in children’s ICU following serious bullet wound in center of face. Requires complex surgical procedures, after condition stabilizes. Family needed by his side.” His brother, by the way, is not permitted into Israel to be with him.
Back home, his friends read on Facebook that the IDF was claiming that Hamed had tried to stab a soldier. They knew that was a lie. The day after the incident they didn’t go to school, because of what had happened, but they were back in class last Thursday. Since then have been preoccupied with Masri’s condition. The teacher told them that Hamed was a needless victim who had been shot without any cause or justification. His classmates are following reports about his condition on Facebook, but are being denied permission to visit him.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following statement to Haaretz this week: On December 12, 2017, a number of Palestinians vandalized the security fence adjacent to Ariel, and approached a force of IDF soldiers. One of the Palestinians put his hand in his pocket in a suspicious manner that gave the impression he was going to draw a knife. The force that was present felt that their lives were in danger, and in response, shot and wounded him. The suspect was given first aid by the IDF force and then evacuated to Beilinson Hospital. The official investigation of the incident has not yet been completed.
We went to the site of the incident. Amid the rocks and burnt tires, the fortified-concrete army tower loomed over us, with the double fence behind it and the houses of Ariel on the horizon. Black smoke rose from nearby. Since the incident with Masri, Salfit’s young people have been burning tires and throwing rocks at a different location. At the foot of the road that ascends to the place where Masri was shot, some young people had gathered. Maybe they too will try to find a propitious moment to approach the fence.
Dahloul showed us where Masri was when the bullet hit him. The fence is dozens of meters away, and even if he’d been throwing stones, he wouldn’t have hit a soul. The Palestinian security man who escorted us explained that it’s just like the border fence of the Gaza Strip. The IDF shoots demonstrators from a distance there, too, indiscriminately, as in the case of Ibrahim Abu Tharaya, the double amputee in a wheelchair who was shot by an IDF sniper this week, three days after his comrades shot Masri.
Y., Hamed’s friend, remains deeply distressed. What kind of boy was Hamed, we ask. “A quiet boy. The teachers liked him.” What did he like doing? That question never draws a clear reply from children in the occupied territories, where there isn’t much that children like to do. Does he miss Hamed? Y., who until then displayed no emotions, suddenly fell silent. He lowered his eyes, which grew moist, fixed them on the ground, and said nothing.