Sunday, March 07, 2021

My life is my message: remembering the Nakba with Palestinian activist Issa Souf

By Sarah Bedson - May 15, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Nakba] [injuries] [nonviolent resistance]

May 15 marks Nakba (meaning catastrophe) day, a day to commemorate the 1948 establishment of Israel that led to some 750,000 Palestinians being expelled from their homeland and approximately 500 Palestinian villages being razed to the ground. For Issa Souf, 46, the day carries an additional significance, though.
On May 15, 2001, Israeli forces stormed his home village, Hares, an event that in itself was was regrettably all too commonplace. During the second intifada, and indeed up until this day, Israeli Occupation Forces would, and do, storm Palestinian villages on a regular basis.
At about 10am, Issa recalls receiving a phone call from his brother to warn him that soldiers had entered the village. Issa rushed to tell his wife, Faiza, to stay indoors with their newborn child and went outside to tell the mothers with their children playing in the street to get indoors. "Alhamdulilah (Praise be to God) I succeeded in warning them to take cover before the tear gas began," Issa says.
As he was advancing to the next street to warn others, he suddenly heard gunfire. "Tack. Tack. Tack. I lay down. I felt that something had hurt me, but I didn't think it serious. I tried to stand up and nothing happened. No legs, no power to stand up." In actual fact, a bullet had punctured his lung and he was having difficulty breathing.
Due to his studies and background as a physical trainer for the police for many years, the severity of the condition in which he found himself began to dawn on him. Two soldiers walked up to him, kicked him and shouted at him to stand up. Unable to move, let alone talk, Issa glanced over to see family and friends desperately trying to get to him but blocked by soldiers who shot stun grenades at anyone who so much as stepped forward. Issa mustered a whisper: "Be human and let them help me. I'm dying". He then lost consciousness.
Issa's brother travelled alongside him in the ambulance and describes how difficult the trip was made by Israeli soldiers who stopped the ambulance four times at checkpoints on the way, each time opening an investigation into what had happened and how serious it was "as if to waste time, on purpose, knowing that every moment was critical for Issa, every delay increasing his chance of dying," Issa acknowledges. The local hospital was not equipped for such cases, but gave him initial treatment to keep him alive.
Issa awoke to be told that if he were to survive, he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. After five days, he was transferred to Jordan, where he stayed for three months and underwent an operation before going for rehabilitation in a specialised centre in the UK for a month and a half.
This year marks the sixteenth year that Issa has been paraplegic. Dum-dum bullets, the type of bullet that shot Issa, are designed to expand upon impact and can also fragment when entering the body, causing a larger wound, greater blood loss and trauma than an ordinary bullet. The use of dum-dum bullets is prohibited under the 1899 Hague Convention and listed as a war crime in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. The bullet pierced his lung and exploded in his spinal cord, with 11 pieces of shrapnel still remaining lodged in his body, too risky an operation to try remove them.
"From the navel down, I have no feeling, no control, no movement, nothing," Issa says. From the outside, he appears healthy but he admits that he has to attend monthly hospital check-ups including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood and urine tests to avoid regular strong infections unbeknownst to him as his spine is unable to send pain signals to his brain.
On the third anniversary of his being wounded in 2004, Issa wrote an open letter to the two soldiers who shot him:
"I remember you […] I pity you for having become murderers. Since I was a boy, I have hated killing, hated weapons and hated the colour red, just as I hate injustice and fight against it. That's how I have understood life since I was a boy, and that, in the same spirit, is what I have taught others. I gave all my strength for the sake of peace and justice and for reducing the suffering that is caused by injustice, whatever its origin […] You can recover from the illnesses of hatred and the lust for revenge, and if we should meet one day, even in my house, you can be certain that you won't find me holding an explosive belt or concealing a knife in my pocket or in the wheels of my chair. But you will find someone who will help you get back what you lost […] Even though I have reasons to hate you, I don't feel that way and I have no regrets".
Issa exudes calm, gentleness and kindness and has garnered a large community of friends worldwide. "When I lay down after the bullet entered my body, I thanked God that the bullet shot me and not a small child. Maybe they would not have been strong enough to survive it. Even with this bad situation, I still have hope, " he says.
Both before and after the attack, Issa has been very involved in non-violent resistance: building trust and relations with Israeli leftist groups, inviting international media to report about the situation, writing articles himself, acting as a coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement and International Women's Peace Service among others, and organising and supervising summer camps for Palestinian children who have spent time in Israeli jails.
"Never in a million years did I imagine I'd spend 16 years in a wheelchair but alhamdulillah I did and I succeeded; I became patient," Issa says.
"Before the shooting my life was full of activities and so I promised myself that I will continue this way until the last day of my life because someone like me cannot just sit in the corner and wait for death. I think that one day, when my last day will come, maybe I will die during such activities, even if I reach 80 years old."
Mahatma Ghandi's quote, "my life is my message," resonates greatly with Issa.
"Violence is easier than non-violence but if you are killed, you can no longer spread your message. Every Palestinian has a duty to tell the people about our suffering. If I had died that day, my message would have died with me. I wouldn't be telling you my story now. I have met thousands of people during the past 16 years and I have spread my message and I think that this is a huge success. I feel fulfilled that I'm doing my duty for my homeland, for human rights, for my people."
Like many Palestinians, Issa is denied a permit to Israel without stated reason, meaning that he can neither access the medical care he requires there nor easily travel elsewhere for such treatment. "Unfortunately, they don't seem to like me," he shrugs, grinning. "I think they've given me a 200-year permit-ban."
In the last month, Issa has attempted to meet the Shin Bet (Israeli internal security service) three times to enquire why his permit request is met with refusal. He dreams of praying in the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, visiting his Israeli friends who constantly invite him to their homes, visiting places he went as a child meditating in front of the sea. Shin Bet declined all three of his attempts at such meetings.
Since the attack in 2001, Faiza has conceived two sets of twins through IVF and speaking of his family, Issa beams that they are "perfect".
"Sometimes they ask me a very hard question: Dad, why do all other fathers take their kids for a walk or a hike and you don't? My five children have never seen me walk. All I can say is Ok, but we have a car, we can go anywhere".
Issa will commemorate both Nakba day and the 16th anniversary of his shooting by inviting Israeli, Palestinian and international friends to his home to practise meditation and remember the Nakba together. He has mixed feelings about the day.

"You know, I consider this date as my second birthday because I came so close to death. But at the same time I remember how that day turned my life upside down with the cold-blooded pulling of a trigger. I hoped that I would be the last victim in that conflict but unfortunately many more have fallen from both sides since," he says. 

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