Friday, June 1, 2007

Jehad Takatqa

May 27

I'm in the service to duar al-siha, one of the kids we put a cast on a few days ago is here on his dad's lap. I’m sure they’re going back to al-Ahli. He’s a very sweet little boy, he broke his arm somehow, nothing too serious.

Saw a patient with Cartigner's syndrome in the cardiology care unit (CCU) today. Other than that the ER was very slow. One kid came in with a clean cut just lateral to his left eye, we had to hold him down while one of the doctors put two stitches in it.

Saw Jehad Takatqa in the ICU, he’s the 15 or 16-year-old kid who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration in his village. He wasn’t even participating in the demonstration, not that had he been the shooting would have been justified. He apparently just stuck his head out the window of his house to see what was happening after he got home from school, and a soldier shot him from about 100 meters away. They had a CT scan of his brain, there’s a whole path from his left occipital lobe to his left frontal lobe where the brain parenchyma is simply gone; the cavity looks to be filled with blood. I moved his head to the left and he had that reflex we learned about that comes with a loss of cortical inhibition of brain stem reflexes, so I assume that means his left internal capsule was destroyed by the bullet. But again, I don’t really know anything about anything…

On the way out of the ICU I met Jehad’s father, Abu Nidal (no relation to my supervising nurse). Musa told me his family is extremely poor, they all live in a two-room house in Beit Fajar, near Hebron (the family has seven children, if I remember correctly). I was with a resident at the hospital who speaks a little bit of English, he and I explained to Abu Nidal that I’m an American medical student visiting the hospital for six weeks. No reaction from him, just a smile and an “ahlan” (welcome). I can’t imagine he wanted to do anything but punch me in the face and scream “you paid for the bullet and the gun that blew my son’s brains out!”

Had another interesting conversation with Abu Nidal about the news and why he doesn't like to watch it. He said it’s always the same, just bloodshed and more bloodshed, so what’s the point of watching? It was an interesting thing for a Palestinian to say, someone who is basically unable to change the fundamentals that define his life, when Americans say the same thing all the time, yet we have the ability to change the fundamentals of Abu Nidal’s life (and our own), and quite easily.

When I got home I had a very interesting conversation with Musa and Afaf about Jehad. “The Israeli soldiers are child killers, really” Musa said. The human rights organizations and many journalists agree. Chris Hedges, former NY Times correspondent and a highly experienced conflict reporter, writes that he had seen children killed in Kosovo and elsewhere, but he’d never seen soldiers lure children into a trap and murder them for sport (I’m paraphrasing as closely as I can remember). Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, in February or March 1996 (I think), that he watched a Palestinian demonstration during which children threw stones at armed soldiers, and then the unthreatened soldiers calmly shot the children (in typical fashion he went on to blame “Palestinian mothers” for letting their children throw stones at tanks, rendering them equally culpable with the Israeli soldiers who shot their children. What moral universe that makes sense in is anyone’s guess.). B’tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the Occupied Territories (the group Musa works for) writes that so many Palestinian children have been killed during the Second Intifada that whether or not Israeli soldiers intended to kill them has become irrelevant. Indeed, Israel has killed more Palestinian children during the Second Intifada (since October 2000) than all the Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians in the same time period. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch agree very closely.

Anyway, the conversation started when I mentioned that I had seen Jehad in the ICU. Musa had described his injuries to me several days ago and I’d said I didn’t think he’d live; and that even if he did he’d almost certainly be seriously crippled when he woke up. Afaf asked me after dinner whether or not I thought he’d be okay, and I told her I didn’t think so (again, I’m still just a first year student, I don’t know a thing about a thing. I’m just giving my impression of whether or not someone who had a good part of their brain blown out of their head by a high-caliber assault rifle is likely to recover). Afaf became upset and mentioned another child who’d been shot in Fawwar Camp, named Islam. Musa told me how he died: it was during the height of the Intifada, when the kids at the camp’s UN school would get out of school and go to burn tires in protest. Islam’s family was extremely poor, so much so that every day Islam would stand at the Israeli checkpoints with a cart and move people’s bags across the checkpoint for a shekel (the Israelis didn’t allow cars to pass the checkpoint, so you had to get out, walk across with your stuff and then get in another taxi). He’d do this all day when he wasn’t in school.

