Opinion

The Shooting of a Legless Man

As a double amputee in a wheelchair, Ibrahim Abu Thuraya stood out among the crowd of demonstrators on the Gaza border. Was it his fearlessness that unnerved a soldier on the Israeli side?

Ibrahim Abu Thuraya demonstrating along the border fence between Gaza and Israel, May 2017. He was shot and killed on December 15.
Mohammed Abed/AFP

The car headlights picked out two soldiers in the darkness, carrying guns and other equipment at the entrance to the overcrowded and dense West Bank town of A-Ram. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment, as they say. Their faces expressed that familiar mixture of arrogance, ignorance and fear. How young they look, I thought. I also considered what everyone who drives past soldiers thinks these days: One slight deviation of the car and they’ll assume this lady is hell-bent on running them over. A subsequent Military Police investigation will determine they felt their lives were endangered and so they acted properly. Focus on steering, I told myself, thinking again about how young they were.

It’s doubtful you’d have seen any fear in the eyes of the Israeli soldiers who shot to death Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, 29, on Friday. They were on the other side of the border fence, east of the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in Gaza. Perhaps they were in an observation tower. Maybe on a hill or in an armored jeep, which fired in bursts at the Palestinian demonstrators.

What danger did Abu Thuraya pose? He stood out among the crowd of demonstrators, for sure: A double amputee, he was advancing in his wheelchair, getting off it and moving quickly with the aid of his arms, going eastward across a sandy mound. Did his courage and fearlessness unsettle a soldier on the Israeli side of the fence?

Abu Thuraya had been seriously wounded during the 2008-09 Israeli offensive in Gaza, when he lost both legs. A story on the Palestinian Al Watan news website in 2015 reported that he and his friends were the targets of Israeli shelling on the Bureij refugee camp. He later recovered from his serious injuries and made a living by cleaning car windows on Gaza’s streets, maneuvering among the cars in his wheelchair. Undated video footage shows him climbing up an electricity pole near the Gaza border and flying a flag. In another video, probably recorded on Friday, he is seen in his wheelchair on an exposed spot across from the perimeter fence, again waving a Palestinian flag.

At midday on Friday, he was saying to a TV camera that the demonstration was a message to the Zionist occupation army that “This is our land and we won’t surrender.” Edited footage shows him in his wheelchair later, surrounded by dozens of upset youngsters. His head is drooping, and they lift him to an ambulance and accompany him to a hospital. He was pronounced dead that evening, killed by a bullet to the head.

Ibrahim Abu Thuraya during the demonstrations by Palestinians along the border fence between Gaza and Israel, December 15, 2017.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Did the edited video omit some incriminating footage? For example, did Abu Thuraya aim a rocket at the soldiers? If that was the reason a soldier shot a legless man in a wheelchair, this was a failure of the army and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories spokesmen. Why didn’t they issue a statement to the media about the thwarting of a rocket attack by demonstrators, thus preventing any harm befalling our soldiers?

Back in the West Bank, a tingling in the nose alerted me to the presence of soldiers on the road leading to the Jalazun refugee camp – meaning there were stone throwers there, too. But there was no turning back. The wafting tear gas increased in intensity and the road ahead curved. On one side, behind some houses, crouched some youths – and they were very young. They were holding stones but not throwing them at the time. On the other side, near a wall that protects the settlement of Beit El, stood a formidable-looking armored personnel carrier with a few soldiers alongside it. Perhaps they were Border Policemen (my sense of panic made me forget some of the details). Under their helmets and from a distance, it was hard to determine how young they were. But their arrogance and ignorance was evident in their stance.

My attempt to travel from Ramallah to Bethlehem on Friday (for a concert and children’s choir performance) was unsuccessful. At an intersection on the way to the Beit El checkpoint, a few young men – how young they were – pulled some tires out of a car with the intention of torching them. I understood what was happening and turned back toward Qalandiyah. The traffic was slow.

A Palestinian demonstrator kicking a burning tire during clashes with Israeli forces near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 16, 2017.
Abbas Momani/AFP

At one spot worshippers were emerging from a mosque, and at another people walked in the middle of the road carrying baskets from the market. Elsewhere, there were double-parked cars or men coming out of a festivities hall carrying disposable coffee cups and pieces of cake. An ambulance, sirens blaring, was coming from the direction of the checkpoint, signaling what lay ahead. A few dozen meters up the road, a cloud of tear gas was clearly visible. Any desire I had to explore the situation at any of the other exits from the five-star prison that is Ramallah had passed. It was later announced that one person died at the Beit El checkpoint and another was seriously wounded in Qalandiyah.

On a morning excursion with friends on Friday, he said: “On the one hand, I know I should be there with those courageous young people at the checkpoint. On the other, I know that only through hundreds of thousands going there, hands in pockets, will anything change.”

She added, “Once, we used to hear about one person being wounded in Gaza and the whole of the West Bank was inflamed. Now, we hear of someone dying in Ramallah or a young person losing an eye because of a tear-gas canister and all we do is shake our heads in sympathy and get on with our lives.”

A person living on a street next to the Beit El checkpoint opened his door to those fleeing the clouds of tear gas. The alcohol-soaked handkerchief passed around by a paramedic helped, but it was only inside the house that the tears and burning sensation subsided.

“Our leadership is cut off,” the host declared. “It doesn’t care about the people, only about the money and the jobs. I can’t tell the young people not to go to the checkpoints, but I know their courage is in vain.”