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Mutilated children of a crippled Palestine

The Guardian's award-winning Middle East correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg reports on what the fragmenting bullet has done to the children of the uprising

The Guardian Tuesday May 1, 2001

The beds of the four teenagers take up an entire wall at Wafa hospital in Gaza. Tharif Ghora, 16, was shot in the shoulder when he peeked over a barricade at the Karni border crossing on November 19. Hussein Na'ezi, also 16 and with Tharif a regular at the confrontations with Israeli soldiers at Karni, took a bullet in the neck the day before.

Ahmed Abu Taha, a stick-thin boy with almond eyes, the baby of the ward at 14, was running from a tank in Rafah refugee camp on February 18 when a bullet penetrated his back. Mahmoud Sarhan, 16, was shot in the neck.

None of them will walk again. Hussein and Mahmoud will not even be able to lower themselves into wheelchairs because their injuries are higher up the spinal cord.

They - and 1,000 others - are the maimed of the intifada, with permanent injuries which range from a limp or the loss of an eye to paralysis and mental disability: a harvest of mutilation which far outstrips the death toll in the Palestinian uprising.

All four of the boys threw stones at Israeli soldiers and tanks - Tharif used to detour past Karni on his way home from school - and all four were unarmed.

They, like many of the other injured and dead, are the victims of what the UN security council and international and Israeli human rights groups condemn as excessive use of force by Israel against the uprising, now in its seventh month.

A great deal of the criticism has focused on Israel's use of high-velocity bullets fired from M-16 assault rifles. When these penetrate flesh they cartwheel through the body with explosive force.

None of the four boys is aware that he will spend the rest of his life as prisoner of his body. In his hospital bed, a beaming Tharif is being fattened up with shwarma, the meat sandwiches his father sells at a roadside stall in Gaza City.

There is an involuntary twitch in his swollen left foot. "You see?" says his father, Abid Ghora. "One day, God willing, he will make a full recovery. Maybe if we can send him to Germany, they can do something for him."

The number of Palestinians left with some form of permanent disability by this uprising is not entirely clear. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the injured up to two days ago numbered 13,296, 20% of the hit by bullets.

The Institute of Community and Public Health at Bir Zeit University, the premier Palestinian academic establishment, sifted through mounds of hospital records to arrive at an estimate of at least 1,000 people who will be permanently afflicted after being hit by Israeli live fire, shrapnel, or rubber-tipped steel bullets.

More than 400 of the injured have been treated for lasting disability at three rehabilitation 12centres in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - the only places of their kind for a combined population of 3m people - and at an eye hospital in occupied Arab East Jerusalem. Five hundred of the seriously injured have been treated abroad, including Tharif and Hussein, who were sent to Jordan.

In the West Bank town of Beit Jala, Elias Saba, a therapist at the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, is trying to coax a response from Amjed Saadi, 18.

"Marhaba," Dr Saba, says to him: hello in Arabic. Sitting in his wheelchair with his right hand clenched in a fist, Mr Saadi grunts twice in reply.

The doctor asks him to put a hand on his nose; Mr Saadi shades his eyes.

Mr Saadi was shot in the head with a high velocity bullet fired by an Israeli soldier on October 2, in the first few days of the intifada. He woke from his coma five weeks ago with permanent brain damage.His eyes are alert but spinal fluid is collecting in a bulge on the side of his head, and he will need more surgery.

Human rights groups have condemned Israel for relying heavily on live ammunition, rather than non-lethal force, and for shooting when its soldiers' lives are not in danger.

The Nobel prize-winning US group Physicians for Human Rights blames the widespread use of the M-16 automatic rifle for the high rate of crippling Palestinian injuries. The American-designed weapon is standard issue for Israeli troops.

Daniel Reisner, a colonel in the advocate general's office of the Israeli army, admits that some soldiers have broken the undisclosed rules on opening fire.

"Did all cases in which Israeli army soldiers shoot Palestinians involve live fire incidents? I don't think so," he said. "Could it be that some soldiers reacted with more fire than I would have used in hindsight? Maybe. Some of the reports seem to indicate that."

The chief of staff, General Shauf Mofaz, told comman ders last month to investigate every fatal shooting of a Palestinian by Israeli soldiers in circumstances where there was no12 previous exchange of fire. The army is making criminal investigations in six such cases.

Col Reisner argues that many of the soldiers - like a third of the 370 Palestinians killed to date - are practically children themselves. "These are kids out of high school. We train them, but we can not make them adults in a day.

"In a lot of the incidents with the Palestinians there has been talk about children doing the fighting, and that they were sending 16-year-olds to throw stones or firebombs. We were sending 18-year-olds, only ours are lawful.

"The general staff can give orders, but at the end of the day the person that has to carry out those orders is a 20-year-old kid, and that is in a good situation, with a 22-year-old commanding office, and a 25-year-old company commander."

The results - particularly when M-16s are used - are devastating. Other high-speed ammunition passes cleanly through the body, but a lightweight 5.56mm bullet from an M-16 tends to tumble and spin after it penetrates the flesh at a speed of more than 800 metres a second. Then it breaks up into tiny metal fragments.

"They move like an insect, buzzing around your body, said Dr Jumaa Saqqa, spokesman for the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where the territory's worst injuries are treated.

"On the outside of the body you just see a small inlet - one centimetre big - but if there is no exit we find hundreds of small metallic pieces inside."

Most of the new disabled were hurt during the first three months of the uprising. Hailed as heroes in the early days, and handed cheques for up to $1,000 (£700) afterwards, they now in danger of being abandoned on the outer margins of a society on the verge of economic collapse, and itself crippled by a corrupt and undemocratic leadership.

"Most of these injured are relatively young," said Mohammed Abu Tair, an orthopaedics specialist at Mukassad hospital in Jerusalem, "the potential labour force - the power of society itself."

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