Before noon on 21 September, an Israeli soldier shot 14-year-old Ahed Wahdan in the face with a high-speed tear gas canister. Ahed was shot from a distance of 25 meters as he prepared to throw an empty bottle from a storefront near the Qalandiya checkpoint in the occupied West Bank. He lost his right eye.
Ahed Wahdan turned 15 on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, a month and a half later. He lives in the village of Surda, north of Ramallah, with his mother, father and sister, no longer working in the local carpenter’s shop but passing quiet, stoic days around the house. On afternoons he can be found outside, sitting with his friends on a low wall under a fig tree. He doesn’t talk much.
“Between my friends and me, it’s nothing,” he said. “But I’m not going to protests anymore. That’s over.”
Neither Ahed’s treatment nor his rehabilitation are over yet. After emergency bone surgery to repair the fractures in his nose and skull caused by the aluminum canister and removal of what remained of his eye, Ahed says he remembered nothing for three days.
He is due for an oculoplastics appointment on 13 December at the St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, and he would like to go to Jordan to get a glass eye. But both trips require permits his family does not have, and if recent history is any indication, it will not be easy.
Emergency treatment delayed over permit
Ahed’s mother recounted the afternoon of 21 September, after Ahed was rushed from Qalandiya to the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah to St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital.
“Four and half hours we were [outside St. John] in the ambulance while they ignored us,” she explained. “The [paramedic] named Bashar, a young man, said he’d done everything he could. He called someone named Dalya at Hadassa [hospital in Jerusalem], responsible for those coming from the West Bank, but she said she needed to speak to the PA [Palestinian Authority]. Al-Makassed [Hospital] said there wasn’t one bed. I said, ‘if you let him in I’ll pay, where do I sign and I’ll do it! I’ll do anything if they’ll let him in.’”
Finally, a surgeon from Sakhnin in northern Israel arrived with a permit and volunteered to perform the necessary surgery at al-Makassed Hospital. The operation to repair Ahed’s skull took five hours, about as long as he had waited in the ambulance. Then he was transferred back to St. John of Jerusalem, let in for a two-hour follow-up, then taken back to al-Makassed, where he stayed for twelve days.
Like many Palestinians, Ahed’s mother and father are confined to the West Bank on the grounds of Israeli security. They are both internally displaced persons from Rantis, a village in the West Bank occupied during the 1967 war. Ahed’s father worked for forty years in Israel as a construction worker and vegetable seller, but his permit was revoked for reasons he never figured out, and his mother earns 1,500 shekels (about $400) every two months with Palestinian Working Women, a nongovernmental organization in Ramallah. They say they’ve tried to get a permit for Ahed to go back to St. John of Jerusalem but were denied for security reasons.
“One time, two times we tried,” said Ahed’s mother. “We got the answer from a soldier at the Israeli Civil Affairs Ministry in Beit El. It’s a security restriction.”
No path to justice
In the meantime, Ahed’s family has been in contact with Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer in Jerusalem who has advocated on behalf of Palestinians for 25 years. Based on medical records of Ahed’s skull fractures, Lecker said the evidence that the Israeli military aimed directly at him — in contradiction of its own open-fire regulations mandating tear gas canisters must be shot in arcs — is clear. But the way forward, he said, is virtually nonexistent.
“I think there’s very little chance of compensation,” he said. “It’s not that anything wrong didn’t happen here — if he was injured by a gas canister, there are very specific orders not to aim a gas canister at people. Even if somebody was trying to throw an empty bottle, that’s still not a reason to cause this kind of injury. [Ahed] wasn’t risking anybody’s life or endangering anybody.”
Past experience, however, makes Lecker pessimistic. He says in 2007, an Israeli soldier shot and killed a Palestinian “in a completely peaceful area” from a distance of 500 meters, and the army claimed first not to know about it, then that the Palestinian had “terror intentions.” Only after a report from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and a Israeli high court petition did the case move forward, but Lecker says compensation still has not been paid (for more information on the case, see “Rare Decision by State Attorney’s Office: Prosecute Officer for Killing of Palestinian,” B’Tselem, 24 August 2011).
“In all cases, regardless of who did what, [the Israeli military] is trying to blame the other side and not pay compensation,” he explained. “And the court is supporting, most of the time, the position of the army. So it has become very difficult, almost impossible, to get compensation.”
It is a sad and commonplace drag on the case that Ahed’s parents are advancing a story that Lecker claims is unhelpful and “completely twisted the events.” They claimed he and his mother were on their way to the village of Hizma to visit relatives when the protest halted their progress and Ahed was shot.
Eyewitness testimony directly contradicts this and Ahed volunteers readily that he was acting in “defense of his people” at Qalandiya — PA President Mahmoud Abbas had even given him 21 September, a Wednesday, off from school to protest in support of the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. But the discrepancy may end up strengthening the Israeli military’s claim and further distancing Ahed from the permit and treatment he needs.
Ahed, in any case, presented a serene face to the affair. He said his tenth grade studies are harder now but not impossible, that soccer games at the schoolyard in Surda are the same. The income he earned working at the Surda carpenter’s shop is no longer there, as his depth perception currently prevents him from cutting or painting with precision. But he perked up when he said his prospects for work have not vanished.
“I heard on the radio there’s someone in Nablus — I’ve never seen him — who lost both eyes, but works as a carpenter,” said Ahed. “He makes tables and cupboards and his work is good. He works with his senses. He has a strong heart.”
Meanwhile, Ahed is not the first to suffer an eye injury because of high-velocity tear gas canisters fired by the Israeli army. In June 2010, American solidarity activist Emily Henochowicz lost her left eye in the same way and at virtually the exact same spot as Ahed lost his right. While Ahed had never heard of Henochowicz, like her he said he won’t be deterred.
“A lot of people can’t see, but God gives them the power of the heart,” said Ahed. “The heart can sense things just as well.”
Belief in nonviolence tested
Ahed’s father, a devout Muslim, was eager to talk about his desire for peace, maintaining that governments, not people, are responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and injustice generally. He called himself a moderate Muslim and recalled years of drinking coffee and breaking bread with Jews when he worked in construction in Petah Tikvah. All men, he said, were created from the soil: black, white, red, yellow.
“Multi-colored,” Ahed chimed in.
“But I don’t want what happened to my son to happen to anyone, not a Jew, not a Christian, not a Muslim,” his father said. “If something happened to a Jewish child like what happened to my son, I would want to help him to an ambulance. I would not just let him die. That’s our language.”
Ahed’s father likened the situation in Palestine, however, to a home invasion. Palestinians want peace, he said, but not with an occupier. He conceded that his faith in nonviolence as a Muslim had been tested by Ahed’s injury and that he saw no hope in the current Israeli government. “We don’t like fighting, but if someone comes into your house and starts attacking you, what are you going to do? You would defend yourself.”
While Ahed’s father held forth on politics and tears welled up in his mother’s eyes as she talked quietly about what happened last month at Qalandiya, Ahed willingly presented a YouTube slideshow of the day set to Palestinian patriot songs. The slideshow, which is saved on his phone, contained some exceedingly gruesome pictures, including a close-up profile of his face dripping with blood.
Ahed shrugged. “It makes me sad,” he said, “but I watch it every night.”
Brendan Work (@freebeef) is a freelance reporter and English-language editor of the Palestine News Network, based in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Personal reflections of the above story and others are on his blog.