Palestinian amputee, 14, recalls detention by Israeli forces: 'I wasn't afraid of being hit'

He’s no longer a boy. It’s hard to believe he’s just 14. Not by his appearance, not by his speech, certainly not by what he’s undergone in the past two years. He tells his story in a dry, businesslike manner, as though he’s talking about someone else. Without tears, without pain (visible, at least), without self-pity; a boy acquainted with suffering, and beyond fear. Terrifyingly tough, hardly smiling.

Where do you get your strength from, I ask him. “When I was shot,” he replies, “I felt that my leg was exploding. After that, do you think I’d be afraid of being hit by an interrogator?”

In September 2015, Issa al-Mouati was shot and wounded by soldiers who suspected him of throwing a firebomb. Five live rounds slammed into him. After two and half months in the Ein Karem branch of Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, he had his right leg amputated below the knee. During the first month, he was officially under arrest and was handcuffed to his bed. He was 13 at the time. Following his release from detention and discharge from hospital, he was sent to a hospital in Detroit, Michigan – expenses paid by a charitable organization – to have a prosthetic leg fitted. At age 13, he was in the United States alone for a month. We first met him in his Bethlehem home before he acquired his artificial leg. He was a much more pliant boy then; his friends took him for a dip in a natural reservoir not far from Bethlehem.

Early this month, during a routine night raid by the Israel Defense Forces in Deheisheh refugee camp, a raid that was met with violent resistance by local youngsters, Issa, the boy amputee, was arrested. He was sleeping over in the home of his ailing grandmother, whom he and his mother look after every few nights in rotation with other family members. Last week, while Issa was in prison, his mother, Rada – whom we met with in his grandmother’s house – told us about her son’s arrest and the beatings he suffered at the hands of Israeli security personnel, as reported in this column on March 10. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit denied the army’s responsibility for violence allegedly perpetrated against Issa, and sufficed with saying that he had been transferred to the custody of the Israel Police. A police spokesman stated last week, “An inquiry found that no force was used during questioning, and we aren’t familiar with such a claim being raised.”

After almost a week in prison, Issa was released last Wednesday, without bail. This week, we visited him in his home behind the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He hosted us alone, without his parents.

He hops about quite rapidly with the prosthesis. A mobility scooter that he recived while in the United States is in the corner of his room. He sometimes uses it to get to school, which is quite a distance from his home. His face has become more deeply etched with suffering. His head is covered with a hood most of the time, and military-style sweatpants hide his metal leg.

Issa al-Mouati at his home in Bethlehem.
Issa al-Mouati at his home in Bethlehem in 2016. Alex Levac

Two weeks ago, on the night between March 2 and 3, he was with his mother in his grandmother’s house. At about 1 A.M. he went with friends to a grocery store to buy a night meal: a hot dog and hummus in a pita. Their plan was to eat the food and smoke a nargila in a room located on the roof of his grandmother’s house.

In the meantime, Israeli troops swept into the camp and were pelted with stones thrown by young people. One of Issa’s friends suggested that they leave quickly, but Issa said that if they looked like they were running away, the soldiers would become suspicious and shoot them.

Suddenly, one of the many young people who were milling around in the area lunged at Issa, who was standing in the street, and tried to take him into custody. He was from the IDF’s undercover Mistaravim unit – Issa spotted his pistol. According to Issa, he was able to shake off the soldier and enter an adjacent building with two of his friends. They placed a plaster panel up against the door, but the soldiers easily knocked it down and entered the lobby with guns drawn. Issa told his friends not to resist, because the soldiers were armed. One of the undercover soldiers tried to handcuff Issa from behind, but his previous injury left the boy unable to bend his arms. He writhed in pain.

More troops arrived. Issa’s hands were finally shackled behind his back by force with three plastic handcuffs, and he was blindfolded. Two other, older boys were also arrested with him. Issa denies throwing stones at the soldiers. He says he was holding the bag with the pitas before he was arrested and that he was on his way back to his grandmother’s house.

