Young Palestinians Suffer Bone-Shattering ExperienceBy 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."
(c) 2000 The Washington Post