How Israel is disabling Palestinian teenagers

Survivors of Israeli live fire speak about Israel’s ‘kneecapping’ practice of shooting youth in their lower limbs.

Mustafa - dheisheh
Mustafa Elayan, 17, was shot in his leg by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – In the Dheisheh refugee camp, it is common to see Palestinian teenagers with deep scars dotting the length of their legs, while posters and murals of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces adorn the concrete walls – testaments to a disturbing reality of routine Israeli violence in the camp.

International law prohibits the use of live ammunition on civilians, except as a last resort during an imminent threat of life. However, Israeli soldiers freely fire live bullets at Palestinians during confrontations or military raids.

Both Palestinian and Israeli rights groups have noted that Israel’s excessive use of force on Palestinians has caused scores of permanent and temporary disabilities in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Several residents in the Dheisheh camp have also recently been killed, the latest of whom was 21-year-old Raed al-Salhi, who was shot multiple times during an Israeli army raid last month. He succumbed to his wounds on September 3 at the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem almost a month later.

The Bethlehem-based Palestinian NGO Badil reported a significant increase in Palestinian injuries in the refugee camps last year, the majority of which were caused by live ammunition. Most of the gunshot wounds were directed at the lower limbs of the youth in the camps, now commonly referred to as “kneecapping”.

Residents of the Dheisheh camp say that an Israeli army commander, who the youth in Dheisheh refer to as “Captain Nidal”, has been threatening to intentionally disable Palestinians in the camp. “I will make half of you disabled and let the other half push the wheelchairs,” he has been reported as saying.

Badil underscored that the threats indicate that incidents of “kneecapping” are “not accidental or isolated”. But instead “result from a systematic Israeli military policy aimed at suppressing resistance, terrorising Palestinian youth, and permanently injuring them and/or causing significant damage to their physical and mental well-being”.

Issa al-Mu’ti, 15: “I could not feel my legs – all I saw was blood”

Israeli military forces in the occupied West Bank shot Issa in the leg during confrontations with Palestinian youth [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Israeli military forces in the occupied West Bank shot Issa in the leg during confrontations with Palestinian youth [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

I was 12. It was 2015. Clashes erupted with Israeli soldiers at the northern entrance of Bethlehem. I was at home with my family when I was notified that my younger brother had gone to participate in the clashes.

I was scared for him. He shouldn’t have gone. I decided to go and find him and drag him back to the camp.

When I arrived, the clashes were ongoing. The Israelis were shooting tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. But still, I continued searching for my brother. Suddenly, the soldiers opened up with live ammunition. I fell to the ground. I couldn’t get up or move my legs. I looked around for help and saw the soldiers shooting at Palestinians who were running away.

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An Israeli police dog began to attack me, biting my leg. I tried to fight it off, but then the soldiers came. They dragged me across the pavement and beat me, even kicked my legs. They didn’t realise I was injured. When they saw my wounds, their faces twisted into shock, and they ran away from me.

I immediately looked down. My legs looked so scary. I couldn’t feel anything – all I saw was blood. I found out later that I had been hit with two expanding bullets in each leg. The use of these bullets is illegal under international law.

The soldiers spent some time staring at me from afar. I could tell they were stunned and didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I was brought to the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. I spent three months there, almost a month of which I was handcuffed to the hospital bed.

Issa holding up a camera photo of him when he was at the hospital. It shows his leg after developing gangrene and his arm handcuffed to the hospital bed at the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Issa holding up a camera photo of him when he was at the hospital. It shows his leg after developing gangrene and his arm handcuffed to the hospital bed at the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Armed Israeli soldiers were stationed in my room the whole time and sometimes Israeli intelligence would come to the hospital and interrogate me about throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at soldiers.

The pain was excruciating. I had one surgery on my left leg and 20 surgeries on my right leg. My right leg had the worst injuries. The doctors told me that my veins had been destroyed by the bullets, so blood was not able to reach my leg.

I developed gangrene in the hospital and the doctors said they would need to amputate my leg.

