Young Palestinians Suffer Bone-Shattering Experience


By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 30, 2000; Page A01
 
 

RAMALLAH, West Bank Iyad was shot because he ran too fast. Nshat was shot
because he missed his ride. Ronny was shot for throwing a stone. And Abdel
Kareem was shot where his two friends died.
 

Iyad, Nshat, Ronny and Abdel Kareem had never met before. But these four
young Palestinians now see one another daily, as patients at the Abu Raya
Rehabilitation Center. They sleep in the same dormitory-style room with
walls decorated with verses from the Koran and pictures of slain
Palestinians. And they see one another for morning therapy sessions, at
which they try to learn how to walk on shattered bones and damaged limbs.
 

All four were shot in the legs by Israeli soldiers during clashes over
Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian-inhabited areas of the West
Bank and Gaza Strip. And they now are among the thousands of Palestinians
wounded by what Palestinian officials, and some human rights groups, say is
Israel's use of excessive force to quell the unrest.
 

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but more than 7,000 Palestinians have
been wounded and more than 250 killed since the uprising began Sept. 29,
compared with an estimated 35 Israeli Jews killed and scores wounded.
Palestinian doctors estimate that more than 1,000 of the Palestinian wounded
will suffer permanent disabilities, including limps and paralysis.
 

Of the more than 120 who have suffered eye injuries, about 32 are blind.
 

The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights sent forensics experts and an
orthopedic surgeon to the region. The team concluded in an early November
report that the Israeli army "has used live ammunition and rubber bullets
excessively and inappropriately to control demonstrators, and that based on
the high number of documented injuries to the head and thighs, soldiers
appear to be shooting to inflict harm, rather than solely in self-defense."
 

The pattern of the disturbances has changed since the early weeks, with
fewer large demonstrations by stone-throwing youths and more attacks on
Israeli positions and vehicles by gunmen and Palestinians hiding bombs. But
the overwhelming majority of injured Palestinians have come from mobs of
teenage boys and young men pelting Israeli soldiers with stones.
 

The Israeli army has said repeatedly that soldiers in such situations fire
when their lives are threatened by gunfire, gasoline bombs or stones.
Israeli officials have also accused the Palestinians of using children and
teenagers at the forefront of protests while gunmen hide behind them to
shoot and draw Israeli return fire.
 

In any case, the result of Israel's use of force can be found in the
hospitals and rehabilitation centers scattered around the West Bank and
Gaza. The most severe cases, those with spinal cord injuries and paralysis,
have been transported to hospitals in Amman, Jordan; Baghdad, Iraq; and
Cairo. Left here are the shattered hips and kneecaps and the damaged thighs.
 

Many wounded Palestinians do not appear to have been the shooters. Rather,
it has been Palestinian policemen and militiamen who have engaged Israeli
troops with gunfire. Many of the wounded are teenagers--their chins barely
sprouting the first signs of a beard--and they admit they were throwing
stones and gasoline bombs when they were shot.
 

Except for Iyad.
 

He was a medic working with an ambulance crew in Ramallah when a bullet tore
through his right leg. Iyad, who is 26 and asked that his last name not be
used, said his ambulance was at the scene of a clash between Israeli troops
and protesters on Oct. 10. It was night at the Ayosh junction, a frequent
flash point on Ramallah's outskirts, and the ambulance team received word
that a Palestinian was injured and in need of assistance.
 

When the ambulance arrived, Iyad, who is tall and athletic, was the first to
dash outside. But he may have dashed too fast. "I ran a few feet outside the
car. I felt something hit my leg," he said. "It was a bullet. The bone was
shattered. . . . They opened fire at the ambulance."
 

Iyad had two operations at Makassed hospital in Jerusalem before he was
transferred to the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Center here, and now his right
leg is held together by metal bolts and thin wire. When he is not undergoing
therapy, he is on his bed, in pain, comforted by a cassette player and a
stack of tapes, a deck of playing cards and a blue tin of individually
wrapped chocolates that he proffered to a guest.
 

"It's painful. All day I feel it," he said. "Yesterday, I went to the
bathroom and hit my leg on the wall.
 

"The doctors said it will take time, maybe six months. Because the bone was
hit badly, now the leg is a little bit shorter. . . . I can't walk on it, I
can't stand on it. I'm worried about the future. Maybe I'll limp. Maybe I
won't be able to stand on it."
 

