At about 5:30 p.m. Monday, Israeli soldiers approached Aida Refugee Camp through a gate in the separation wall dividing Rachel’s Tomb from Bethlehem. There were no clashes at the time, and their presence in the camp was not provoked, but was itself a provocation. Israeli troops have been entering the camp, which is in Area A, on a frequent basis in recent weeks, making arrests and provoking clashes with camp residents.
Photographer Mohammad Al-Azza, 23, began documenting the advancing soldiers from the second-floor balcony of the Lajee Center, a children’s center near the camp entrance where he works as media coordinator. He was eager to use the center’s new camera, a Canon 600D with a 50-250mm zoom lens.
As he was photographing, one of the soldiers shouted at him in Arabic, “Go home!” Mohammad replied, “Why? I’m only taking pictures!” The soldiers continued shouting at him, “Go inside! Go inside!”
Mohammad responded, “No, I will not go! As you have a gun and shoot at children, I have a camera and I’m taking pictures—I do nothing to you!”
The soldiers became angrier and continued threatening Mohammad with their guns. Mohammad decided to go inside, but continued taking photos through the window and through the balcony doorway opened just wide enough for his camera.
By this time, the soldiers had entered the camp. A few youth responded by throwing stones as the soldiers fired rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas grenades into the camp. However, with many arrests and shootings by Israeli forces in the camp in recent weeks, the residents are fearful, and the response was smaller than usual. Two children have been shot in the Aida Camp with live ammunition by Israeli forces in recent months, one of them fatally.
About 10 minutes after Mohammad exited the balcony, a soldier with a tear gas gun shouted again at Mohammad to stop taking photos through the partially opened door. His final photo that day, above, shows another soldier aiming an M16 rifle outfitted for rubber bullets. At the moment Mohammad turned to leave the doorway, this soldier fired a rubber-coated steel bullet which penetrated Mohammad’s cheek below the right eye and fractured his skull.
Despite the seriousness of his injury, Mohammad remained conscious, and a friend who was in the room with him helped him down the stairs to the center’s front door. But with the soldiers still outside, the two were afraid to leave. After a few minutes, Mohammad complained of feeling dizzy and was afraid he was losing too much blood, so thy decided to try to escape to find help. But when they tried to leave the center, soldiers shot the door with more rubber-coated steel bullets.
His friend shouted at the soldiers, “He’s dying! You killed him!” When the soldiers allowed them to open the door and saw the blood covering Mohammad’s face, they retreated a few paces and allowed the two to leave. The two then fled on foot into the refugee camp, where they found someone with a car to take Mohammad to the hospital.
Mohammad’s camera, now stained with blood, remained in his hands until he reached the hospital, where his friend then began taking photos of his condition—but only after Mohammad helped him to adjust the settings to get a proper exposure.
Mohammad was soon transferred to the Bethlehem Arab Society hospital in Beit Jala, where he underwent two surgeries to remove the bullet lodged in his face. Though the bullet fractured his cheekbone, and further surgeries will be required to repair the injury, he is expected to make a full recovery without serious permanent damage.