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“I realized I wasn’t going to be buried today”: Tales of trauma and survival from Palestine

Jerusalem24 – On 24 October 2022, the life of Abdel-Jabbar Saqf Al-Hayt took an irreversible turn when, in a matter of seconds, the 31-year-old businessman lost his right eye while driving home alongside his wife after dinner with a client.

“It’s so hard to explain the feeling,” Saqf Al-Hayt tells Jerusalem24.  “You wash your face then look in the mirror. It’s like it’s happening all over again.”

Saqf Al-Hayt now only sees the world through his left eye.

“To me, the world is half dark, half normal,” he says. “Inside of me, it’s all dark.”

Saqf Al-Hayt is one of 10,587 Palestinians, one third of them children, who were injured by Israeli forces and settlers in 2022, according to Ministry of Health statistics. 45% of those injuries were incurred by live ammunition, and 38% were aimed at the upper body – which the MoH says denotes an Israeli military policy to “shoot-to-kill”.

International NGOs and diplomatic missions have condemned Israeli actions which led to 2022 being the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem since the Second Intifada. But less attention is paid to the thousands of wounded who are left struggling with increasingly life-altering injuries.

Abdel-Jabbar and Samar Saqf Al-Hayt after the incident. [Credit: Wafa News Agency]

“I didn’t know what to do”

Saqf Al-Hayt, a well-known businessman and owner of a supplier company to restaurants and cafés in Nablus, describes as best he can the circumstances which led him to wake up with one eye.

After attending a business dinner, Saqf Al-Hayt, his wife, and sister-in-law left the restaurant they were invited to shortly before midnight, heading home from Rafidia in Nablus to Ras Al-Ein.

“Around 12:20 or 12:30 AM, I stopped at the traffic light,” he recounts. “A few seconds later, a motorcycle with two people riding drove past me while the light was still red.”

“The light turned green and I started driving… and then seconds later the men on the bike fell to the ground.”

Saqf Al-Hayt says the incident happened so fast that he thought at first he might have run them over – even though they were a considerable distance away.

“I tried to look closer, and that’s when I saw a red laser beam targeting them,” Saqf Al-Hayt recounts. “Their bodies started twitching.”

On that fateful night, one of the deadliest nights in the occupied West Bank in 2022, the Israeli army killed five Palestinians in Nablus during a military raid. Saqf Al-Hayt had just witnessed the death of two of them.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Saqf Al-Hayt. “Check on them, move the car, stay with my wife… Then I switched into reverse and backed away as fast as I could.”

While Saqf Al-Hayt was reversing, his car suddenly came under fire as well. “Suddenly all I heard was the sound of metal hitting my car. I didn’t hear the gunshots, but the sound that was piercing my car.”

“I tried to move the steering wheel, it wasn’t responsive,” he recalls. “Then I realized that my arm was bleeding, making my hands slip on the wheel.”

In a matter of seconds, the car had been showered with bullets and Saqf Al-Hayt was hit.

“There was blood all over my clothes and body, I didn’t feel it or realize it,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I was bleeding or that my right eye was hit by a bullet.”

Saqf Al-Hayt lost consciousness and has no recollection of his wife Samar and her sister immediately driving to Rafidia hospital in Nablus.

“I didn’t know who had taken me to the hospital, or what had happened with my wife – if she was killed, if she was shot, if she was still alive.”

“I thought I was in the morgue, I thought I was dead”

Despite his loss of consciousness, confusion, and the near-dissociative state he experienced as he arrived at the hospital, Saqf Al-Hayt remembers specific elements of his thought process in excruciating detail.

“My eyes were closed, I felt like I was trapped in my own body,” he says. “I couldn’t move. I think I was surrounded by a dozen medical staff, and at the same time they were also treating injuries and receiving dead bodies… I could hear everything but couldn’t see anything.”

Saqf Al-Hayt was one of 42 Palestinians injured – nearly all of them by live ammunition – during Israel’s military raid on Nablus that night.

He recalls hearing the nurses telling him he was alive (“You’re breathing, your blood pressure is good, move, talk to us”) but he found he couldn’t respond.

“Moments later they moved me to a very cold room. I thought I had been moved to a morgue because I couldn’t talk. I thought that I was dead.”

Saqf Al-Hayt’s illusion that he had, in fact, died, was compounded when he began hearing the names of the men shot and killed in the Nablus invasion over the loudspeakers of the nearby mosque.

“I heard the names of the martyrs, one name after the other, and I was waiting to hear my name,” he says. “When my name wasn’t among them, I finally thought to myself, ‘I’m going home!’”

