Ha’aretz: The Twilight Zone/Live Fire

25 March 2009

By Gideon Levy Ha’aretz

Young Mahdi Abu Ayash lies in the intensive care unit of Al Ahli Hospital in Hebron, with no chance of a meaningful recovery. Look at the picture and understand – or not. Why was this teenager – who maybe, or maybe not, threw rocks at soldiers who had arrested and beaten two of his friends – shot with live ammunition? Is the IDF once again using the Ruger 0.22 caliber rifle, after it was specifically banned as a means of crowd dispersal in December 2001, by the then chief military prosector, Menahem Finkelstein? The doctors said they had never seen such a bullet before, which spins about in the brain and destroys its tissues. Why wasn’t tear gas or rubber bullets enough? Or a shot in the air? Why does the IDF spokesman say that the soldiers used “crowd dispersal measures,” while the doctors determined it was live ammunition? Why isn’t the IDF investigating this grave incident? Why do soldiers need to roam about the town of Beit Omar at night and relentlessly provoke its youths? Why does a 16-year-old boy have to end up as a vegetable? And who will bear responsibility for it?

These questions hung in the air in the meager home of the Abu Ayash family in Beit Omar, and more so in the intensive care unit of Al Ahli Hospital. No one will give them an answer. No one will bother about them – neither the IDF commanders nor the soldier who destroyed the boy’s life. A sniper’s bullet in the forehead and it’s the end.

When he got a little farther away, Said heard two gunshots, one loud and one soft. Then he saw the boys running toward his car, yelling to him to stop and carrying one of the boys who was wounded. Said tried to prepare his daughter: “You’re going to see something bad now. When you grow up, you’ll be a doctor,” he told her. The boys opened the car door and started putting the wounded boy in the back seat. It was dark and Said couldn’t get a good look at the wounded boy’s face, which was covered in blood.
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Within moments, a Palestinian ambulance arrived, and the youths removed the wounded boy from Said’s car and transferred him to the ambulance. Said told his daughter to wait in the car and not be afraid, and then he went to the ambulance to see who was hurt, so he could hurry to tell the boy’s family. When he looked in the ambulance, he still didn’t recognize the boy, but then one of his friends suddenly yelled to him: “Don’t go. Don’t you see? It’s your son.”

Said rushed back to the ambulance, gave his car keys to one of the teenagers and asked him to take Anwar home and keep her calm. “God gave me so much presence of mind,” he says now. He was most worried then about his daughter finding out that the wounded boy was her brother.

Said boarded the ambulance and it started on its way. There was no medical team, just the driver and two boys, friends of Mahdi, who held his head and tried to stanch the bleeding from his forehead. “I could tell that the situation was very serious. I knew that in such a situation you have to talk with the injured person and so I started talking with him. I told him that he was my son and I was his father and he would live.” The ambulance driver knew from experience that there would surely be a roadblock at the main entrance to the town, so he decided to take a roundabout route to Hebron, a way that took about an hour and a half on bad roads.

The wounded boy was jostled about and they held him so he wouldn’t fall. At one point it seemed like he stopped breathing, and Said tried to massage his heart and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He tried to calm the two frightened boys in the ambulance and told them: “Be men. Be brave. Now we must do everything we can to get him to the hospital alive.” At another point, he, too, lost hope and started reciting verses from the Koran.

The whole time, Said was thinking that the wounded person was Taher, his 19-year-old son. When they reached the hospital, Said gave the wounded boy’s name to the medical staff and the Palestinian police and it was passed on to the local media. A few minutes later, his brother phoned him: “They reported that Taher was wounded. But Taher is standing here next to me and he’s fine.” Said thought he was losing his mind. He ran to the X-ray room and then he discovered the truth: It wasn’t Taher, it was 16-year-old Mahdi. Said fainted. Mahdi had arrived with the bullet in his head and the doctors were afraid to take it out. It is still lodged in his head.

Taher sits in the room with us. He doesn’t say a word. He’s still in shock. He only shows a picture of his brother on his cell phone from before the injury: The two brothers really do look very much alike. Said says Mahdi was his quietest child. He liked to stay at home and spend hours on the Internet, chatting with a cousin who is studying in Libya. He dreamed of eventually joining him there and studying engineering. Said says he always told his children that they wouldn’t achieve anything with rocks. He’s sure that Mahdi didn’t throw rocks, but what does it matter, he says. “They wanted to kill him. They wanted to kill someone – to punish the youths. That’s why they didn’t use anything else – they didn’t use tear gas or fire in the air. Just a real bullet to the forehead.”

What are his chances?

“The prognosis is very bad. Many tissues were damaged as the bullet spun around inside the brain and many vital systems were destroyed. If he lives, he’ll remain a vegetable.” Said says he would like the IDF to at least investigate and put the soldier on trial. His dream was to transfer his son to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. He has heard that they work wonders there, but he can’t afford it.

The IDF spokesman this week: “During an activity held by an IDF force in the village of Beit Omar, a violent disturbance developed, in which dozens of Palestinian youths stoned the force. The force retaliated with crowd dispersal measures and identified a hit of one of the stone throwers. The Palestinian was evacuated by the Red Crescent to Hebron hospital. It should be stressed that solely crowd dispersal measures were used. In recent months, 17 firebombs were thrown in the village and 9 bombs were thrown at the road to endanger the lives of passengers.” The IDF declined to reply to a question about the types of weapons used.

PSP NOTE: International Volunteers with PSP were present in the village on March 4, the night Mehdi was shot. They confirm that absolutely no firebombs or any other explosive devices were thrown that night. They also confirm that NO crowd dispersal weaponry, including sound bombs, tear gas, or rubber-coated steel bullets were used that night, though troops that enter Beit Ommar nearly nightly are always equipped with such less-lethal weaponry.