Palestinian protester: We are not terrorists

Resistance runs in the blood of Ziyad abu Helayel, 58, the star of social media who peacefully took on Israeli soldiers.

Helayel's peaceful protest comes as Israeli violence against alleged Palestinian attackers increases [Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP]
Correction12 Oct 2015
This article originally stated that Ziyad abu Helayel was 65-years-old. He is 58-years-old

The images have gone viral and the scene has made headlines across the world.

Filmed by a bystander, Ziyad abu Helayel, an unarmed, Palestinian man of slight build and dressed in Arab garb and a keffiyeh headdress, is shown daring to confront Israeli soldiers, who are wearing protective helmets and bullet-proof jackets while pointing their guns towards him.

The 58-year-old’s non-violent protest in his hometown of Hebron in the occupied West Bank saw him voice a series of challenges against a recent spate of Israeli aggression on alleged Palestinian attackers.

Speaking to Al Jazeera over phone, Helayel said he took it upon himself to peacefully resist the Israeli occupation of Palestine even though he has been hit and injured by Israeli soldiers on several occasions in the past.

“My actions are not just spontaneous,” he says. “I always intend to confront the Israeli occupation of my home town of Hebron, and show them that we Palestinians are determined to stand up to them.”

Born in the village of Doora, Helayel is the father of 10 children. In 1991, he lost his three-year-old son when Israeli soldiers, who were manning a checkpoint in Hebron, refused to let him pass through into the town to take his sick son to hospital, resulting in the child’s death.

All six of his adult sons have been jailed or imprisoned by the Israeli authorities for charges relating to resisting the Israeli occupation. His own father, he adds, had fought Jewish militias in 1948 during the battle of al-Qastal, Jerusalem, alongside the famed Palestinian fighter Abdel Qader al-Husseini.

The famous scene

Recounting his now famous encounter with Israeli soldiers, Helayel says that they shot two rubber bullets, hitting his lower abdomen and upper leg.

As he approached them, tear gas was fired. Once face-to-face, he says he attempted to reason with them in Hebrew while pleading with them to halt further attacks on Palestinian protesters.

In the video, he is shown collapsing at the end of the confrontation. Later, he was taken to the hospital and treated for injuries.

“I have been hit and injured in total of 138 times, and was jailed eight times because of my actions against the occupation,” he says.

Explaining his motives and apparent lack of fear, Helayel says he is driven by a love of his country.

“I am a patriotic Palestinian, I love my country, and I love this land,” he says.

Political motivations are also important, and he is well aware of the fractious intra-Palestinian and Israeli politics.

“We are peaceful people”

He says he would like to see Palestinian factions put their differences aside and unite against one common enemy, the Israeli occupation.

In addition to speaking Arabic and Hebrew, Helayel speaks some English and says that he wants the world to know about the plight of his people. 

“We are peaceful people, we are not terrorists as the Israelis speak of us, this is our land and we want to be independent and free.”

As for the Israeli public, he calls on them to end Israeli settlements and allow “Palestinians to be free and breathe fresh air”.

Helayal saves his strongest condemnation, however, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who he blames for the latest escalation of violence.

“You can eat from our flesh all you want,” he says.

“You can drink from our blood all you want, but you will never break our resolve.”