In the last two years, at least 21* Palestinians lost their vision in one eye while participating in March of Return protests near the Gaza perimeter fence. A 16 year old boy lost vision in both eyes. Each of these personal tragedies adds to the alarming casualty count in the protests: more than 200 people have been killed, some 8,000 wounded by live fire, about 2,400 wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets, and almost 3,000 wounded by tear gas canisters.**
Israel’s nearly 13-year blockade of the Gaza Strip has severely impaired local health care. As Gaza’s collapsing health care system is grappling with a shortage of medicine, physicians, equipment and medical training, it is unable to offer many forms of treatment. Israel abuses its control over Gaza’s border crossings and denies residents passage to medical treatment elsewhere, including in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, other than in exceptional cases it deems “life saving”. Wounded persons have to make do with the limited treatment options available within Gaza or try to make to another country – assuming they manage to get a permit to leave via Rafah crossing and shoulder the high costs. Meanwhile, just a several dozen kilometers away, are hospitals that could provide the critical care they need.
As B'Tselem has previously reported, the use of crowd control measures as lethal weapons, which may result in death or serious injury, has been a feature of Israel’s open-fire policy regarding the demonstrations along the Gaza perimeter fence for nearly two years. This illegal, immoral policy conveys disregard for the lives and bodily integrity of Palestinians. So long as Israel persists in implementing it despite the horrific outcomes, demonstrators will continue to be killed and seriously injured. The ordeal suffered by the wounded, who have to receive treatment and rehabilitation in the Gaza Strip while better care is available elsewhere, is yet another horrifying facet of Israel’s callous policy towards the residents of Gaza.
* According to figures published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The figures above were corrected on 27 Feb. 2020.
** According to the Protection of Civilians Database maintained by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
B'Tselem field researchers in the Gaza Strip collected testimonies from demonstrators who were injured in their eyes by Israeli security forces’ gunfire. Here are three of their stories.
Mai Abu Rawida, 20, 6 December 2019
On Friday, 6 December 2019, at around 2:30 P.M., Mai Abu Rawida, 20, from al-Maghazi R.C., arrived with her two sisters at the Return March protest held near the perimeter fence east of al-Bureij R.C., in the central Gaza Strip. After attending prayer in the protest tents, she went with several friends up to a distance of a few dozen meters from the fence, waving a Palestinian flag. At around 3:30 P.M., Abu Rawida went closer to the fence, and then a member of the Israeli security forces fired a “rubber” bullet that hit her in the eye.
In a testimony she gave Olfat al-Kurd on 10 December 2019, Abu Rawida said:
I’ve been going to the March of Return protests east of al-Bureij R.C. since they started. On Friday, 6 December 2019, at around 3:30 P.M., after I walked away from my friends and stood several dozen meters away from the fence, one of the soldiers fired a “rubber” bullet that hit me in the left eye. I fell to the ground and put my hand over my eye, which was full of blood. Blood was coming out of my mouth. I was sure I’d lost my eye. I screamed and my friends rushed over with some guy. They lifted me up and carried me to the paramedics. The paramedics took me to an ambulance that drove me to the field infirmary and there, the doctors cleaned the wound and sent me to Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital right away.
Mai’s friend, Shaimaa Abu Yusef, 26, from a-Nuseirat R.C. said in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 15 December 2019:
I walked towards the fence with Mai and a few other girls. We waved the Palestinian flag, and then the army fired tear gas canisters at us and we ran back. After that, we withdrew to about 100 meters from the fence. A few minutes later, Mai walked a few dozen meters towards the fence. I was just turning to head another way when one of the soldiers shot a “rubber” bullet at Mai and she fell down. I ran over to her with some other friends. Her face was covered in blood. I said: “They killed Mai!” Our friends started yelling at the top of their lungs. One of the guys came over, picked Mai up and said she wasn’t dead. I looked at her and saw she was hurt in the right eye. We took her to the paramedics, who were about twenty meters away. They gave Mai first aid and transferred her to an ambulance that took her to the field infirmary. From there, Mai was taken to Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital.
What did Mai do? She waved the Palestinian flag and didn’t endanger the soldiers in any way. Why does the Israeli army hurt us, when all we do is protest quietly?
Abu Rawida was transferred from one hospital to another and finally underwent surgery at a-Nasr Hospital, where her ocular cavity was cleaned. Two days later, she was transferred to a-Shifaa Hospital, where she was treated for a skull fracture.
In her testimony, she further recounted:
When I came out of surgery, my eye was bandaged. I asked my father: “What happened to my eye”? He told me, “You’re okay”, because he didn’t want to shock me. When the doctor examined me, I asked him and he said I’d lost my eye. I’m very sad. I lost my eye just like that, for no reason. I wasn’t a threat to the Israeli army in any way. Sometimes I feel that my face is disfigured. I look in the mirror and I don’t like it. The army ruined my life and my future. As a woman, my life has been ruined. The most important thing for me right now is to get out of Gaza to access treatment and have a prosthetic eye implanted, so I can go back to being myself, so there isn’t such a hole in my face.