“A few minutes later my left eye fluttered open and shut,” he remembers. “I caught a glimpse of a yellow light: it was the MRI room, and I knew then I wasn’t dead.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going home, not under the soil.’”

“Your only option is to live with it”

Saqf Al-Hayt was transferred to An-Najah hospital and underwent surgery the next morning, and was informed a few hours later that he had lost his right eye forever.

Medical staff told him he still had shrapnel in his eye which would require another surgery. He also remembers their next words: “Your only option is to live with it.”

Saqf Al-Hayt emphasizes that he is financially comfortable, which he says places him apart from a majority of Palestinian victims of Israeli gunfire. “I don’t need anyone’s help, I can cover my treatment,” he says. “But I do feel for those who get injured by the Israeli army and are not able to financially acquire the right treatment and care.”

During his own treatment, Saqf Al-Hayt went through several hospitals as his surgery was considered “too risky”.

“One of the pieces of shrapnel in my right eye was one centimeter away from my brain, and then it moved about three millimeters.”

He was later referred to Saint John Eye hospital in Jerusalem – but a few hours before he was scheduled for anesthesia, his doctor informed him he would not be proceeding with the surgery as it was still deemed too dangerous.

“He told me that if the shrapnel traveled to the brain cavity, I would be losing all movement in the right part of my body, and that it would be paralyzed.”

Saint John’s Eye hospital recommended a doctor in Jordan to which Saqf Al-Hayt was able to travel, and his second surgery there was a success.

“I don’t know why they targeted me”

A little over two months after Saqf Al-Hayt experienced his life-changing injury, 20-year-old Abdallah Rawajbeh was wounded in a similar way – although he initially appeared to have a experienced the incident in a radically different way.

On 2 January 2023, Rawajbeh was leaning against his car and smoking a cigarette on the side of a road in Asireh Al-Shamaliyeh in the northern occupied West Bank. An Israeli military convoy passed by the stopped vehicle, and an Israeli soldier fired tear gas canisters and a stun grenade at Rawajbeh from a moving military jeep, in an unprovoked attack which was captured on camera by his brother and widely diffused on social media.

Rawajbeh lost his left eye in the incident.

“We were working on the road, laying the tarmac, when the Israeli soldiers interrupted us and demanded we stop the work – so we did,” Rawajbeh tells Jerusalem24. He and his brother Ubadah work for Brothers Construction Company in the West Bank.

“They hit me with two gas canisters and one stun grenade. Him [the soldier] opening the door a few meters before reaching me indicates that he was determined to target me,” Rawajbeh affirms.

“I don’t know why they targeted me.”

+972 magazine obtained a medical report from An-Najah Hospital in Nablus where Rawajbeh was treated, which describes a tear in his left eye and a destroyed optic nerve. “His eye is swollen and closed, and his face contorts in pain as he speaks to remove the clear protective covering and clean the area with a small sponge,” reads the report.

When the Israeli soldier targeted Rawajbeh, the army were withdrawing from Kafr Dan after punitively demolishing the family homes of two Palestinians accused of killing an Israeli officer at Al-Jalameh checkpoint in September 2022. The military shot and killed 17-year-old Fouad Abed and 21-year-old Mohammad Hoshieh during the raid.

When pressed about the motive for the seemingly unprompted attack on Rawajbeh, an Israeli Border Police spokesperson responded to +972 Magazine: “When the forces left the village, explosive devices and stones were thrown at the soldiers, including from the route of travel seen in the video, and measures were therefore used to disperse demonstrations.”

There is no evidence of the activities described by the spokesperson in the video of the incident, and Rawajbeh can be clearly seen leaning against his car and smoking for a length of time prior to being targeted.

Whereas Saqf Al-Hayt described to Jerusalem24 his recollections and subsequent mental anguish in minute detail, Rawajbeh simply said: “Alhamdulilla, it was meant to happen.”

“A nightmare that never happened”

It’s been over three months since Saqf Al-Hayt’s injury, and he says it still feels “like a nightmare that never happened.”

“It’s been extremely hard on me, especially after the second surgery that took five hours and a half,” he shares. “They could only remove one piece of shrapnel, and block the other from reaching the brain with a metal plate.”

And Rawajbeh, who spoke to +972 Magazine a few days after he recounted the incident for Jerusalem24, offered in that interview a much more detailed description of the insecurity and fear he feels in places where he previously felt safe.