Back on the street, says Issa, a soldier kicked his leg, wrenching loose the prosthesis. Issa fell to the ground, hands tied behind his back. The soldier recoiled in fright at the sight of the false leg. Issa somehow managed to get back up on his one good leg. Other soldiers had arrived in the meantime. One of them, Issa relates, asked him, “What happened to you?” To which he replied, “My leg left me.” “Why didn’t you say so before?” the soldier said and slapped him. The soldiers didn’t give him a chance to explain that he was disabled, Issa says.

He was dragged to a military vehicle parked a few hundred meters away, the soldiers constantly urging him on, fearing volleys of stones.

When they reached the vehicle, Issa tripped and fell. A soldier pulled him in and made him lie on the floor, face down. Five other detainees sat on a bench in the van. The vehicle was pelted with stones before starting out, but to no effect, since it was armored. Issa heard shooting and smelled tear gas. Though his eyes were covered, he was able to see slightly through a narrow opening in his blindfold. On the way, he says, a soldier poured water on him, adding that the soldiers cursed his mother and hurled other obscenities and stepped on him. An amputee boy of 14.

They were taken to the Etzion detention facility, near Bethlehem. Issa was made to sit on the ground outside. His prosthesis had become dislodged again and was only being held in place by his pants. A soldier told him to connect the leg.

He was taken to the interrogations waiting room. Exhausted, he fell asleep while in a seated position. It was dawn when he awoke. He would not be given anything to eat until the end of that long day, when he arrived at Ofer military prison, outside Ramallah. He was forced to fast for almost a whole day. An amputee boy of 14.

His interrogator was a police officer in civilian garb who said his name was Avi. On the table was a pot of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Issa was handcuffed. The officer offered Issa a cigarette. The 14-year-old said no, adding that he had quit. The interrogator nevertheless placed a cigarette in Issa’s mouth and lit it. He allowed Issa to speak to his lawyer by phone. The lawyer asked the boy if he had been beaten. Issa told him he had been beaten on the way to the interrogation. He later told the lawyer that the interrogator hit him on the head four times while he was handcuffed, before leaving. Earlier, the interrogator had pressured Issa under threat to admit to throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at soldiers.

“You have to confess because the army knows everything about you. Don’t make me hit you,” the police officer said, according to Issa. He tried telling the officer that he wasn’t allowed to hit him. “We’re allowed to do everything,” came the reply. Issa stuck to his account that he was walking on the street with friends when the soldiers arrived and that he had not thrown stones or firebombs. Another interrogator entered – the same one who had questioned Issa at Hadassah in 2015, when he was handcuffed to the bed and his leg was amputated. The interrogator reminded him of that and demanded that he sign a Hebrew-language form. Issa says he told the officer he didn’t understand what the form said and that he refused to sign it.

The interrogation lasted about an hour, after which Issa was taken to Ofer military prison, where he met up with the five other young people who were detained with him two nights earlier. They each told him that they too were beaten during their questioning. Issa was given prisoner’s garb and after a waiting period – hamtana, perhaps the only word he knows in Hebrew – was taken to cellblock 13. He was put in a cell with other minors, all older than he.

He was taken to the Ofer military court three times for remand hearings. On the first occasion, he saw his mother in the courtroom. On March 8, the warders informed him he was being released. He and the other five detainees from Deheisheh were taken to the Bituniya checkpoint early in the afternoon, not far from Ofer, where they waited until 5 P.M. before the father of one of the young people picked them up. On the way home they went through Ramallah, where he bought sandwiches for the hungry boys. Issa arrived home at 8 P.M., to his parents, his sisters and his brother. This week, before we met with him, he stayed at his grandmother’s home in Deheisheh again. A police spokesperson said that he would be indicted soon.

Issa’s wish now is to rest a little at home, let his leg heal after all the jolts and go back to school in another few days. At the mention of school, his lusterless eyes light up for the first time. After all the school he missed, he was held back in the sixth grade, and now he’s eager to get back into the classroom.

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