The Palestine Entries: The story of a Palestinian resistance fighter

// Entry #21

Zuhdee was only 21 years when a missile struck his position and detached his right leg. Four years later, he finds himself sitting at home for most of the day, unable to find a job to support his family, unable to afford a cell phone, and unable to afford the burn medication he still so badly needs.

When I was first approached by relatives to meet Zuhdee, I immediately agreed to the task of interviewing a casualty of Israel’s occupation and regular shelling of the Gaza Strip. When they revealed to me that he was part of an armed military group at the time, I struggled to express my doubt that this story could ever be understood properly no matter how I conveyed it.

Leaving out the details regarding his military background would guarantee sympathy toward him and his suffering but it would be dishonest. Mentioning that he was a muqaawim, a freedom fighter, would not change the fact that his wounds still bleed, but supporters of the occupation would use this detail to justify Israeli action in the territory. I was in an awkward position but when I sat down to speak to Zuhdee, his uplifting demeanor coupled with the unfortunate circumstances he is forced to face compelled me to make his story known for the sake of honest journalism.

On June 27, 2007, an armed Zuhdee gathered with fellow soldiers in the Sha’f neighborhood of the Shuja’ya district in Gaza City. No, he was not carrying rockets to fire at Sderot nor was he strapped with an explosive device. He was a trained soldier wearing a uniform, wielding an automatic rifle and standing guard in the neighborhood the way many soldiers typically do during military disputes. His protocol was to fire only at hostile units and, of course, to stay alive for as long as possible. These are the only details I asked of him, particularly because my focus was not on his political background but on the health-related issues he has since faced.

An Israeli drone circled overhead, so he found cover near a building. Meters in front of him stood a fellow soldier waving his hands and shouting orders at others in the vicinity. It is unclear, however, what exactly the soldier was ordering but because the Shuja’ya district of Gaza is too far from the border to target Israeli territory, it is most likely that he was directing fighters to safer locations. A missile hit near his position and one of his hands fell in front of Zuhdee. Thirty minutes later, the same drone launched a missile at him.

Zuhdee lay bleeding for over five minutes. The nearest ambulance was too far from his location to reach him any sooner. When it arrived, it collected him and his right leg and transported both objects to Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest and busiest medical center.

He had fallen into a coma on the ride to the hospital and remained in this condition for twenty days. During that entire time, the hospital had been unable to verify his identity. His family assumed he was killed, his rifle has been stripped from him after the blast, and he was not carrying identification papers.

After countless operations and blood transfusions, his condition greatly improved and he returned to full consciousness. He remained in the hospital for another two weeks as doctors struggled to remove the shrapnel embedded underneath his skin.

It was during this time that he finally realized the full extent of the damage. His right leg had been severed by a high-velocity slice of metal shrapnel. His left calf — both skin and muscle — had been severely burned and his entire back featured extensive burn marks, lacerations, and piercings from the debris. Doctors were forced to leave the bits of shrapnel that were wedged too deeply in sensitive areas or that were too small to be isolated and removed.

After receiving all the care that could be offered in the understocked Al-Shifa hospital, Zuhdee was directed to a center specializing in prosthetics and was handed a prescription for painkillers and burn cream. “You must pay out of your own pocket for the medicine,” he was told. And now that painkillers and related medicines are banned in the territory except under full administration by licensed physicians, his prescription is useless.

As for the prosthetic leg, Zuhdee calls it a manzar, something to please the eye but with no real usefulness. The impact of the shrapnel completely detached his right leg from the remainder of his body and heavily damaged whatever was left of his femur. As a result, the prosthetic leg has nothing in the leg to attach to and although it was initially fitted to hang from his hips, Zuhdee finds it uncomfortable and quite limited in functionality.

Currently, Zuhdee earns 700 NIS, equivalent to $205 USD, through monthly paychecks delivered from the government as compensation for his injuries. However, this small amount is barely enough to support his family. Years before the assault on Zuhdee’s position, his family took in two handicapped individuals to support during Gaza’s difficult economic situation under Israel’s blockade. And as Gaza’s unemployment rate nears 50%, his father has been unable to find a job and is now too old to perform most manual labor. Zuhdee’s small paycheck is not enough to provide his large family with food and other basic necessities, and he has been forced to forego the purchase of things as common as a cell phone, for example.

Although it has been four years since Zuhdee was hit by a missile, his wounds have yet to fully heal and he has been forced to make do with makeshift treatments. He still cannot afford to travel abroad for treatment in Cairo so he plugs any open wounds with cotton balls that he buys from street carts and neighborhood corner stores.

