How the Israeli Army Shot Dead a Palestinian Paramedic in a Refugee Camp

Sajed Mizher, a volunteer paramedic, planned to arrive at school in time for a test. But as he walked over to a man wounded by a gunshot, he was shot himself

Sajed Mizher, who was 17 years and four months old, was a volunteer paramedic. Israeli soldiers killed him on the morning of March 27 as he rushed to provide first aid to someone wounded by gunfire in the Deheisheh refugee camp.

That morning, Mizher had an exam. “Don’t worry,” he told his father, Abdel Hakim, as he left the house. “I’ll return before 8 A.M. and get to school on time.”

A video swiftly posted by the army’s Arabic-language spokesman, Avichay Adraee, claims to show a paramedic removing his medic’s vest and throwing stones. Is the implication that killing a Palestinian medic is justified?

In any case, the aerial footage shows several blurry figures inside the refugee camp, not alongside the main road to Bethlehem, which is where a soldier killed Mizher with a single bullet to the stomach. The video shows people on a rooftop, not on the sidewalk near the plumbing store where Mizher collapsed, wearing his black pants and shirt, and his orange medic’s vest with reflecting stripes so he could be identified in the dark.

About a hundred meters from him, on the same side of the sidewalk, lay the wounded man Mizher sought to reach. Across from him, to the west, were the soldiers, who were leaving the camp and going up the steep streets in the town of Doha (whose population consists mainly of former residents of the refugee camp).

The soldiers raided Deheisheh twice that day, at about 2 A.M. and 6 A.M. The earlier raid was brief, around 15 minutes. The soldiers entered in military jeeps, shot rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas at some youths who had taken to the streets and threw stones, arrested one person and left.

Six paramedics from the Palestinian Medical Relief Society woke up when they were informed of the soldiers’ arrival, ready to provide first aid to any casualties and, if necessary, take them for further treatment at a hospital.

“The camp’s streets are narrow, ambulances can’t go there. That’s why our presence is important,” Abd al-Mahdi Gharib, 23, who’s in charge of the camp’s crew of volunteer paramedics, said Wednesday.

When the soldiers left, Gharib bought snacks for his colleagues with the 10 shekels ($2.80) he had in his pocket “such as Bamba,” he said, referring to a peanut-flavored snack akin to cheese doodles. They also took a picture of themselves, the fluorescent stripes on their clothes glowing in the dark. Despite the darkness, you can see they’re all smiling, including Mizher, who planned to go back to sleep for a few hours before his exam.

But at 6:01 A.M., Mizher texted his colleagues that the army was back, this time in the Al-Walajiya neighborhood. The young volunteers rushed to deploy where other young men had already gathered to throw stones at the soldiers.

“We didn’t go to them; they broke into our home,” one young resident of the camp told Haaretz, annoyed at being asked what all this stone-throwing was good for. “We aren’t throwing stones in Tel Aviv. Not even in Area C, in Gush Etzion. You’ve invaded us, in Area A.” Area C is the part of the West Bank where the Oslo Accords assigned full administrative and security control to the Israelis until 1999; Area A was assigned full administrative and policing control to the Palestinians.

“You took our land and our homes,” he continued. “We originally come from the villages of Suba, Zakariyya, Khulda, Walaja and 40 others. Your army invades our camp almost every night and arrests someone who will be released two days or two months later. You’ve taken our childhood and our youth. So we’re at least preserving our history and our dignity.”

People who were awake at the time said the soldiers emerged from two civilian vehicles with Palestinian license plates. During this raid, Gharib said, the soldiers shot nothing but live bullets at the stone-throwers – no tear gas and no rubber-coated bullets. His crew treated two gunshot victims, one of whom was hit in the shoulder and the other in the fingers. They were taken to the hospital in private cars for further treatment.

No one heard the shot

Three Deheisheh residents were arrested that morning. There were 30 to 50 soldiers, and after about half an hour, they began leaving the camp – but not before some had grabbed one of the paramedics dressed in his Palestinian Medical Relief Society vest. He said they beat him and hurled his walkie-talkie to the ground.

They held him for a few minutes, in what the others viewed as an attempt to use him as a human shield and thereby prevent other Palestinians from throwing stones at them while they were on foot. But they let him go, and he rejoined his friends.

The paramedics, who were inside the Al-Walajiya neighborhood at the time, thought it was over and they would soon be able to go home. But then they got word of a wounded man on the main road.

Four of the paramedics ran down one of the camp’s steep, narrow streets. When they reached the main road, they saw the soldiers on the other side. They also saw several stone-throwers.

They walked slowly toward the wounded man, facing the soldiers to make sure they could see the vests and would realize they were paramedics at work. There were no stone-throwers on the stretch of road where they were walking.

Then, near the plumbing shop, Mizher collapsed. Gharib says that when he rushed over to him, Mizher said, “I was hit in the leg.” Since no one heard the shot, Deheisheh residents concluded that he was hit by a sniper.

Gharib checked Mizher’s right leg but saw no bullet wound. He checked his left leg but still saw nothing. Nor was there any blood or bullet wound on Mizher’s chest. A man who drove Mizher to Al-Hussein Hospital in Beit Jala, in his own car, later said there wasn’t a drop of blood on the seat.

Only at the hospital, when the staff removed Mizher’s underpants, did they discover that he had been hit in the stomach. But he was fully conscious and told Gharib, “Don’t tell my mother.” Everyone thought he’d be fine.

