Mohammed Qassem, hunched over in his wheelchair in the yard of the rehabilitation hospital in Beit Jala, outside Bethlehem, asks us to end the conversation because he’s exhausted. Helpless, his face pale and exuding fatigue, his legs paralyzed, a disposable diaper around his loins, this once-sturdy young man wants only to return to his bed.
Qassem has been hospitalized and bedridden for almost three months, much of that time unconscious, and has undergone nine operations since Israel Defense Force soldiers used a powerful explosive device to enter his home, for no obvious reason, early one morning. It’s standard IDF procedure to invade Palestinian homes during its search-and-arrest operations. Many times these actions are intended solely as a training exercise for the troops or as a show of strength and control, and to instill fear. Most of them have no real value. Very often, instead of knocking at the door the soldiers blast it open – as in the case at hand – at the expense of the occupants.
Mohammed and Ahmad Qassem, brothers of 27 and 21, who were on the ground floor of their home in the Jenin refugee camp at the time of the blast, were seriously injured and crippled, at least temporarily, by the force of the explosion. The soldiers/sappers, apparently taken aback themselves by the strength of the blast, started to argue among themselves in front of the terrified occupants of the house. They removed the two brothers on stretchers. That was in early September, and they haven’t returned home since.
Both men were hospitalized for weeks in Israel, and then Mohammed was transferred to the Beit Jala institution for rehabilitation, while Ahmad was placed in administrative detention – incarceration without trial – for six months. He’s jailed in Megiddo Prison, hobbling about on crutches. A third brother, Umar, 24, was already in prison at the time of the incident, also detained without trial.
The date was Saturday, September 5. On Friday, Mohammed had worked on his father’s truck – Fadel Qassem is a furniture mover – and returned in the evening to the family’s home in the refugee camp, in the northern West Bank. Everyone went to sleep around midnight; as usual, Mohammed slept in the living room, which is about 15 meters from the metal front door. Only their father, Fadel, 56, was able to recount what had happened, in testimony he gave the next day to Abdulkarim Sadi, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem:
“Ahmad got home around 6:30 in the morning on Saturday. I was already awake. After he entered we heard a commotion outside that meant soldiers were in the camp. A few minutes later we began hearing soldiers by the entrance of our house. We live in a two-story building: My wife and I and our daughter live on the upper floor, and my sons, Ahmad and Mohammed, live on the ground floor. Mohammed sleeps on a mattress in the living room. Ahmad was anxious because of the sounds of the soldiers outside. Just then the front door blew open with tremendous force and the living room was filled with dust.”
Fadel continued: “I froze where I was, on the stairs, until the dust cleared from the explosion, which was so violent and horrible. When the dust cleared, I saw my son Ahmad, who before the explosion was standing next to the door, lying on the floor and bleeding. My son Mohammed, who was sleeping on the mattress, was wounded. He was hurt in his legs, in the thigh area. I saw splashes of blood and body parts scattered about. It was all because of the detonation of the metal door, which was also torn apart.
“Immediately after the explosion a large number of soldiers rushed in, aiming their rifles at me and at the boys, who were on the floor, bleeding. Ahmad was injured in the neck, stomach and legs by fragments of the metal door. Mohammed was wounded, as I said.... The soldiers didn’t fire even a single shot in the house. One of them asked me who I was and I answered that I was their father. I asked the soldiers to give first aid to my two injured sons, and they brought in an army paramedic who treated them. Afterward the soldiers brought two stretchers, placed my sons on them, and took them away.” (A video taken by neighbors shows soldiers leaving with a wounded person on a stretcher, with other troops guarding it from all sides with rifles at the ready.)
The raid on the house, according to the father’s testimony, “lasted about an hour, and then the soldiers left the house and the camp. During the raid, my wife and daughter wanted to come down from the second floor to see what was going on in the living room, but the soldiers didn’t let them. I want to point out that the front door flew more than 15 meters into the living room and was shattered to pieces from the strength of the explosion.”
In the yard of the rehabilitation center in Beit Jala, to which he was moved about a week ago, Mohammed told us this week that he heard the soldiers saying after the explosion that they didn’t know there was anyone in the house. As far as is known, there is no house in the Jenin refugee camp that is not full of people. He estimates that at least 20 soldiers burst into his house after the explosion, along with a dog or two.
Afterward, the soldiers tried administering first aid to Mohammed, but they couldn’t stanch the flow of blood. He felt he was losing consciousness. The troops carried him out to a military vehicle and from there he was transferred to a military ambulance. That’s all he remembers.
Mohammed was taken to Haemek Hospital in Afula, where he remained for about 70 days, most of the time in intensive care. For the first 30 days he was totally unconscious and for the 20 days that followed he was woozy. He received 40 blood transfusions, he says. His father managed to visit him only twice; the rest of the family was forbidden from visiting. Ahmad, who was recovering in the orthopedic department of the same hospital and was under detention and guarded most of the time, was allowed to visit his brother once, after 40 days, for a few minutes.
Mohammed remembers only that Ahmad was in a wheelchair when he was brought to his bedside in the ICU. After about two months, Ahmad was moved to Megiddo Prison, where he is serving six months in administrative detention, though naturally he has not been told on what charges.
After Mohammed was released from the hospital in Afula, he was transferred to the hospital in Jenin. After four days of examinations, the physicians there decided to transfer him to the rehabilitation hospital in Beit Jala.
IDF sources related immediately after the incident that the two brothers were armed. If that had been the case, Mohammed would not have been released and Ahmad would have been charged with illegal possession of arms. That didn’t happen. It follows that this account was a fabrication.
This week the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following statement to Haaretz: “On the night of September 5, 2020, IDF fighters carried out an operation of arrests to thwart terrorist activity in the city of Jenin. During the operation, armed military activists were arrested and weapons and ammunition were seized. During the arrest, which included using means of demolition to enter the house where the activists were hiding, two activists were injured and were taken to hospital for medical treatment. Ahmad Qassem is in administrative detention until March 4, 2021.”
Naturally, no one in the IDF appears to have even thought about compensating Mohammed and Ahmad or at least apologizing to them for the brutal and criminal harm inflicted on them. Nothing justified the detonation of the door with so much force. Nothing.
Israel’s army, it must be emphasized, makes a habit of blowing up doors in its routine nighttime raids on the homes of Palestinians throughout the West Bank. It’s part of the drill, the regular procedure. Such acts may add an aura of heroism to the operations, but it’s not hard to imagine the horror it wreaks, along with the fury and the hatred, in homes with, for example, many children.
Imagine night in a home in a refugee camp, where the occupants are sleeping soundly, when suddenly their front door explodes and dozens of masked, armed soldiers and terrifying dogs burst in. This is routine.
Mohammed is still in serious condition. He looks sickly and haggard, and he’s unable to stand up. His older brother, Abdel Rahman, 32, tends to him day and night in the Beit Jala rehabilitation hospital. Mohammed has been told that he’ll remain there for at least two months, and the hope is that he will be able to stand on his legs again one day, although that’s far from certain right now.
“The doctors are giving me hope,” he says with a thin smile.
Unlike Ahmad, who had been arrested once before, two year ago, Mohammed has never been arrested. He’s convinced that the only reason Ahmad is in detention is to justify the horrific blast that nearly killed them both.