His apparent misfortune runs even deeper. He and his fiancé split after she expressed difficulty in maintaining a relationship with him in his current and seemingly unpromising state. He has also ceased contact with the military unit he was a part of after his weapons were collected and transferred to another able-bodied soldier – the ultimate sign of betrayal, he says, but something that military units are encouraged to do when resources are limited.

Even though his experiences have heavily impeded his mobility and his immediate ties to the community surrounding him, Zuhdee maintains a rather upbeat personality and is very charismatic. “I’m still young, I’m still one of the shabaab,” he says. It is his way of coping with the challenges that come with missing a limb and being both unemployed and unmarried in such prime years.

Toward the end of our very informal interview, Zuhdee made it clear to me that he understands the controversial nature of his situation. He is not bitter that an Israeli missile removed one of his limbs, but he does criticize the Israeli military’s ethics for launching an assault on resting military units not engaged in any hostile activity directed at Israeli cities, settlements, civilians, or property.

But whether or not this surprise raid violated the rules of war is not his ultimate concern. Although he was not engaged in any illicit or illegal activity, or what some might call ‘jihadist militancy’, the fact that he was once a fighter continues to repel international agencies from supplying medicines or donating equipment or money to him and his family. In today’s heated political climate, this is easily understandable, and Zuhdee himself recognizes this. Nevertheless, it is an unfortunate price to pay that he is forced to deal with.

He showed me the open wound on his side again and expressed his desire for any form of cream that might help it fully heal. He then joked about how the article I promised to write might encourage someone to help.

I met with a friend the very next day, told him the story, and asked if he could direct me to a pharmacy that carried any therapeutic or skin-healing cream for burns, the type I could find at Walgreens for $5.99 with tax. He spared me the trip; there was none to be found, none to be bought.

Sami Kishawi

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There are 9 comments

  1. 48Refugee

    What a sad story. It was well written and I thank you for sharing it. Although the source of his injury may be controversial to outsiders, his story is part of the Palestinian narrative and shouldn’t be hidden or surrounded by shame. It’s the right of an occupied people to resist occupation using any means. He was not invading a foreign land, attacking civilians, or violating international law, he was guarding his home and there’s nothing sinister about that. I hope soon he is able to find the treatment he needs and work to support his family and that he is blessed with a loving wife.

  2. Hanan Z.

    A very sad story and it’s even more sad that instead of being appreciated as a soldier, he was punished for protecting his home.

  3. Derwish

    Hey dude, the story is touching, and I feel for the guy.

    I am no supporter of occupation, but.

    How the hell can Hamas and Israelis disengage when they refuse to talk to each other? There are two sides to this, both to be blamed–but you subtly blame just one.

    Hamas is a commie-like totalitarian group which can’t care less about
    their people, using “liberation” demagoguery to cover up their quite hefty
    butchers’ credentials. Please don’t leave this out of the frame.

  4. Chase

    “It’s the right of an occupied people to resist occupation using any means”

    ANY means? What about killing civilians?

    This man’s story is very sad. If it is the case that his unit wasn’t engaged in any unlawful or unethical activities (like firing rockets) then there’s no reason why he should be treated any differently than a civilian casualty of war. It’s a shame that Gaza has to be a place where it’s so easy to find someone who’s lost a limb in an IAF strike.

    However, while I sympathize with this man and would never hold him individually responsible for his militia’s policies, we should not kid ourselves about how harmful militant groups are for any peaceful resolution to this conflict. There is nothing noble or heroic about violating the international laws or war by targeting Israeli civilians who, like Zuhdee, are hors de combat and do not deserve to have death fall on them from the sky. I would say that being part of one of these groups is a serious mark of shame.

  5. Chase

    I’m not going to deny that many IDF brigades acted like outright thugs and terrorists during Operation Cast Lead, according to eyewitness testimony: wantonly shooting people on the street, destroying homes, etc. It’s just different because IDF soldiers are drafted and usually cannot even opt out of service if they are in the reserves when the reserves are called to battle. By contrast, I’m reasonably sure that people who join militias do so out of choice in the Palestinian territories. If they do not want to be in a position where their commanders are telling them to hurt innocent civilians (whether Israelis, or, as in the context of summer 2007, other Palestinians) then it is fully within their ability not to join a militia.

    1. Sami Kishawi

      Ah, but if may quote you:

      ‘What about killing civilians?’ (in your response to 48Refugee)

      Your comment indicates that this can be considered justifiable or acceptable if people are conscripted into armies.

      I actually believe that being part of a structured, organized military means that there is a greater capacity to follow the rules of war (also due to greater external pressure).

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