Muhammad Abu Raidah, 10, 27 December 2019
On Friday, 27 December 2019, Muhammad Abu Raidah, 10, from the town of Khuza’ah, arrived at a March of Return protest held near the fence north of Khuza’ah. He was there to collect metal items and sell them. Muhammad and his friends collect tear gas cannisters fired by Israeli security forces at protestors and sometimes even cut pieces from the concertina wire the military lays be the main fence, looking to earn a few shekels. At around 4:00 P.M., while he was near the fence, Abu Raidah was hurt in the right eye. The hospital found he had been hit by a tear gas canister. In a testimony he gave B'Tselem researcher Khaled al-’Azayzeh on 6 January 2020, he said:
The hospital found he had been hit by a tear gas canister. In a testimony he gave B'Tselem researcher Khaled al-’Azayzeh on 6 January 2020, he said:
When I was hit in the eye, I passed out and fell down. When I woke up, I was in the European Hospital. I could see only through my left eye and the right eye was bandaged. My head really hurt.
For the first four days at the hospital, I was in shock and couldn’t speak to anyone. A few days later, the swelling around my eye started going down, but I couldn’t see anything with it. My bandages were replaced every day.
I was released from hospital after ten days. Now I’m home and all I do is sleep. I get medicines and all kinds of eye drops every hour or every few hours.
Muhammad’s mother, Jihan Abu Raidah, 41, a married mother of four, spoke about her son’s life since the injury in a testimony she gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 6 January 2020:
On Friday, 27 December 2019, my children and I had lunch together. I asked Muhammad not to go to the fence, even though he doesn’t go there to protest but to collect pieces of metal and used tear gas canisters. Our financial situation is tough, and he sells the scraps for three shekels and earns some pocket money that way. He went anyway, and I waited at home for him to come back and eat the dessert I’d made for him. At about 4:00 P.M., my daughter, Hanan, told me Muhammad had been hurt.
The doctors at the European Hospital told me Muhammad’s eye was in bad shape and he might lose his eyesight. When I saw him, I fainted. There was blood on his face, and I was afraid he was going to die.
Muhammad was bleeding and was in pain, but the doctors couldn’t do anything except give him antibiotics and pain killers. They said Muhammad would have to get treatment outside Gaza to save his eye. When his friends came to visit, all he did was cry. He didn’t talk to them. His cousin, Ibrahim, who’s also ten years old, came to visit him every day. He kept asking me: “Why doesn’t Muhammad want to talk to me? Why does he just keep quiet all the time? I miss his voice”. My heart ached for both of them, and I cried a lot too.
At home, after he was released from the hospital, Muhammad grew very quiet. Before the injury, he was very active, he was the driving force in the house. He would go out every day to sell vegetables and pieces of metal and aluminum to bring in some money. After he came out of the hospital, he kept telling me, “I want to go out of the house and play with my friends. I want to play soccer and ride a bike. I feel like I’m suffocating. I’ve had enough. I’m bored”.
Muhammad still has strong pain in the spot where he was injured, as well as headaches and dizziness. He can only see through his left eye. He gets eye drops and antibiotics. I really really hope he’ll get a referral for surgery in a hospital in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.
Muhammad is my youngest and most pampered son. I’m always near him, looking at him, and my heart aches with pain. He’s only a ten-year-old kid who didn’t threaten the Israeli army. I pray to God to give him health, that I see him playing and running in the neighborhood again, that the smile returns to his face.
Muhammad Abu Raidah did not receive a referral for treatment in a West Bank hospital and in mid-January 2020, went with his parents to get treatment in Egypt.
Saed Mahani, 28, 27 December 2019
On Friday, 27 December 2019, at around 3:00 P.M., Saed Mahani, 28, an unmarried resident of Gaza City, arrived at the Return March protest held near the perimeter fence east of al-Bureij R.C., in the central Gaza Strip. Mahani approached the fence and threw stones at soldiers standing on the other side. At around 4:30 P.M., a soldier fired a “rubber” bullet, hitting him in the eye.
Mahmoud Abu Musalam, a reporter and photojournalist who attended the demonstration as part of his work, described the incident in a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-’Azayzeh on 8 January 2020:
There were only a few dozen demonstrators that day because the March of Return protests had been cancelled. The guys who came must not have known about it. They stood a few dozen meters from the fence. At around 4:00-4:30 P.M., a soldier, who got out of a jeep, started swearing at them and then fired “rubber” bullets at them. I dropped to the ground and lay flat. I heard about three shots and when I got up, I heard the guys saying one hadn’t gotten up and had been killed. They lifted him up and carried him to an ambulance that was parked on Jakar Road. When they passed by me, I saw he was bleeding profusely from the left eye. He wasn’t talking, and we all kept quiet because we were shocked by the sight of the blood gushing down his entire face.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 2 January 2020, Saed Mahani spoke about what happened:
At around 4:30 P.M., I was close to the fence. One of the soldiers fired a “rubber” bullet at me and I was hit in the eye. I fell to the ground. A few protestors came to help me and took me to an ambulance that took me to Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah. From there, I was immediately transferred to Nasr Eye Hospital in Gaza City. The doctors told me my eye was in really bad shape and there was no choice but to remove it, even though my family and I objected.
I was released from hospital after the surgery. Since then, I haven’t wanted to go outside or see anyone. I’ve been injured in the protests before, but losing my eye has really affected me. I’d rather have a hand amputated than lose my eye. I feel frustrated, hopeless and sorry for myself. I never thought I’d lose my eye. I feel like I have no future. I’m going to Egypt with my brother. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get treatment there and have a prosthetic eye fitted.
As of 2 February 2020, Egyptian border guards have not allowed Mahani to travel for treatment in Egypt via Rafah Crossing.