In the past ten years of Friday demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in our West Bank village of Bilin, I have helped carry countless men and women to the ambulances, injured by Israeli rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas canisters and live ammunition.
But until 31 July, I never knew what this experience would feel like when the person I was carrying was one of my own children.
During a demonstration that day, I heard a gunshot, and then the scream of my sixteen-year-old son Majd.
A silence fell over me as I ran to him with many thoughts in my head. Where was he shot? Would he be okay? Why did the Israeli soldiers target him?
He was just standing there as the demonstration was ending. Did the soldiers shoot my son because they know I am one of the organizers of these protests?
It is in these moments of uncertainty that our greatest fears haunt us — moments that the people in Gaza have been experiencing on a daily basis.
Over the past few weeks, there have been demonstrations throughout the occupied West Bank to protest Israel’s illegal actions and to show our support for our brothers and sisters in Gaza. This is in response to the murder of more than 2,000 people and injuring of thousands more, where more than 80 percent of those killed have been civilians, including hundreds of women and children.
During these protests of solidarity, the Israelis have been particularly brutal in their responses and they have injured and killed many peaceful demonstrators.
“Why won’t they leave us alone?”
After visiting the hospital in Ramallah where many Palestinians injured during demonstrations are recovering, residents of Bilin knew we needed to have a special demonstration in our village to show our support for Gaza.
This demonstration was planned in honor of the children of Gaza, and our children in Bilin. We know that the children are affected most by this violence by the Israeli occupation.
Three weeks earlier when the bombings first started and everywhere on the news there were discussions about children being killed in Gaza, my eight-year-old daughter Mayar was having trouble sleeping. She would keep waking up and come to wherever I was so that I would hold her. She was afraid.
Late one night, she started to ask me questions that no father ever wants to hear: “Why is Israel bombing Gaza? Why won’t they leave us alone? Why are they killing kids my age? Why won’t anyone stop them?”
I did not have an answer for Mayar. There is no good answer that can explain what is happening.
I was ashamed to tell her that so much of the world is asleep while people in Gaza are being killed. At this moment I understood in a new way that her childhood, her life — like the lives of so many other Palestinian children — would be forever changed as a result of these massacres in Gaza.
I cannot protect her from this reality.
My child is wise, and her questions are important for many of us to consider. It is because of these questions that we must continue to resist. So that our children and our children’s children do not have to face such harsh realities of occupation, imprisonment, death and destruction all their lives.
“Am I going to die?”
On the day of the latest demonstration, hundreds of people from Bilin joined together to march to the apartheid wall that still separates us from our agricultural land. As we approached the wall, the heavily armed Israeli soldiers met us in their jeeps and began shooting tear gas canisters at our peaceful demonstration.
As the demonstrators began to scatter to avoid suffocation from the tear gas, the soldiers started to come into our village. As we were turning toward home, I saw an Israeli commander point his rifle in our direction, take aim and then fire.
I could instantly tell from the sound that it was live ammunition, and in the next moment I saw who he had been aiming at — my son.
It is not easy to describe the feeling of hearing your child scream in agony.
“Am I going to die baba?” he asked me breathlessly, as I rushed to hold him and see where he had been shot.
It was very difficult to lift him up, even as his leg was dripping blood, and then to carry him to the ambulance. Maybe the most difficult of all, was calling my wife Tesaheel from the ambulance and try to explain to her what had happened to our son, trying to sound confident as I told her that his injury was not too bad, that our son would be okay, that everything would be okay.
I felt like I was being choked, that I was being strangled and the words would not come out of my mouth. I never want to tell my wife that our child is in danger — but this is our life, our everyday experience.
In those moments after he was shot, I was not thinking about the commander that shot him. I was not thinking about the occupation or the war in Gaza. All I could think about was my son.
I was not sure if he was being brave, scared or was in shock, because while we were in the ambulance he was very quiet the whole time. He has been shot before with a high projectile tear gas canister and rubber-coated steel bullets, all of which can kill, of course — but those times he never bled this much, and I had never before been so afraid that my child could be dying.
No other choice
When we finally arrived at the hospital, the doctors said that the bullet hit a nerve in his leg. He could not feel his foot, and he would need to have surgery in Israel or Jordan because they do not have the type of medical equipment needed for this surgery in the West Bank.
I did not leave his side the whole time he was in the hospital. Many family members and friends came to visit and it has been wonderful for Majd to see how much all of these people love him and support him. His body is healing and he is able to move around in a wheelchair. He is now back home.
We are all relieved and so grateful he is alive, but this experience is not over. And this was only one small taste of what so many here must endure.
During the past couple of weeks I have thought a lot about my son, my family and my work organizing demonstrations against the occupation.
I realize it is not helpful to blame, or get angry at myself — but I have wondered if he would have been shot if I was not organizing the resistance in Bilin.
The truth is, many children are harmed and even killed without any political connection. I feel the desperation of a parent who wants to, but is not able to protect his children. It is beyond my control — I am not the one that chose to shoot an innocent young boy. I am not the one that gave the order to shoot tear gas at peaceful demonstrators or to drop bombs on homes, schools and hospitals in Gaza.
This is our life living under occupation. My son is no different from the thousands of others who have been shot during this conflict. As a leader of popular resistance protests, my family joins with me in demonstrations, knowing that any one of us could be arrested, injured or even killed as a result.
But we do it anyway, because we have no other choice — we will never achieve our freedom unless we struggle for it and sometimes pay for it with blood and tears.
So we must continue to resist, for my children and for all our children, in the hopes that our efforts today will create a future for Palestinians in which we are safe and free.
Iyad Burnat organizes regular protests against Israel’s wall in the West Bank village of Bilin.