For whatever reason the soldiers didn’t shoot the kids who were demonstrating, instead they decided to shoot this little boy while he was running bags back and forth for twenty cents. According to witnesses the soldier who shot Islam simply crouched into position from 20 meters away, lined the boy up in his site and blew his head off, not even an attempt to hide the murder of a child, not even feigning interest in his own humanity.

After Musa told me all of this he stared off into space for a moment, then said “I still remember this boy very well, I can never forget him. He would just go with people’s things, back and forth, he was so poor. The Israeli soldiers are child killers, really. Why to shoot this boy?” I asked Musa why he thinks the soldiers act this way, murdering a helpless and inoffensive child. He said he thinks its part of the culture of racism, the idea that all Palestinians are terrorists out to kill Jews, that they’re dangerous, that they’re living on Jewish land (“squatters for 2,000 years” as one early leader of the Zionist movement put it), etc. That seems plausible to me, people can’t shoot children without some sort of dehumanization of them beforehand.

I remember reading a book at Hopkins for Siba Grovogui’s class about a US soldier named Thompson, I think the book is called The Unsung Hero of My Lai (the famous My Lai massacre of Vietnamese during the Vietnam War). The first page of the book is someone talking to one of the soldiers who actively participated in the massacre. The interviewer asks “you shot women and children?” The soldier answers in the affirmative.

“And babies?” the interviewer continues.

“And babies”, the soldier replies.

Confused, the interviewer asks something along the lines of “I have to ask, how does someone with a wife and children shoot babies?”

The soldier responds “I dunno, it’s just one of them things.” I wonder if that soldier will tell his grandchildren he shot Islam for reasons he can’t even articulate.

Like many if not most Palestinian houses, Musa’s house is built into the side of a hill. At the base of the hill is an Israeli sniper tower and, on many days, a flying checkpoint, either in the morning or, more often, in the evening; the children who live across the street from Fawwar have to walk past the sniper tower to get to school every day. The tower is no more than a football field away from where Islam was murdered. I try to imagine myself in the tower looking down at these 10 to 14-year-old kids walking to school, shoving each other and playing in a language I can’t understand, then bringing a rifle up to my shoulder and splattering one of their brains onto the road. No kind of trauma bothers me in the slightest anymore; I haven’t gone vagovagal since Zimbabwe. Still, I can’t imagine doing this, and I certainly can’t imagine sitting around talking about doing it with my buddies, then doing it, and then going back to my friends and hearing them say “good job, you showed that one!”

To be fair, I can’t imagine paying someone to do these things, either. Yet we Americans do so, every day, and to the tune of some $11 million dollars to Israel alone, leave aside our own violence.

An Israeli soldier named Furer wrote a terrifying description of his time at the checkpoints, I don’t know the name in Hebrew but the English translation is Checkpoint Syndrome. Major Israeli bookstores refused to stock the book and the publisher refused to allow the book to be translated into English, so a media-monitoring group called If Americans Knew translated it and posted the translation on their website; it’s only two dozen or so pages, you can find it at Furer, an art student who considered himself an especially sensitive person, writes about forcing Palestinians to sing Israeli songs “like a choir”; about fellow soldiers shooting children with weapons that blew their legs off (and subsequently falling into a state of psychological shock); about making Palestinian children clean the checkpoint for the soldiers; about throwing Palestinians’ IDs and permits into the air so they have to scrounge around on the ground to collect them (losing them would be a disaster); about beating, humiliating and photographing a Palestinian dwarf; about beating a wanted Palestinian until his face was covered in blood and then photographing him; about forcing elderly Palestinians to give them their prayer beads (expensive beads on a string used by Muslims to pray, often a prized possession) and then comparing his collection of stolen prayer beads with other soldiers’ collections; of breaking a young man’s hand and slashing his tires because he refused to give a soldier his cigarettes; of savagely beating a helpless, unarmed mentally retarded 16-year-old, kidnapping him and then letting younger soldiers abuse him at their base for fun; of beating a father in front of his family until he cried; of beating and urinating on a Palestinian because he cursed at one of the soldiers; of forcing a Palestinian to get on all fours and bark like a dog after beating him; of shooting someone for directing others in a stone-throwing demonstration; and more. All of this was from 1996-1999, the “quiet years” of the Oslo Accords.

Not much seems to change when human nature and absolute power come together.