“The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
–Pearl S. Buck
On Friday, August 26, Iyad Hamed was shot by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Silwad. The initial military report, echoed by Israeli journalists, seemed like standard fare.
“A terrorist fired a weapon at a pillbox post in Ofra. Nobody was hurt. The force fired back and the terrorist was killed.”
As Gideon Levy of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted, no one batted an eye at the presence of both of the phrases “the terrorist was killed” and “nobody was hurt”. These sentences describe the army’s attitude towards the Palestinians perfectly. Nobody was killed because the Palestinian was not a person. Palestinians are not people.
At first it seemed there was nothing unusual about the story. Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians is certainly not remarkable. Since October of 2015, 222 Palestinians have been killed in a wave of violence that some have called a Third Intifada. Even when Red Crescent Society medics revealed that soldiers had prevented them from reaching the victim as he lay on the ground, it did not cause a stir.
The army later admitted that the victim had not, in fact, been a terrorist. He had not been carrying a weapon. Witnesses reported that he had lost his way, panicked when he saw the soldiers, and tried to run to safety, whereupon he was shot in the back. This was corroborated by medics who examined his wounds on the scene. Again, Israeli soldiers shooting an unarmed Palestinian from behind is not enough to make an impact.
What makes the case of Iyad Hamed noteworthy is that he had a mental disability. He had been on his way home from the store to deliver candy to his children, who themselves had special needs, before, as a witness stated, he was murdered and “the candies [he] bought for his children were mixed with his blood.”
On June 10 Hassan al-Qadi was riding his bicycle near the Awerta checkpoint outside Nablus. Like Iyad Hamed, the twenty-two-year-old al-Qadi had been described as having an intellectual disability, and he panicked when the soldiers manning the checkpoint demanded he stop. But he kept pedaling, until he was shot by the soldiers several times. He was then left to lie on the ground for an hour, bleeding, until he was taken away by an ambulance. One of the bullets was lodged next to his spine. Al-Qadi was lucky, because he did not die, but he is still unable to walk, over three months later. The authorities decided to charge him, claiming he had been attempting to stab the soldiers at the checkpoint with “a sharp tool”. Al-Qadi’s injuries forced him to attend his hearing lying in bed. The sentence was not harsh by Israeli standards – a mere six months in prison.
A family friend recently described to me the extent of his mental difficulties.
“Six years ago he went out in the early morning to pray, and he saw something so frightening it changed him forever. He has not been the same since. He has been to many hospitals and seen many psychologists, but nobody understands what his condition is. His behavior is very erratic. Sometimes he just lies down on the ground for no reason. A few times he has walked [the 36 km] to Ramallah by himself, without his ID or phone.”
Although I never spoke with Hassan al-Qadi, I did meet his older brother Muslim in 2014. It was the height of Operation Brother’s Keeper, when Israeli forces were busy meting out collective punishment on the population of the West Bank for the kidnapping of three settler teens near Hebron. The raids resulted in several Palestinian deaths, hundreds of arrests and the theft and/or destruction of millions of dollars of cash, property and valuables. The al-Qadi family lived in Awerta, and Muslim described to me the Israeli soldiers’ invasion of their home the previous night. They had ransacked it completely, destroying furniture and terrifying the inhabitants, especially the children. When I revealed to him that I was a university professor, he became excited and ran to show me his textbooks. He was studying psychology at Birzeit University near Ramallah. I did not think much of it at the time, but I now realize that he must have been studying the subject in order to get a better understanding of his brother’s mysterious ailments.
Three days before my meeting with Muslim al-Qadi I attended the funeral of Ahmed Khalid, who had been killed by Israeli forces in the El Ein refugee camp near Nablus the previous night. Khalid, like the others in this story, had a mental illness. When I arrived at Rafidia hospital, where a group of mourners had gathered, I saw the poster plastered on the hospital door. It had a picture of the victim. Next to his face was an image of a young Yasser Arafat, and below were pictures of the Golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Palestinian flag was flying above the entire scene. Below was written the Arabic word shaheed. Martyr. It was a poster typical of the victims of the Occupation, which you see all over the West Bank.
A man in his late thirties saw me examining the poster and approached, and I must have hesitated slightly when I shook his hand. He seemed almost embarrassed. “They were broken by soldiers during the First Intifada,” he explained, referring to his hands. He pointed out a group of young men standing in the shade of a nearby tree. “They can explain to you what happened.”
I approached the men, most of whom were in their twenties, and I went up to a man who was standing, dressed in black and leaning against a car. He made room for me against the car, and he shook my hand, introducing himself as Mahmood. And then, in a voice that seemed to get angrier as his story continued, he began to tell me how Ahmed died.
He had been praying Fajr in the mosque in El Ain camp at in the early morning, and when he emerged from the door of the mosque, Israeli soldiers shouted at him to stop. Because of the perpetual presence of Israeli soldiers, most Palestinians know a smattering of Hebrew, especially words connected to the Occupation, such as “stop”, “arrest”, “identification”, etc. But Ahmed did not understand what the soldiers wanted from him, and he continued on his way home. The Israelis then shot him four times – once in the stomach and three times in the chest. He died immediately. Mahmood’s voice was shaking now.
“What did he do? Nothing! How was he a threat to the soldiers? He wasn’t right in the head, and they just shot him!”
An hour later I followed Ahmed’s funeral procession through Nablus and up the narrow, steep streets of the refugee camp that he had called home. His father, an old bent man, lingered near the end of the group of mourners and fingered his prayer beads.
Life is not easy for people with disabilities in Palestine, even without taking into account the Occupation. There is a stigma associated with disability, especially if it is a mental disability, and people with disabilities are often shunned and excluded from society. Many are simply kept at home by the family to avoid embarrassment and shame. According to Medical Aid for Palestinians, over one third of people with disabilities over the age of 15 have never enrolled in school, and roughly five out of six do not work. One third have never married. A taxi driver near Salfit once told me about his adult brother, who had lost both of his arms and legs at the age of ten, when he stepped on a mine while picking olives.
“He cannot work. And he is very depressed because of his situation. All he wants to do now is marry. But what woman will marry a man with no arms and legs?”
The Occupation greatly exacerbates the plight of people living with disabilities in Palestine. The stranglehold that Israel has placed on the Palestinian economy has kept the latter in a perpetual state of poverty, leaving it unable to maintain an infrastructure that is able to support people with disabilities. For example, three out of four Palestinians with disabilities indicate that they do not take public transportation because they simply cannot access it.
But it is not merely an economic issue. As the three above examples and countless others show, Palestinians with disabilities are not immune from the violence that Israel metes out in the Occupied Territories. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s latest military assault on the Gaza Strip, the army destroyed a home for the handicapped, resulting in the deaths of two of its residents and severe injuries to two others. Witnesses said they had been given a warning, but they had been unable to make it out of the building in time due to their condition.
On July 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited a rehabilitation village for adults and children with disabilities in southern Israel, having pledged 20 million shekels toward the village’s development. As he posed for the cameras with a little girl on his lap, he looked like a kindly grandfather, his expression exuding concern. Four weeks later his soldiers murdered Iyad Hamed.
As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the local population. Because people with disabilities are less able to take care of themselves, it is incumbent upon Israel to provide them with an extra measure of protection, something it has shown time after time it is unwilling to do. Killings such as these are particularly egregious, and the international community has the obligation to no longer remain silent about them.
A version of this article first appeared in Mondoweiss.