Shot, hunted, jailed: One journalist’s ordeal

Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad al-Azzeh is set to face an Israeli court after being shot in the cheek.

Mohammad al-Azzeh, camera operator [Jessica Purkiss/Al Jazeera]
Mohammad al-Azzeh has won awards for his documentary films [Jessica Purkiss/Al Jazeera]

Bethlehem, occupied Palestinian territories – When Mohammad al-Azzeh was arrested in the early hours of the morning, it was not his first close encounter with the Israeli military.

Just a few months earlier, the 23-year-old award-winning journalist was shot in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet as he took photos of an incursion of Israeli soldiers into Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he was born and raised. The bullet caused substantial damage and Azzeh underwent surgery.

Mohammad al-Azzeh was shot while
taking photographs
[Jessica Purkiss/Al Jazeera]

Since he was shot, the Israeli military has been searching for him. After his release from hospital, anticipating his arrest, Azzeh spent each night sleeping in the home of a different friend. After 83 days, on the night of July 1, the military manhunt came to an end.

The shooting

On April 9, Azzeh had been standing on the balcony of the Lajee refugee centre, taking photos of Israeli soldiers entering Aida camp. He volunteers at the centre, teaching journalism to young refugees. As he was taking pictures, one Israeli soldier shouted at him in Arabic: “Go home.”

Azzeh says he replied: “No, I will not go. As you have a gun and shoot at children, I have a camera – and I’m taking pictures – I do nothing to you.”

He continued his work, but as the threats became more hostile, he moved to retreat inside the centre. Before he could reach safety, however, a bullet pierced his right cheek.

His mother, Shifa al-Azzeh, insisted that Mohammad had done nothing to provoke the soldiers. “My son was not violent,’ she said. “He was always happy and always joking. All he did was try and photograph the confrontations in the camp and this is what he gets in return?”

“In the camp, we are birds. From time to time, they take a shot at us for practice.”

Since the shooting, Azzeh’s family have reported a campaign of persecution carried out by Israeli soldiers determined to discover the young journalist’s whereabouts.

The arrest

On the night he was discovered, he had stayed late talking to cousins who had arrived from the United States. Without the family’s knowledge, he had decided to sleep in the home of his grandmother.

At around 2am, 70-80 Israeli soldiers surrounded the family home. Traditional Palestinian houses have the various branches of the family living in adjacent apartments of the same building, with a storey added to the roof for each new generation – and the concrete homes of Aida camp are no different.

Mohammad al-Azzeh was shot in the face with a
rubber-coated steel bullet [Jessica Purkiss/Al Jazeera]

The invading troops broke down the doors of his parents’ home, as well as the home of his uncle and three cousins, and finally that of his grandmother and aunt. During the raid, the family claim the Israeli military acted with “maximum brute force”. 

According to their accounts, the soldiers grabbed Mohammad’s father, Waleed al-Azzeh, around the neck. Mohammad’s uncle, Khader, was beaten with the butt of soldiers’ rifles when he tried to intervene. Khader is a United States citizen, visiting his family at the time. His chest, back and legs still bare the bruises he says were the result of his beating. Both men were reportedly then handcuffed and forced to lie on the ground.

“During the entire assault, I had my American passport in my hands,” said Khader. “I was saying to the soldiers: ‘I am a citizen of the US and I have rights.’

“My arms were handcuffed and I was lying down, but still they beat me. One soldier stood on me and then repeatedly punched me in the face.”

When Mohammed was eventually found, hiding under his 87-year-old grandmother’s bed, the family say he was locked in the room with ten soldiers, while his family were prevented from entering. They heard the young man’s distress, but could not reach him. Once the door was re-opened, the soldiers formed a ring around him, so his family was unable to see him.

“I saw Mohammed screaming in pain, he was clutching his cheek and asking the soldiers not to touch his face,” said one Aida camp resident.

 Pope Benedict visits Aida refugee camp [14 May 2009]

His mother despaired. “We had a hard enough time just seeing him shot, seeing his face disfigured. On top of this they terrorise our entire family, beat him and now they arrest him. Isn’t that enough?”

A spokesman for the Israeli military told Al Jazeera: “Mohammad al-Azzeh was arrested on July 1 in Al-Aida, on the suspicion of involvement in violent and illegal activities, after which he was transferred to security forces for questioning.”

Requests for further comment from Israel’s office for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, regarding the family’s statements, went unanswered by the time of this article’s publication.

The search

Prior to his arrest, the army raided the Azzeh family home twice in an effort to find him.

On the first occasion, just after Azzeh was released from hospital, Israeli troops burst into his parents’ home, injuring his father as they battered down the door. According to Mohammad’s father, the soldiers handcuffed Mohammad’s three brothers, forced them to lie face down on the bed, and interrogated them on his whereabouts.

Palestinian child prisoners ‘abused’ in Israel’s jails

The three young men were ordered to report, along with their father, Waleed, to a detention centre in the Israel settlement block of Gush Etzion, the following day. Once there, Waleed said he was told to find Mohammad and to bring him to the soldiers – before they would release his other three sons. Despite his refusal to comply, the three brothers were released later that day.

On May 8, the family received a further visit from the Israeli military. During the early morning raid, they detained Mohammed’s cousin, Miras al-Azzeh, on a charge they refused to disclose.

The people of Aida refugee camp are facing a brutal crackdown by the Israeli military. The impoverished camp’s position in the shadow of the separation wall has meant it is the site of frequent clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers, as well as regular military raids and arrest operations.

Under the balcony where Mohammad was shot is the spot where 15-year-old Saleh Elamareen was fatally shot on January 18. Just a month later, 12-year-old Mohammad Khalid al-Kirdi was one of two boys shot and injured during a protest in Aida.

Later in February, Mohammad’s younger brother, Saed, a student in his final year of chef studies, was taken into custody by Israeli troops. In March, 16 people between the ages of 15- 29 were arrested in early morning raids.

According to relatives, Saed was subject to 45 days of solitary confinement before being placed in a cell with undercover Israeli intelligence officers who impersonated Palestinians and claimed he had to prove he was not a “collaborator”. The submissions obtained under duress were later used to create a case against him, say the Azzeh family.

Mohammad has produced two award winning documentaries. His film, Everyday Nakba, on the water crisis facing Palestinians won the Al-Awda Award for Best Short Documentary Film. 

His case is due to be heard by a military court on Monday July 8.

Source: Al Jazeera