At first, I refused. What could I do in my life with only one leg? I felt like my life would be ruined. But the pain from the gangrene worsened. My leg turned black and dried out. It got to the point that cutting it off felt like a relief. 

Issa's prosthetic leg [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Issa’s prosthetic leg [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

The injuries changed everything in my life. I can’t walk long distances. Before my injuries, I was working to help my family. We aren’t a rich family, so it was important for me to contribute to the household. But now I can’t do anything.

My family raised a criminal case against the soldiers in Israeli court.

Soon after, Israeli soldiers would come to our home and harass my father. He works at a bakery in Gush Etzion [one of Israel’s illegal settlement blocs]. The soldiers are always threatening him, telling him that they will revoke his Israeli permit so he can’t work any more – which would destroy our family – or that they will detain me if my family doesn’t drop the case.

I know that the soldiers will probably not be punished. They’re Israelis who will face an Israeli court. But they permanently disabled me and shot me with internationally banned bullets. How could they not be held accountable?

Ramzi Ajamiah, 15: “We are affected psychologically”

Ramzi standing beside a poster of slain Palestinian youngster Raed al-Salhi [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Ramzi standing beside a poster of slain Palestinian youngster Raed al-Salhi [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Israeli soldiers shot me in both legs. The bullet that went through my left leg struck my kneecap. It also hit a nerve, so the doctors were not able to take the bullet out. The bullet fragments remain in my left leg.

I’m not able to walk for long periods of time. Sometimes my legs will just give out. Especially during the winter months, the cold makes the pain worse. At times, the pain becomes so severe that I’m not able to go to school. I’ve missed more than a year of school because of my injuries.

The incident happened at 6am in 2016 when Israeli soldiers raided the camp. I was on my way to school. The soldiers routinely enter the camp in civilian buses, not military vehicles, so they aren’t noticed as easily.

One of these buses was parked outside the school. When the soldiers exited the bus, clashes immediately erupted.

READ MORE: A Palestinian family divided

The soldiers shot me with a live bullet in my left leg. I was in shock and my body collapsed to the ground. My friend saw it happen, ran over to me and attempted to carry me away from the clashes. At this time, one of the soldiers shot my friend in his leg. But he kept going. Then they shot him again in the other leg and we both fell.

That’s when the soldiers shot me again in my right leg.

I spent almost a month in the hospital. The doctors had to remove flesh from other parts of my body and implant it into my leg, because the bullet had blown away huge chunks of flesh from my leg. They inserted nails that held the flesh together as it was healing, and they wrapped my legs in casts.

About two weeks after I was released from the hospital, Israeli soldiers came to my house in the middle of the night to arrest me. I thought the soldiers would leave me alone after shooting me. But they dragged me out of my bed, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and threw me into an Israeli army jeep. They said I had thrown stones at the soldiers in the camp.

The scarring on Ramzi's leg after he was shot by Israeli soldiers [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
The scarring on Ramzi’s leg after he was shot by Israeli soldiers [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

I spent two weeks in Israel’s Ofer detention centre near Ramallah. I received negligent medical care from the prison doctor there. It was like he was focused on making my injuries worse.

The first thing he did was remove my casts. Without the casts, the nails in my leg would get caught on the bed sheets at night. There was so much blood all the time. Instead of replacing the cast, the doctor began removing all of the nails. My injuries worsened after that.

However, the pain is not just physical. All of us who have been injured by the Israelis are affected psychologically from the trauma.

I developed an addiction to the painkillers I needed to cope with my injuries. My dad began hiding the medicine from me. I felt angry when I was unable to get it. I went through severe withdrawals; I even suffered from hallucinations and started speaking to myself.

Every single one of my friends has been injured or detained by Israeli soldiers. Our community is still heartbroken over Raed’s death [Raed al-Salhi]. He was Israel’s latest victim and everyone loved him in the camp. Any of us could have met the same fate.

Issa and I are best friends. We are now the only ones out of our friends not imprisoned or dead because of Israel.

