Friendship under occupation

Ramzi Ajamiah, 17, and Issa al-Muti, 16, have been best friends since the first grade.

The pair can often be found with their arms wrapped around one another, wandering through the narrow, graffiti-filled alleyways between their homes in the Dheisheh refugee camp near the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The teenagers’ friendship grew deeper after Israeli occupation forces shot both of them in the legs, causing each severe injuries.

“Our relationship is tied with a solidarity of pain. He is injured and I am injured. We have the same suffering,” Ramzi told The Electronic Intifada.

“[Our friendship is] like a stone. We have unity in pain.”

Shared pain

Issa was the first to be injured, at just 12 years old.

In September 2015, protests and confrontations with the Israeli army erupted in northern Bethlehem. After learning that his younger brother went to the protests, Issa hurried there to look for him.

Issa frantically searched for his brother, dodging tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets shot by Israeli forces. “In that moment, an [Israeli] soldier opened fire at us,” Issa said.

“I was shot with four bullets in my leg. My leg turned black, blood wasn’t reaching it,” the teen told The Electronic Intifada.

An Israeli ambulance brought Issa to the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem where he spent about three months – one of which he was handcuffed to the hospital bed.

Israeli bullets severed blood vessels in Issa’s right leg, causing gangrene to spread. Doctors were forced to amputate part of the leg.

Residents in Dheisheh held a funeral for Issa’s severed leg, carrying it through the camp and burying it in the camp’s Cemetery of Martyrs, where Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli forces are laid to rest.

It took Issa time to come to terms with his situation.

“I was devastated when I lost my leg,” he said. “But after some time I grew to accept it. I have more power than you think.”

“The [Israeli] occupation is the one who is weak, so I will never be weak,” Issa added.

Issa traveled to the United States to receive additional treatment for his injury in 2016. When Issa returned to Dheisheh, he found Ramzi, then 14, in the hospital. Israeli forces had shot Ramzi in both his legs during an army raid in the camp.

Issa remained by his best friend’s side during the month he spent hospitalized.

“I received treatment for my injuries, so now thank God I can walk. But it has been almost two years, and I still need more treatment,” Ramzi said.

The teen said his recovery was disrupted two weeks after he was released from the hospital when Israeli forces detained him in an overnight raid on his home.

Ramzi subsequently spent two weeks in Israel’s Ofer military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he says the prison authorities intentionally neglected his wounds, causing his injuries to worsen.

They killed my dream

To this day, Ramzi’s wounds still hinder him.

“It’s hard for me to work or hold a job because of my injuries. Especially during the winter, the pain affects me so much,” Ramzi said.

After being injured, Ramzi found solace writing poetry, he told The Electronic Intifada. Meanwhile, Issa dreams of becoming a musician.

“I love music the most,” Issa said. “Don’t say that my injury affected me much because it didn’t. What affected me is that I love to play football. I can no longer play football.”

The two friends were forced to drop out of school due to their injuries after missing several years to seek treatment.

“They killed my dream,” Issa said. “I should be studying and getting a school certificate.”

Palestinian children and teens who experience Israeli prison or violence often drop out of school, Brad Parker, international advocacy officer for Defense for Children International Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada.

“The course of a Palestinian child’s life can and often is significantly altered by coming into direct contact with Israeli forces, whether being detained in a night raid or injured with live ammunition or rubber-coated metal bullets,” Parker said.

“In refugee camps like Dheisheh, lack of accessibility further compounds the impact an injury has on a child and their family,” he added.

Constant bombardment

Despite their lives completely transforming in the few seconds it took Israeli soldiers to shoot them, Ramzi and Issa are thankful to be alive.

Israeli raids in Dheisheh camp are a near nightly occurrence, and have left scores of residents with temporary or permanent disabilities. Sometimes the injuries are fatal.

The latest child victim of Israel’s routine violence in the camp was 14-year-old Arkan Mizher. The teen was shot in the chest during an early morning raid in the camp in July.

According to DCI-Palestine, Palestinian ambulances were prevented from entering the camp, forcing a camp resident to rush Mizher in a private car to a hospital in nearby Beit Jala. Mizher was pronounced dead after arriving at the hospital.

Last year, 22-year-old Raed al-Salhi – a good friend of Ramzi and Issa – was also killed after being shot several times during a predawn Israeli army raid in the camp.

“Captain Nidal”

At the time, reports emerged that an officer of Israel’s Shin Bet secret police assigned to the camp, known as “Captain Nidal,” had threatened youth in Dheisheh that he would permanently disable them.

“He promised all of us that we would become disabled,” Ramzi told The Electronic Intifada. “It’s not fair. This affects our lives and it increases the hatred we feel inside us.”

“It’s continuously happening,” he added. “They target the children with their bullets. It doesn’t matter if you are a child or an adult.”

“They look at us like we are animals. When they shoot at us, it’s like a game to them.”

These routine raids in Dheisheh camp are meant to “break down Palestinian communities and families,” Parker told The Electronic Intifada.

“Living under more than 50 years of Israeli military occupation has created a hyper-militarized environment where disproportionate physical and psychological violence is routinely inflicted on Palestinian children,” he said.

Many of Ramzi and Issa’s friends have been imprisoned, injured or killed by Israeli forces.

“We are all under the occupation’s bullet. Those who are awake and those who are asleep. In the refugee camp we are all under the occupation’s bullet,” Ramzi told The Electronic Intifada.

“He could become a martyr,” Ramzi said, gesturing to a young friend who arrived to greet him. “Maybe Issa will be killed tomorrow, or tonight.”

Video by Jaclynn Ashly, Soud Hefawi, Alaa Amr and Hisham Al-lahham.