|Ashraf Abu Suleiman (Eva Bartlett)|
Minutes later, Ashraf was running in blind terror as Israeli soldiers in a gunboat off the coast began shooting at Palestinian fishermen. He was hit by an Israeli soldier's bullet which bore through his neck and grazed his vertebrae, fracturing C-4 and C-5, leaving him bleeding on the ground and unable to stand up.
"They were shooting at Palestinian fishermen in hassakas [small fishing vessels]," he said of the Israeli soldiers in the gunboat. "Some of the bullets were hitting near where I stood. I started to run north. I didn't think about where to run, I just ran."
He estimates he ran for a few minutes, soon approaching the northern border before an Israeli soldier's voice shouted over a megaphone for him to stop. Seeing an Israeli military vehicle in the distance ahead, Ashraf was afraid that the soldiers north of him would start shooting. He kept running, hoping to take cover behind a low hill nearby.
Then he was grounded, one of the bullets hitting him in the neck.
The Ma'an news agency reported, "an Israeli military spokeswoman says soldiers identified a 'suspicious Palestinian man' approaching the border fence, and fired warning shots in the air. After the Palestinian ignored warning shots, the spokeswoman said, the army fired at and lightly injured him."
At least eight Palestinians have been killed and at least 33 injured in the Israeli-imposed "buffer zone" along Gaza's border since the 18 January ceasefire. Three of the killed and 12 of the injured were minors, including many children.
The "buffer zone" was imposed by Israeli authorities about a decade ago, initially at 150 meters and now while Israeli authorities say the no-go zone runs 300 metres from the boundary between Gaza and Israel, it ranges up to two kilometers in some areas. The buffer zone renders off-limits approximately 30 percent of Gaza's most fertile agricultural land, as well as the land adjacent to it. Israeli authorities warn that anyone entering that area is subject to being shot by the Israeli army.
"I don't know how close I was, maybe less than 400 meters from the fence," Ashraf said.
Three Israeli soldiers approached him on foot, Ashraf explained. "An Israeli soldier kicked me in the mouth and told me to stand up. I couldn't, my legs wouldn't move."
According to Ashraf, an Israeli soldier dragged him by his arms over the rough ground. After another kick to the face, he was put on a stretcher and carried across the northern border to a waiting Israeli jeep.
After they checked his identity via computer, Ashraf said that the Israeli soldiers told him: "You're 16 years and one month old. You're a student." Although the soldiers realized that he was harmless, they continued to treat him with contempt.
"They put me in a jeep and we drove for a while, maybe 20 minutes, I don't know exactly. Then they transferred me to an Apache helicopter and flew me to a military base near Erez. I don't know the name but I know it wasn't so far from Erez. There was a small clinic there where they gave me a little first aid," he said, recalling that this treatment was at least 30 minutes after his injury.
"They put some gauze and bandaging on my neck wound," Ashraf said. He then was made to wait as a Palestinian medic negotiated his return to a Gaza hospital.
Hassam Ghrenam, a Palestine Red Crescent Society medic and ambulance driver, had approval to cross into Israel for two medical cases unrelated to Ashraf. While on the Israeli side, Ghrenam saw Ashraf and requested to take him back to Gaza.
Ashraf explained that Ghrenam wanted to bring three other men, to transfer him carefully as medical procedure dictates. The Israeli soldiers refused the request and Ashraf had to wait for more than an hour until the soldiers finally relented.
"There were maybe 30 Israeli soldiers around us. The ambulance driver kept saying, 'he's critical, very critical, take him to Israel,' but the soldiers just pointed their guns at him and did nothing," Ashraf explained.
Ghrenam noted that there was blood and signs that Ashraf was beaten or kicked in the face. According to Ghrenam, "The Israelis only put a bandage on his wound, no neck collar, no proper treatment. I immediately put a neck collar on him. Injuries to the neck and spinal cord can lead to paralysis."
At the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing, Ghrenam passed Ashraf to a waiting Red Crescent ambulance which immediately transferred the youth to Gaza's al-Shifa hospital. He is now in the al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital, and doctors and Ashraf's parents wait to see whether his fractured vertebrae will heal well enough so he can walk again.
Ashraf's father is not optimistic. "Every day we wait I feel like his life is withering. I'm worried about his future."
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who arrived in Gaza in November 2008 on the third Free Gaza Movement boat. She has been volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement and documenting Israel's ongoing attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. During Israel's recent assault on Gaza, she and other ISM volunteers accompanied ambulances and documenting the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.