Seven months after a Gaza fisherman was shot in the eyes by Israeli navy troops and lost his sight, he was finally allowed into Israel for an examination, after repeated refusals. The news was not good
Khader al-Saaidy at Wolfson Medical Center.Photo Alex Levac
Entissar came out of the room crying, pulling her expressionless son after her by the hand. It wasn’t hard to guess what the two heard from the doctors in the room. Entissar’s quiet weeping said it all.
Khader, tense and nervous, hadn’t slept a wink the previous night, before the appointment with the Israeli physicians, which he’d been dreaming about for months. Now, though, his world felt even darker than before. His prospects of regaining his sight in the years ahead turned out to be nonexistent. Possibly in another few years, advanced technology would come along developed that could restore his sight, the doctors said, offering a glimmer of hope. Until then he was condemned to blindness.
The sentence of blindness was carried out by soldiers of the Israel Navy, who fired about 15 rubber-coated metal bullets at him, all into his face and his upper body, according to his testimony, claiming he had ventured beyond the limits of the Palestinian fishing zone off the Gaza Strip. The incident occurred last February 20, in the evening. Khader al-Saaidy was in his haska – the Arabic word for a type of fishing boat – together with his cousin Mohammed Saaidy.
Now 31, Khader had been providing for himself and his family from the sea since he was 13. At 3:30 that afternoon, the two had set out from Khan Yunis and cast their nets. They planned to return at midnight. No one knew that this would be Khader’s last catch.
At 9:30, amid the dark, they discovered that they were surrounded by four rubber dinghies of the Israel Navy, each carrying a dozen masked and armed troops, the peerless fighters against the weak and the helpless. Their mother ship observed their heroic act from afar. According to Khader, they were nine nautical miles from the shore, three short of that day’s limit of 12 miles. But what does it matter?
Seeing the soldiers, the two cousins abandoned their nets at sea and started to flee eastward for their lives, back to the coast of Khan Yunis. The soldiers gave pursuit amid heavy fire of rubber-coated metal bullets, which are fatal from close range. The range in this case was very close, almost zero. One bullet smashed into Khader’s right eye and devastated it and his left eye as well. Khader felt that he had gone blind.
The soldiers who took his sight were the last thing he ever saw. But not their faces, because they were masked and it was dark. The troops then abducted him and his boat to the port of Ashdod. From there he was taken to Barzilai Medical Center in nearby Ashkelon, where the surgeons had to remove his right eye. The fate of the other eye was unclear. The medical staff at Barzilai intimated to him that it might be possible to save it.
After being discharged from the hospital and returning to Gaza, he was invited for a follow-up check on March 13. (His cousin, Mohammed, was quickly released by the soldiers, and he returned home as well.) The Israeli unit of the Coordination and Liaison Administration refused to issue him an entry permit into Israel. Another date was set, and again his application was rejected. He then went with his mother and one of his brothers to Egypt, via the Rafah Crossing. The physicians he consulted with at Fatimiyah Hospital in Cairo told him that there was nothing they could do to save his remaining eye, maybe there was something in Israel.
Khader al-Saaidy and his mother at Wolfson Medical Center. Photo Alex Levac
In mid-June I spoke with Khader via Skype, and the story of the fisherman who lost his sight was published in Haaretz. During our talk, Khader sat on his bed in a white undershirt, eyes gazing into the dark, leaning on the unplastered wall of his crowded home in Al-Shati refugee camp. It was a heartrending sight. He ended the conversation with a wish, uttered in a feeble voice, “Maybe one day I will be allowed to return to Israel so they can save my eye.”
Prof. Dan Turner, deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the director of its Institute of Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, read the article and decided to what he could to bring Khader to Israel to determine whether his second eye could be saved. A volunteer in the organization Physicians for Human Rights, Turner spared no effort and was unfazed by the repeated rejections he got from the Coordination and Liaison Administration.
Some of the personnel there were heedful of his request, he says. But because Khader had previously been arrested for violating the fishing zone limit and had served 14 months in Nafha Prison in Mitzpeh Ramon, and because he had been wounded by the Israeli forces and was therefore liable to become a revenge-seeking terrorist, despite his blindness, he was denied entry to Israel. In June, the unit for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories had forwarded this unbelievable response to Haaretz: “Khader al-Saaidy’s request [to enter Israel] did not meet the existing criteria for patients leaving Gaza to receive medical treatment... his medical condition [does] not constitute mortal danger, and contrary to what has been alleged, his request was for medical follow-up and not for medical treatment.”
Turner would not relent. He spoke to Saaidy’s doctor in the Gaza Strip and obtained his medical file from Barzilai Hospital – even as the CLA remained adamant in its refusal to allow the blind fisherman into Israel. Turner received three or four rejections, but did not despair. Working with the devoted inquiries coordinator of Physicians for Human Rights, Entissar Kharoub, a Jaffa resident, he finally managed to get Khader an entry permit to Israel. Dr. Jacob Waxman, Turner’s nephew, who is a resident physician in ophthalmology at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, also helped with obtaining the invitation and setting an appointment for Saaidy. Last week, then, Khader Saaidy was invited to the Holon hospital’s ophthalmology department.