Robert H. Kirschner, a physician and forensics expert with the University of
Chicago Medical School who was with the Physicians for Human Rights team,
said, "By inflicting all these leg wounds, it's a form of summary
punishment. It causes a permanent disability."
 

Nshat, wearing a green track suit and lying in the bed next to Iyad, said he
felt lucky. The bullet that hit him tore a hole through his left leg. But he
can at least move slowly now, even if painfully.
 

Nshat, 22, is from Gaza. He was in Ramallah visiting a cousin when the
uprising began. He could not get back again because Israeli authorities
banned passage for most Palestinians. On Nov. 5, however, Nshat heard about
a taxi leaving from Ramallah to Gaza, and he wanted to try for a ride. He
was told to go to the taxi stand in the morning, but on the way he saw
demonstrators marching through the city. He joined the march and missed his
ride.
 

At the Ayosh junction, he and the others grabbed stones and began hurling
them at an Israeli army checkpoint. The Israelis fired back with rubber
bullets and volleys of tear gas.
 

"I felt dizzy from the tear gas, so I walked away a little bit," he said. "I
sat down, then I felt something hit my leg. It was a bullet. It was really
painful. I tried to stand up, but I could only walk two steps, then I fell
down."
 

The doctors told him his leg should heal, but his daily routine consists of
therapeutic massages. "I just want to experience walking on my leg again,"
he said, "just for an hour."
 

Of the 4,448 wounded Palestinians admitted to West Bank hospitals as of Nov.
12, 21.4 percent were shot in their legs, according to statistics kept by
Musa Abu Hmied, director of West Bank hospitals. The huge stacks of yellow
folders on his desk at the Ramallah hospital tell the stories--each folder
another case.
 

Nearly 38 percent of those admitted to hospitals were shot with standard
ammunition; 37 percent were shot with metal bullets encased by rubber. The
other injuries came from shrapnel, tear gas and falling down while running.
More than a quarter of the injuries were gunshot wounds to the head.
 

Asked how many Palestinians are likely to be permanently disabled from this
uprising, Abu Hmied shrugged. "Nobody knows," he said. "We have neck
injuries. We have spinal injuries. We have upper extremity injuries. We have
to wait and see the progress of the patient."
 

Ronny, who is 17, has lived in New York, Jacksonville, Fla., and Columbus,
Ohio, and speaks English with an American teenager's accent. He was lying in
a ward at the rehabilitation center; an Israeli bullet had ripped through
his left kneecap.
 

"We were throwing rocks, stones, at police cars," he said matter-of-factly.
"After about a half-hour, a white car came and I chased it. I kept throwing
stones at it. Then they shot me from the police car."
 

"Most of the guys were like me, they were hit in the knee," Ronny said. "I
had five friends next to me, and they all got hit in the knee."
 

The Physicians for Human Rights report said, "The existence of a similar
pattern of injuries over time reflects an ongoing policy."
 

"They are accurate," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and
activist in Ramallah. "When they shoot somebody in the head, they mean to
shoot them in the head. When they shoot somebody in the knee, they mean to
shoot them in the knee.
 

"Sometimes they pick somebody out and decide to kill him."
 

Among those targeted are perceived ringleaders. People such as Abdel Kareem,
who is 17.
 

Abdel Kareem recalled the day he was shot, the day of the funeral for a
young "martyr" from his village. "The march was heading west," he said.
"There was a checkpoint with Israeli troops. We started the clashes with
them. They fired a lot of tear gas. After they hit us with tear gas, it
calmed down a little. We regrouped in the middle of the village. We set fire
to a big tire and tried to roll it toward the Israelis. But the guys
couldn't move it. Every time we went to move it, they would shoot.
 

"The situation was calming down. I was standing near my house. I heard there
were snipers around. Suddenly, I fell down and I saw I had a bullet in my
thigh. . . . At the same time I fell down, my friend beside me was killed on
the spot. The bullet went in one side and came out the other. The other guy
was shot in the stomach, and his whole stomach exploded.
 

"They targeted the three of us because we were close to them," he said.
"They always target the active people. And we were running around, here and
there."
 

Kirschner, from Physicians for Human Rights, said, "The purpose is to wound
people who they feel are leaders of these demonstrations--to, as they say,
take them out of commission."
 

© 2000 The Washington Post Company