A YouTube video, uploaded on the Internet this week and showing a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian being fired on at close range by an Israeli soldier in the presence of a Lieutenant-Colonel, has made international and regional headlines.
On Jul. 7, Ashraf Abu-Rahma, 27, from Bi’ilin village near Ramallah in the central West Bank was arrested, beaten up, forced to sit blindfolded and handcuffed in the blazing sun for three hours without water, and then deliberately shot on his foot from less than a meter away, allegedly on the orders of the soldier’s commander.
"I thought I was going to be arrested but not shot," Ashraf told IPS during an exclusive interview in Bi’ilin.
An army medic tended Ashraf, who was left with a swollen big toe with internal bleeding. Fortunately for the young Palestinian man, his thick boot absorbed most of the impact of the marble-sized metal bullet covered in half a millimeter of rubber.
Ashraf was amongst a group of villagers, international activists and Israeli sympathizers who were trying to reach the neighboring village Ni’ilin with emergency supplies.
Several weeks ago Ni’ilin was placed under curfew for four days. Ambulances were prevented from evacuating the wounded. Supplies of food, water and medicine were running critically low.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) placed the village under curfew after repeated protests against expropriation of village land for Israeli purposes turned violent.
The IDF said protesters pelted the soldiers with stones. The protesters countered that they were beaten, and shot with rubber-coated metal bullets, live ammunition and tear gas canisters before some of the protesters retaliated.
Abdullah Abu-Rahma, chairman of Bi’ilin’s Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, and a relative of Ashraf’s, told IPS that he and others from several countries, including Israel, were taking milk, bread and medicine to the besieged villagers in Ni’ilin.
"Suddenly we were surrounded by four military jeeps as we approached the entrance to the village. Without any provocation they started shooting teargas at us," he recalled.
Ashraf, who is known to the soldiers, was then arrested after a verbal altercation.
"I was driven around in a jeep for several minutes and punched and kicked. After this I was blindfolded, handcuffed and made to sit on the ground in the sun, thirsty and sore, for three hours.
"Eventually I was pulled upwards by my cuffed arms and made to stand. A conversation in Hebrew amongst the soldiers then ensued. I don’t understand the language but I heard the word ‘gumi,’ which means rubber-bullet in Hebrew.
"I then heard a shot ring out, I fell backwards after my foot was shot and onto the ground in a state of shock and pain," he told IPS. Following treatment by the IDF medic, he was released.
The entire incident was captured on home video by a quick-thinking Palestinian schoolgirl, 14-year-old Salaam Kanan, whose house overlooks the entrance to the village. The video was handed to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem who in turn handed it over to the Israeli military.
An Israeli military spokesman said the army was investigating the video, and described the shooting as a "stark violation" of army rules. Defense Minister Ehud Barak condemned the soldier’s conduct.
Lieutenant-Colonel Omri Fruberg, commander of the border police, patrolling Ni’ilin at the time of the shooting and captured on the video holding Ashraf’s arm as one of his soldiers opens fire, initially denied being present. Following video evidence Fruberg said he had ordered the soldier to frighten the blindfolded Palestinian but not shoot him.
But there is more to this story than meets the eye, as IPS subsequently found out. Bad blood between Ashraf and Fruberg goes back several years.
Ashraf has become a bit of a legend in the area, and many call him the local Che Guevarra (after the iconic Latin American guerrilla leader).
Ashraf succeeded in halting settlement construction on village land after he shinned up a skyscraper crane and raised a Palestinian flag. He refused orders by Israeli soldiers to come down, instead telling them to "get off village land which you are illegally occupying."
It was five hours before the frustrated Israeli authorities were able to remove him, while the picture of him on the crane made international headlines. A pending court appearance is due shortly.
Ashraf has also been at the forefront of weekly demonstrations in Bi’ilin against the Israeli army’s land-grab. The Israeli army is expropriating village land for the expansion of the neighboring Modi’in settlement and the building of the separation wall.
The wall diverges from the internationally recognized Green line, which separates Israel proper from the Palestinian territories, and separates Palestinians from their land. Both the wall and settlement building in the West Bank are illegal under international law, as the land belongs to Palestinians.
For his efforts Ashraf has been shot several times and arrested on three previous occasions.
The Bi’ilin Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, of which Ashraf is an active member, has been a thorn in the side of Israel’s settlement policy for years by engaging in a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience which has been given credibility by international support and a ruling by the Israeli supreme court in favor of the villagers.
Following a petition to the court by the committee, the IDF was ordered, in September last year, to reroute the separation barrier and return some of the expropriated land to the villagers.
The committee was also able to prevent the destruction of a number of Palestinian homes in Bi’ilin, which the Israelis claim were illegally built.
Human rights groups argue that Israel carries out a deliberate policy of Palestinian home demolitions in areas deemed appropriate for Israeli settlement expansion.
Ashraf camped out in some of the apartments marked for destruction on a nightly basis, forcing demolition squads to halt proceedings and for soldiers to arrest him only for him to return when released.
The committee has two lawsuits pending, one in Canada and one in Israel, against two Canadian companies involved in the settlement construction.