“Recently, there is a feeling that wherever you are, whether it’s at work or on the road near home, soldiers can shoot you,” he told +972 Magazine. “Even if you don’t participate in confrontations, if you don’t do anything, just go to work and come home, you can’t know what will happen to you.”

Abdallah Rawajbeh at home after the incident. [Source: Palestine Post]
Hunaida Iseed, a senior psychologist with Doctors of the World—Switzerland, tells Jerusalem24 that in the immediate aftermath of such an incident certain people may count on their religious beliefs, which may be helpful for them in recovering from or coping with a life-changing injury.

“They leave the issue to God, meaning they count on him to make it up to them,” she explains. “They take a step back and say that ‘their situation is better than many’. This provides relief to a person; they believe that they are in the good hands of God.”

“Legitimate emotions”

Iseed says that immediately after the trauma, the shock is overwhelming. But since the Palestinian community is particularly tight-knit, with generations of one extended family all living under one roof and a shared experience and common grief under occupation, victims of trauma may feel relief and “lucky” to have such support. “So the person starts feeling some sort of comfort – however, the stage that follows, the person might go through denial.”

“They’re still in a shock phase.”

In life-changing injuries such as the ones experienced by Rawajbeh and Saqf Al-Hayt, Iseed stresses the violence of the event on the human psyche.

“They are a direct trauma – unexpected, sudden incidents, [where] the injuries were in vital parts of their bodies,” she says. “Both lost their eye, the window to view the world.”

People may find themselves suffering a range of symptoms after being injured, which may appear immediately after the incident or even years later. “Sometimes they may develop post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Iseed. “After a while, if they didn’t go back to work, to their normal life, or to their relationships, they may develop anxiety and depression.”

This is a symptom Saqf Al-Hayt has become intimately familiar with.

When prompted about his life before, Saqf Al-Hayt says he is someone who was “too busy” with life and work, and “never expected” to experience this kind of trauma at the hands of the Israeli military.

“I studied in Italy, came back home, and started my factory on my own,” he enumerates. “I have workers who provide for their families.”

“I love life and enjoy it – unfortunately, I lost the most precious thing a human can have. My eye.”

Where Saqf Al-Hayt speaks with a sense of resignation, Rawajbeh has expressed anger.

“I want whoever hurt me to be brought to justice, for the soldier who caused me to lose an eye to at least pay for it,” Rawajbeh told +972 Magazine. “Every day someone dies, every day someone is injured or imprisoned. I feel part of a continuum, like everyone who was before and everyone who will be after.”

Iseed says all emotions are “legitimate” when an event strikes unexpectedly that is beyond a person’s capacity for tolerance.

“When there is loss, there is grief,” she explains. “One of the stages of grief is shock. And then [one] might go into the stages of denial and anger, and bargaining.”

“Nothing will bring back my eye”

Abdel-Jabbar and Samar Saqf Al-Hayt celebrated their first wedding anniversary in October 2022, mere days before the incident.

Samar moved to Palestine from Saudi Arabia around two years ago. The scenes she witnessed were “a shock” to her, according to Saqf Al-Hayt.

“My wife saw me lose my eye. She had never experienced or seen a military army before. Now when she hears the call to prayer she cries; when we pass a checkpoint, she cries.”

Saqf Al-Hayt admits he has thought of moving to another country since the incident, but still seems to nurture hope for a future in Palestine. “I’m running a beautiful business here, and I wish to have beautiful kids that make our life better.”

Saqf Al-Hayt also says he has considered therapy “for his wife” – but not for himself.

“There’s nothing in the world that can change what happened, nothing will bring my eye back,” he says. “Therapy won’t bring back vision in my right eye.”

“Organize your story; accept your experience”

Iseed cautiously concurs that therapy cannot cure people’s physical injuries, but emphasizes how critical it can be to a person’s healing process.

In an overwhelming, traumatic incident, events are not stored in the brain in chronological order, Iseed explains. Instead, the mind stores “parts of the incident” but not others – certain scenes, smells, feelings, or pain – so “the story is told in an unorganized order.”

“Therapy helps organize the story in the brain, and leads to accepting the experience as a part of one’s life.”

Different people with varying experiences – or even similar experiences – will require different forms of treatment on their road to recover from their injuries, both physical and mental, and in their quest to regain the feeling of control over their life they may have lost due to trauma.

For the countless injured by the occupation who may still be struggling to recover or are dealing with lifelong injuries, Iseed recommends another step in addition to considering therapy.

“To be with people who have been through the same experience, it calms those feelings down, it makes them feel more acceptable,” she says. “They help each other, and support each other.”

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 6 years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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