Mustafa Elayan, 17: “They want to make us powerless”

 'I screamed for help, but no one was around,' says Mustafa [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera] 
 ‘I screamed for help, but no one was around,’ says Mustafa [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera] 

I was heading to the entrance of the camp during the morning hours in 2015, where clashes had erupted with Israeli soldiers. When I arrived, I was suddenly shot in my right leg. I did not know it at the time, but there was an Israeli sniper stationed on the roof of one of the surrounding buildings who had targeted me.

I fell to the ground. I screamed for help, but no one was around. Everyone had scattered away from the area, so I started dragging myself back into the camp. Some guys in the camp eventually found me and carried me away.

Israeli soldiers were stationed at all camp entrances and they prevented [Palestinian] ambulances from entering. A private car drove us to the hospital, but it took us at least 40 minutes to find a way out of the camp. I was bleeding everywhere. All I could think about was the pain. I was scared that I would not make it to the hospital alive or that I would be detained by the soldiers.

I ended up at the Beit Jala Rehabilitation hospital, where the doctors told me I had sustained a rare injury. The bullet had cut right through my leg and destroyed a cluster of nerves. At times, an electric shock would travel through my body due to the damaged nerves.

The doctors tried everything to assuage the pain. I consumed painkiller after painkiller. The doctors even injected an anaesthetic into my spine. But nothing worked.

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For about five months, all I felt, saw, or thought about was the pain. The hospital then started running out of the pain medication. It was clear I needed to be transferred to another hospital.

The residents in Dheisheh were following my case. For weeks, they protested and blocked traffic on the main street outside the camp and demanded that the Palestinian Authority (PA) do something to help me. Finally, the PA coordinated with the Israelis, and my mother and I got permission to enter Israel in order to be treated at the Tel HaShomer military hospital in Tel Aviv.

The ambulance dropped me off at the “300” checkpoint in Bethlehem where I was supposed to be transferred to an Israeli ambulance. But the soldiers kept me on a stretcher in the street for four hours. They made fun of me, punching me in the shoulder, saying, “Congratulations, you’re a hero now,” and told me that I was going to prison.

'I consumed painkiller after painkiller,' recalls Mustafa [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
‘I consumed painkiller after painkiller,’ recalls Mustafa [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

When we finally arrived, my mother and I could not communicate with anyone. There was no one who would speak to us in Arabic. I was screaming so loud from the pain that the nurses transferred me to a separate room, where an Israeli guard was stationed outside.

They locked the door and sealed all the windows, and would not even allow my mother to leave the room. My mom had to sleep on the cold, hard floor because the Israelis refused to provide her with a mattress.

I spent 19 days at that hospital. I did not receive any treatment. They just gave me Panadol every few hours. Sometimes, a nurse would enter the room and scream at me in Arabic, accusing me of throwing stones and calling me her enemy. When we attempted to get information from her about my treatment, she would pretend not to know any Arabic.

We didn’t know what to do. I regretted coming to the hospital. The way I was treated, it felt like I was being injured for the second time.

Our friends and family back in Dheisheh reached out to 1948 Palestinians [Palestinian citizens of Israel] on Facebook to see if they could help us. A few of them came to the hospital and tried to find out what was happening. The doctors told them that they were going to amputate my leg.

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We became very scared. One day, the 1948 Palestinians got access to my room in between guard shifts. 

They wrapped me in a blanket, put me in a wheelchair, and smuggled me out of the hospital. They carried me to a yellow-plated Israeli car and drove me back to the Beit Jala hospital.

Four months later, a group of Italian activists came to the hospital to see me after hearing about my case. They brought me to Italy to undergo surgery, almost a year after I had first been injured.

The Italian doctors tell me that, one day, I will be able to run again. I do not feel the pain any more, but I can’t feel anything from the knee down. I still can’t even move my foot, so I am not hopeful I will heal completely.

The injuries destroyed my life. I can’t walk normally. I haven’t been to school since I was shot. I don’t do much now except stay at home or sometimes wander around the camp.

But my situation isn’t unique. Israeli policies are centred on disabling us. They don’t even want to kill us. They want to keep us alive, but make us powerless to do anything against them.

Additional reporting by Soud Hefawi. 

Source: Al Jazeera