The full scale of the harrowing despair of the Gaza Strip is embodied in a haggard young man in the surgical ward on the third floor of Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron. Two rounds fired by Israel Defense Forcessnipers left him seriously wounded, internal organs blown apart, his right leg shattered. Only his mother is by his side in this narrow room, which is starkly empty apart from the old hospital bed he’s lying in, and a fake leather sofa that’s even older and more tattered. There’s no television set, no radio, no one comes to visit, there’s no place to move around, and he has no money to buy a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.
The patient is Ibrahim al-Masri, one of the hundreds who have suffered serious wounds in the Gaza demonstrations of the past month, and one of the very few who has been allowed to undergo medical treatment in the West Bank. Indeed, he is the only Gaza resident hospitalized in Hebron.
Alone, distraught, penniless, now also disabled – Masri has no chance in life. The despair in Hebron isn’t any easier to bear, and he’s already waiting to return to Gaza, which is utterly indifferent to him. A visit to him is like a descent into hell.
Twenty-three years old, he’s married to Faiza and the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Lama, and a son of 9 months, Sami. A young couple plus two in the Gaza Strip 2018, without a home and without a job, now also with a disabled husband and father. Rehab, his mother, is the only person whom Israel allowed to leave the cage of Gaza with him; now the two are imprisoned in this cramped room, where no one comes to visit or offer support.
Masri says he hardly speaks with his children by phone: The little one is just a baby and he has nothing to say to the 3 year-old. “What will I tell her? That our life has been destroyed?” When she saw him in serious condition in the Indonesia Hospital in Sheikh Ziyad in Gaza, where he was taken originally, she was badly frightened, ran to her mother’s arms and cried until they left.
The family lives in the town of Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, a favorite target for Israel Defense Forces gunners and pilots in every destructive operation. Their home was demolished in Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, and they haven’t succeeded in rebuilding it. The one-story dwelling, topped by a skeletal second floor that was never completed, was also home to Masri’s parents and to some of his 11 siblings and their children. Each couple with children had a small room in the house, of which nothing now remains.
In the years that have passed, the family was occupied with the struggle to get compensation for their loss from UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency. Masri’s father recently suffered a stroke, probably brought on by the huge pressure. The amount they finally received wasn’t enough to reconstruct their home.
The family now live in nearby rented dwellings, while their house lies in ruins. Some of Masri’s brothers are thinking of moving into tents, as they can’t afford even the rent where they live. He himself pays rent of 1,100 shekels ($307) a month for the small apartment in which he lives with his parents, with a single small room for him, his wife and their two children. Even before Masri was shot they didn’t have the money to pay; in fact, they’re a few months in arrears, and the landlord is threatening to evict them. The police, too, have come calling about the debt.
Masri is an unemployed construction worker in a place where there are no building materials and no construction. The last time he worked – for a few days – was eight months ago. Since then he hadn’t been able to find work, like most of his generation in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment among the young runs at 60 percent and higher. His brothers are in the same boat: Only one is working. Worst off is the oldest, Mahed, who’s 32 and has six children. He too has been threatened with eviction. Two months ago, he went to the UNRWA offices, doused himself with kerosene and was about to immolate himself. At the last moment, he was prevented from carrying out the act. The local police arrested him and kept him in detention for a few hours.
Masri lies in bed, expressionless, ashen, with a cheap synthetic blanket next to him, a metallic orthopedic device attached with nails down the full length of his right leg, and his stomach bandaged across its whole width. The atmosphere in the room is oppressive. Ibraham and Rehab know no one in Hebron, they have neither family nor acquaintances, and the city hasn’t heard about the wounded man from Gaza, so no one is looking after them here. We arrived by chance, after Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who was visiting other wounded people in the hospital, heard Masri’s story.
On Monday, when we visited, Masri was allowed to eat solid food for the first time since he had been shot, nearly a month earlier. A nurse brought him chicken and rice on a paper plate. One of the reasons he went to the protest that Friday is that he heard that food would be distributed, free of charge. But that wasn’t the only reason. Masri says he joined the demonstration because he is in a state of complete despair.
On Friday, April 6, he had decided to take part in what became known as the “demonstration of the tires.” It was the second in the series of protest events next to the Gaza-Israel border fence. Why didn’t he go to the first one? “I never took part in demonstrations. I don’t take an interest in demonstrations.” Friends suggested that he join them this time, and he agreed. Because, what did he have to lose in his life? He left home around 1:30 P.M., and walked for about an hour with the others to the Abu Safia area, one of the protest sites.
They sat together and drank slush, which someone was handing out. A friend gave him a cigarette. They were less than 100 meters from the barrier. Even now, Masri doesn’t seem to be aware that Israel has prohibited anyone from approaching closer than 300 meters from the fence, threatening the life of anyone who crosses that invisible line. Tires were burning all around, but he and the others were outside the circle of the thick, black smoke.
At about 3:30, he noticed that two young people near him had been shot and wounded. He hurried over to help evacuate them. Just then a sniper fired one bullet, which entered his waist from the back. Masri fell to the sandy ground and tried to crawl out of the range of fire. He’d covered a few meters, he relates – he estimates that about two minutes had passed – when another bullet struck him, this time in the back of his right leg, above the knee, as he crawled on the ground. “I didn’t think it would happen to me,” he says from his bed.
As the ambulance driver on the scene was deterred from approaching by the shooting and the proximity to the fence, Masri’s friends carried him to the vehicle. He was rushed to the Indonesia Hospital. Here’s a photo on his cellphone of him being admitted to the ER on a stretcher; his father already waiting for him there. On the way he lapsed in and out of consciousness. The physicians found that the first bullet that hit him had wrought serious internal damage, hitting the liver and the small and large intestines. The exit wound was also very large, as occurs with the particularly cruel ammunition the IDF is using against the Gaza demonstrators. Parts of Masri’s intestines were removed.
In the days that followed, he suffered greatly and ate nothing. The operation was performed on his leg, but instead of inserting a platinum plate, which is a more complex procedure, the surgeons attached the metallic device on the outside. The reason for this procedure, he thinks, is the great pressure the hospitals are under with the flood of patients, lack of medication and staff, etc.
After the High Court of Justice – in the wake of a joint petition filed by Adalah: The Legal Center for Minority Arab Rights in Israel and by the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights – instructed Israel to allow the transfer of several of the Gazans wounded in the demonstrations to a hospital in Ramallah, Masri’s turn came, too. In the meantime, his condition continued to deteriorate. With the intervention of the Palestinian Authority and of a local reporter in Gaza, he was moved to Al-Ahli in Hebron. He has no idea why Al-Ahli was chosen in his case – it cannot compare with the luxury and comfort of Istishari Hospital in Ramallah, where we visited last week. Masri arrived on April 18 and has been here ever since, with his mother.
His condition has improved, he says now. According to his doctors, he will be able to return to Gaza in another week or so. Where will he undergo rehabilitation? No one knows. Masri has also been told that it will take time before he can walk and get around, in general. He would like to return to Gaza for a few days, because he and his mother have run out of money and he has no change of clothing, and in Hebron everything is expensive. But it’s very unlikely that Israel will allow him to return to the West Bank again after his release.
They arrived here with 250 shekels ($70), which neighbors loaned them, and nothing remains. Masri is sorry now that he went to demonstrate. His mother says he did it in order to vent his anger. He corrects her: “What did it help? So many young people have become cripples, and no one cares.”