But when he went in for an operation at the Arab Society hospital in Beit Jala, it was clear the bullet had completely destroyed his stomach.

“The bullet that killed my son cost half a shekel,” his father said on Wednesday. “Half a shekel.” He was sitting in the simple divan, the gathering room of the extended family. A week had already passed, but people were still coming to pay condolence calls.

Last July, I sat on in the same divan and heard about how Sajed’s cousin Arkan was killed by a bullet. He was 15 years old. He had thrown a symbolic stone at an army jeep leaving the camp after one of those routine raids. A soldier shot him in the chest.

Back then, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz that “the incident is being investigated by his commanders. A Military Police investigation has also been opened to clarify the circumstances of the case. The investigation is still in progress.”

Arkan used to sleep at the house of his 80-year-old grandmother Nazmiya, a refugee from the village of Khulda, to help her. After Arkan was killed, Sajed took on the job of taking care of her, Sajed’s father said. Nazmiya’s third grandchild, Hassan, was wounded by IDF fire and is now confined to a wheelchair.

Sajed volunteered for the Palestinian Medical Relief Society two years ago and passed the basic first aid course. The volunteer paramedics don’t just show up during clashes with the army. They’re also present at big events like the Palestine Marathon and festivals, and funerals as well.

During his volunteer work two weeks before his death, Sajed gave water to marathon runners. A week before he was killed, also as part of his volunteer work, he was at a large funeral for a resident of Wadi Fukin, 20-year-old Ahmad Manasra. When Manasra came over to help a wounded man, soldiers fired six bullets at him from an IDF watchtower at the Al-Khader junction.

The car the man and his family were driving in had stalled, and the soldiers shot him when he got out to see what was wrong, as reported by my colleagues Gideon Levy and Alex Levac a week ago.

Sneaking in medication

The Palestinian Medical Relief Society, the PMRS, was founded in 1979 by activists from what was then the Palestinian Communist Party (today’s People’s Party), doctors and other health professionals. Its goal was to provide health services that the occupation authorities couldn’t be expected to provide, but also to deepen social solidarity and develop a consciousness of popular struggle.

“The organization’s first activity was distributing medication during a curfew on Deheisheh,” Mazen al-Azza, a longtime activist in the organization who heads its Bethlehem district branch, said Wednesday. “Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, one of the organization’s founders, slipped into the camp despite the curfew, and with Dr. Nimr Odeh, a camp resident, they sneaked from house to house to distribute medicine to the sick and treat whoever needed it.”

The Palestinian Medical Relief Society hasn’t been affiliated with the People’s Party for a long time, and it has expanded its activities beyond medical services. It runs camps, lectures, debates and dance classes. (Sajed loved teaching children to dance the dabke.) It currently has around 2,000 volunteers, including 600 in the Bethlehem area alone. Altogether, 60,000 people have volunteered for it since its inception.

“We want to develop children as leaders in society,” said one member at the organization. “We want to shatter the idea that they’re powerless under the occupation.”

The Bethlehem district has 12 first-aid teams distributed among the various refugee camps, towns and villages. It became necessary to substantially boost the number of volunteer medics at the start of the second intifada in 2000, when the number of casualties from IDF fire at mass demonstrations multiplied.

Over the last two years, Azza said, soldiers have wounded 40 of the organization’s paramedics with live bullets, rubber-coated bullets and beatings. Abd Gharib alone has been wounded 18 times by IDF fire over the last eight years. In every case, he was wearing his medic’s uniform and doing his job – rushing to the aid of the wounded.

Sitting in the divan, Mizher’s father talked about his son. For about an hour, continuously, almost without pause, and surely for the hundredth time, he described how worried he was that his son wouldn’t make it to the exam if he went out to treat the wounded, how his son reassured him that he’d be on time, how he heard that a paramedic had been wounded and his heart told him it was his son, how he and his wife ran to one hospital, then another, and how nobody thought he would die.

He saw Sajed in the emergency room, and again when he was taken in for the operation. Ya ma (Oh, mommy) were his son’s last words as he moaned in pain. When the operation took longer than expected and the doctor emerged without a smile on his face, Mizher’s father understood that the situation was worse than he had thought. The first time Mizher’s heart stopped beating, they revived him. But then his heart stopped again, and this time the efforts to revive him failed.

“The military state is so afraid of a teenage paramedic?” he asked, his eyes dry. “A Palestinian boy becomes a man when he’s still a child. Did I not want my son to be like all the other children in the world? For him to play like them, and travel to beautiful places like them, and study and come home with a diploma, and not be afraid to sleep at night because the army breaks into houses and he has to treat gunshot wounds when he’s 17?

“The soldier who killed him, what is he telling his wife? Is he happy?”

Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit if Mizher was endangering the soldiers’ lives, and if so how. Almost 24 hours later, the unit said the question should be referred to the police.

A spokesman for the Israel Police in the West Bank said the question should be referred to the police’s main spokesman’s unit, because police officers from the West Bank district weren’t involved.

That unit replied it had nothing to add to the original IDF press release, which was: “During IDF and police operational activity in the Deheisheh refugee camp, southwest of Bethlehem, a violent riot was instigated.

“Dozens of rioters hurled blocks and firebombs at the troops, who responded with riot control methods. It was claimed that an injured man died of his wounds. It was also claimed that he was working for the Red Crescent organization and was wounded while giving medical care to the injured during those events.”

Neither the military nor police spokesmen replied to Haaretz’s questions on why Mizher had been shot at, whether he endangered the policemen’s lives, and if so, how.