Very early last Tuesday, Muhammad Sabah, a field researcher in the Gaza Strip for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, picked up Saaidy and his mother at their home in the Shati camp and drove them to the Erez Crossing. Though Saaidy is blind, the CLA for weeks ignored his request that his mother be permitted to escort him to the hospital in Israel. Saaidy showed up at Erez with his mother – he had no other choice – but she was refused entry. Denied. Rejected. Dangerous. Apparently, a blind person can find his way from Gaza to Holon on his own, in a foreign country, without an escort. Again, Turner and Kharoub made calls to all and sundry, until this problem, too, was resolved. A few hours later, mother and blind son passed through the Erez Crossing into Israel.
Because of the lengthy delay caused by Israel’s refusal to allow Khader’s mother to accompany him, volunteers from the Road to Recovery NGO, which organizes rides from checkpoints for Palestinians requiring medical treatment in Israel, had already departed Erez with a different patient. Physicians for Human Rights hired a taxi to take Khader and his mother to the hospital. Early in the afternoon the two arrived, almost overwrought, at the hospital, where we met them.
Entissar Kharoub supported Entissar Saaidy when she emerged, shattered, from the examination room. Dr. Itamar Yeshurun, a retina specialist, aimed shafts of light at Saaidy’s left eye but got no response. The conclusion was clear and unequivocal. Khader had dressed in new clothes for the occasion, had had his hair cut and had shaved. “There’s no one like mom,” he smiled with embarrassment as he came out of the examination room into the corridor. Madalena, a woman from Bat Yam who was waiting in the corridor and overheard the conversation, offered Khader and his mother a package of pitas with za’atar that she took out of her bag. “So many hours they were on the roads, let them eat a little, while it’s still fresh,” she said. The visitors from Gaza were moved by the gesture. Khader’s mother, who wore black, wiped away a tear. “Beware of suspicious objects,” warned a sign in the hospital that hung above her son’s head.
Since he was wounded, Khader doesn’t venture out of the house. “He closes himself behind the four walls,” his mother says, adding that he sometimes flies into fits of rage. He cut his ties with his friends and spends most of the day sitting on his bed, staring vacantly into emptiness. “I live from the mattress to the bed,” he says.
Has he been to the sea since being shot?
“What would I do in the sea?” he replies. In any case, his boat was confiscated by soldiers of the defense forces. A month later, it was returned, stripped down, without the engine and other items, which are worth about $7,000, according to Khader. “Only the boards are left. Thrown on the beach.” The boat lies on the Khan Yunis shore, abandoned.
His old cellphone rings incessantly. Friends and relatives from the Gaza Strip want to know what the doctors told him. “No current treatment available,” Dr. Waxman wrote in his summation of the visit, and added, “Treatment may be possible in the future, perhaps in another five years.” Khader received an invitation to return to the clinic in another two years. Until then he will live in his blindness.
Entissar sits her son down on a bench. He, too, seems to be crying now. The eye that was removed has been replaced with a glass eye. “His life has turned upside down since the wound,” his mother says. “He has neither night nor day. He was a calm, happy person with his family, and now he is all nerves. His life was destroyed completely.”
Khader’s fishing provided for 14 souls: his parents, his wife, his three children and several of his brothers.
What are you feeling now?
“Enough. I will stay between four walls forever. I had a little hope. One percent. My hope was to see my children. Nothing beyond that. I didn’t ask too much. Not to work and not to earn a living, only to see my children.”
He lives in one room, together with his wife and their three children, in the home of the extended family. His mother lowers her voice, so he won’t hear: “Sometimes I go to clean people’s houses, and they give me a little money because of our situation.”
What’s it like for you to be in Israel, he is asked. Khader laughs. “The same thing. The same thing everywhere. I don’t see anything. It was the same when I went to Egypt. Everything is the same.”
His mother is convinced that the soldiers wanted to kill him, and only God prevented his death. Three weeks ago, he attempted suicide. His mother relates that he broke the mirror in the house and tried to slash himself with the shards. His hand is scarred from the event. Since then, his family has been keeping watch over him day and night. When he returned from Israel after being wounded and hospitalized, his family was certain that only one eye had been damaged. They were all shocked to discover the truth.
“What are the chances that the world will now learn about his story?” his mother asks.
The question remains hanging in the air of the corridor in the Holon hospital. “Please tell Khader’s story to the world. So people will know.” They say goodbye and make their way slowly to the taxi that will take them back to besieged and imprisoned Gaza, the mother and the son holding her hand, groping his way in the dark.