GAZA MAN SHOT IN THE FACE WITH TEAR GAS CANISTER SAYS ‘IT FELT LIKE DEATH’
▶ Haitham Abu Sabla is one of thousands in the enclave maimed by the Israeli army
The gruesome photos show a man desperately grasping at his throat for air as smoke pours from his cheek. The young Palestinian falls to the floor, bloodied, as the gas continues to spew out of the hole in his face.
A tear-gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier had directly hit Haitham Abu Sabla, 23, in the head, penetrating the front of the left side of his skull.
The incident at a Gaza border protest on June 8 left the young man on life support after the canister was surgically removed. Witnesses say he was standing hundreds of metres from the border fence, watching stone-throwers at a rally east of the southern city of Khan Younis.
Mr Abu Sabla, who has since been taken off critical care, spoke to The National for his first interview.
He is on the first floor of Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis with a bandage covering the lower left side of his face where the canister hit him.
Here, surrounded seven of his family and friends, Mr Abu Sabla mumbled what he recalled of the moment that changed his life.
“It was like death, I didn’t think I would survive,” he said, while pointing to his throat with his right hand, as though trying again to stop the gas from entering his body.
“I saw the Israeli sniper looking at me, then he fired towards me. I was just standing, I didn’t do anything else,” he said.
His case is just one of hundreds of maimed Palestinians who have been shot and wounded by gunfire or by teargas canisters in weekly rounds of rallies on the Gazan border to protest against conditions in the enclave and a “right of return” to ancestral homes now in Israel. At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli fire since March 30.
Ahmed Qudah, a journalist and witness to the incident, remembers the horror of Mr Abu Sabla’s howls.
“We were standing about 100 metres from the fence and the Israeli snipers started to fire gas bombs towards protesters randomly,” he said. “Protesters started to run, then suddenly I heard Haitham screaming and moving in crazy ways.
“I came back to him and saw how the smoke was going out from his ears, mouth and nose, it was a horrible scene. I can’t forget it.”
Mr Abu Sabla’s mother is at his bedside. She wears black and her eyes have developed dark rims from days of weariness after her son’s close call with death.
“I didn’t know that he was going to the border area, I would not allow him [but] even I can’t stop him, but I am a mother and feel worried about my son,” she said as she wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Mr Abu Sabla is just one of Gaza’s youth who have grown up living under an 11-year siege that has made life unbearable in a territory that the UN says is “unlivable”.
He lives with 15 other family members in a small home and has no job. The Friday protests were his outlet and he never missed one, his family said. But that Israeli canister may now leave him unable to eat as he once did, with his face disfigured. The gas that entered his body will have a long-term effect.
“We have not seen a case like Haitham’s before,” said Dr Hossam Al Majaida, the head of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Nasser Hospital. “The gas canister stayed for 45 minutes in his face until we had a plan to operate. It means that the gas continued to enter his body for a long time and that will affect him in the long term.”
Mr Abu Sabla’s only hope now is that he can leave Gaza to receive the treatment he requires.
“He has a fracture in his upper jaw and a breakdown in his left mouth muscle, while he lost most of his teeth,” the doctor said. “He needs to get out of Gaza to continue treatment or he will have a permanent deformity in his face.”
Haitham Abu Sabla, 23, has tear gas flowing from his mouth and nose after being hit in the face with a canister fired by Israel on June 8 on the Gaza border