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Gazans suffer life-shattering injuries when border protests turn violent

For months, Palestinians in Gaza have protested their conditions along the border fence with Israel. The demonstrations have often turned violent -- even deadly. Doctors and international observers say they're disturbed by the devastating sniper injuries that further limit the young protesters’ prospects. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • John Yang:

    For many months now, Palestinians in Gaza have regularly protested their conditions along the border fence with Israel. Those protests have often turned violent, resulting in deaths and permanent injuries.

    Militant Palestinians have lobbed rockets and gunfire at Israel, especially targeting the soldiers at the border. But some international observers say the response of late has taken a disturbing turn.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson was there last year when the conflict first ratcheted up, and returned recently for another look.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Gaza, soccer is a crucial part of life. For many, it's an escape from the hardships here. With few prospects for a job, it's a way for young men to pass the time, and a way to still feel human even after devastating injuries.

    Playing with one leg is not easy, but, then, nothing about life is in Gaza.

  • Ahmed Abu Nar (through translator):

    Before the injury, I loved playing soccer. But, after my injury, it became difficult. But, with this team, I can return to it, and I love the sport. From this sport, we get an outlet for our feelings, and that's necessary for everyone.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Seven thousand have been shot by the Israeli army while taking part in protests along the border of Gaza in the last 15 months. Dozens of those have lost a limb.

    Ahmed did everything he could to save his leg, travelling to Turkey and Egypt to try to find a surgeon who could do the job. He says he will never forget the day he was shot.

  • Ahmed Abu Nar (through translator):

    I was taken to the hospital, but there was such a large number of injuries, I had to wait 24 hours for my operation.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That was May 14 last year, when Gazans took part in a march of return protest along Gaza's border with Israel to demonstrate for the right to return to their family's ancestral homes inside Israel, homes their forbearers fled when Israel was formed in 1948.

    The Gaza Strip has been under blockade by Israel since June 2007, when Hamas took control of the territory, violently evicting the Palestinian Authority. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world, nearly two million people packed into a sliver of land 25 miles long and five miles wide.

    Unemployment is at a staggering 52 percent, leaving young men like this feeling they have nothing to lose. The day Ahmed was shot, the Trump administration formally moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

    Palestinians have long declared that Jerusalem would one day be the capital of their future state. Until that point, official U.S. policy on claims to the city had always been neutral and a subject for final negotiations.

    We were there on that day as tens of thousands marched towards the border fence; 73 Palestinians were killed and over 2,500 injured. In the makeshift field hospitals, the wounded arrived at an alarming rate, almost all shot in the leg by snipers. Israeli sharpshooters hit so many, the hospitals couldn't cope.

  • Adnan Al Borsh:

    I never forget this day, because it was bloody.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Adnan Al Borsh was the lead surgeon on duty that day in Gaza's main hospital.

  • Adnan Al Borsh:

    My department, in that day, we have done about 85 surgeries in one day. Myself alone, I have done 28 surgeries in that day.

    I started surgeries at 9:00 a.m., and the last surgery was in 1:00 a.m. after midnight. So, really, it was — really, it was tough fatigue, and it was instruments — lack of instruments and lack of antibiotics and lack of medication and even anesthesia medication.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    At the end of his long, exhausting day, Dr. Al Borsh fell asleep in a chair and a colleague took this picture.

    It's the nature of the wounds that most disturbed Dr. Al Borsh. Despite fighting for lives through three wars in Gaza, he had never seen anything like this before.

  • Adnan Al Borsh:

    The entry point, or the entry — entrance from the bullet, it was one centimeter, and the exit more than 15 and 20 centimeters.

    In that way — in its way, it take bones, it take arteries, it take vessels, it take nerves. So, its future is for — uncertain, really. I think, because such bullet which was used, when entered in the body, it explodes inside the body, and it takes everything in its way.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So, even if the limb is saved, it will never be of use and will need surgery after surgery to avoid amputation.

    At a nearby clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, young men with similar wounds fill the waiting room daily. It's hard enough to find a job in Gaza, where most work is manual labor. These young men will struggle now more than ever.

    The bullet wounds were so large and grievous. Dust and dirt from the protest site means nearly half of them have serious infection in their bones.

    Helle Poulsen is the Doctors Without Borders coordinator in Gaza.

  • Helle Poulsen:

    So, they are very difficult to treat. Even the best resources in the world would be overwhelmed, and it would be impossible to manage the complexity and the number of these injured people.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Waleed Al Ramlawi is waiting to see a doctor and showed us his injury. The huge square of skin patched up where the bullet tore out large chunks of his leg.

  • Waleed Al Ramlawi (through translator):

    Up until now, my wound has not recovered, and it has been 10 months. I have had more than one surgery, and nothing has been achieved.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Waleed and his friends say they were unarmed, protesting near the border fence, when he was shot by a sniper.

  • Waleed Al Ramlawi (through translator):

    The Israelis were dealing with us as though we were an army. They were not dealing with us as peaceful protesters. We had no weapons, just our bodies.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Human rights groups say this is a war crime.

    Saleh Hijazi heads Amnesty International in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

  • Saleh Hijazi:

    The willful cause of injury and the willful cause of death is a war crime. And so, it is in both instances that we have found, both in terms of the killings and the injuries, that Israel has violated international law. Many of these killings appear to be willful killings and, therefore, a war crime.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Israeli army denies this.

    They wouldn't grant an interview to the "NewsHour," but released a statement saying: "For over a year, the Israeli Defense Forces have been operating against violent riots and terrorist activities under their auspices, which include shooting at soldiers, attempts to penetrate into Israel, attempts to damage the security infrastructure, burning tires, throwing stones, throwing Molotov cocktails and grenades in order to harm IDF soldiers."

    But in a damning report released in March, the United Nations' independent commission of inquiry disputed that, saying the Israeli military sniping at protesters was unlawful and unjustified, and should be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

    The U.N. noted that some protesters threw stones and lit kites on fire to send across the fence, but the majority were peaceful civilians. Israeli soldiers, the commission said, shot and killed children, paramedics, journalists and the disabled, fully aware of who they were.

    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the report, saying it was motivated by — quote — "an obsessive hatred of Israel."

    Despite the dangers, protesters still show up here every single Friday. The Israelis have reinforced the borders along here, and they still shoot at protesters who make it too close to them.

    On this day, the numbers are down to just a few hundred people, mainly young men and boys inching towards the fence in a dangerous game of chicken. Most of these kids have never seen the outside world, trapped in a tiny strip of land under blockade by the Israeli government and ruled over by the militant group Hamas.

    Flaming kites are still sometimes sent across the fence, causing Israeli farmers' crops to burn. The most cynical here encourage the smallest to approach the fence, goading Israeli guards.

    Israel says the protests are organized by the militant group Hamas, but the people we met here deny that.

  • Amin Asleep (through translator):

    I come every Friday, and I would come every day if the protest was every day. We in Gaza have nothing to do, no work. All of these people around don't have a single shekel, because we are living under the siege. And the siege is constant.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For as long as the protests continue, so will the bloodshed and also the efforts to save lives.

  • Adnan Al Borsh:

    As a doctor, as a surgeon, I try to save my people. I try to save my homeland, to help my people, by my experience, by my hands, to live without disability, without pain, without suffering.

    When I see a patient who was going to amputation, and I save his limb, I become happy. Really, I become happy, because I saved not a patient. I save a family, but this patient has wife and has sons and has relatives.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The lasting legacy of these demonstrations is a generation left with lifelong challenges, a generation that continues to suffer inside this cruel conflict.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Gaza.

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