Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – When Jacqueline Shahada was blinded in one eye during a Palestinian demonstration along the Gaza border, she never thought she would lose her husband and children too.
It was November 2018 and like every Friday for more than six months, thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza-Israel border demanding the right to return to lands their ancestors fled in 1948 with the creation of Israel.
Protesters burned tyres and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the heavily-guarded border, who responded by opening fire.
Amid the thousands of onlookers was Jacqueline, a slight, veiled woman in her early 30s. Even though the protests were male-dominated, she told herself women also had a right to participate.
“Suddenly, I felt something burning in my eye and I lost consciousness,” she said. She had been hit by a rubber bullet, and despite medical attention, doctors couldn’t save her left eye.
Her injury is hardly visible now — just a slight glossiness from a tear in the iris — but her life in Hamas-controlled Gaza was destroyed.
“I wish I had been killed, it would have been easier,” she told AFP.
Her experience has become all too common, and AFP met with 10 Palestinians who lost an eye after being shot by the Israeli army, in Gaza, Jerusalem or the West Bank.
Some were taking part in clashes, others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All were left scarred and with their lives wrecked, even though in Palestinian society being wounded while standing up to Israeli occupation is often lionised.
Along the border of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army uses snipers who, according to instructions, open fire only when the soldiers are at risk from intensifying violence from Palestinian rioters.
Asked about Jacqueline’s case as well as the use of live fire, the Israeli army highlighted the “security challenge” they faced.
It said “it took every possible measure to reduce the number of injuries among Gaza residents participating in these violent riots”.
“There is smoke from burning tires, gas and moving crowds. Snipers are at a distance, it’s difficult,” said a senior Israeli military official.
– ‘Broken inside’ –
Jacqueline, who studied maths, found herself stigmatised. Her children were teased at school about their disabled mother and her husband grew colder and angry.
“Society and people blame me, they say: ‘Why (as a woman) did you go to the protest?'”
“I expected my family and husband would be proud of me, but I paid a high price,” she told AFP in Gaza. “My husband divorced me and I lost my kids.”
“If I lost an arm it would be OK, but without an eye, how can you continue with your life?
“I want to challenge the whole world, to remain strong, but inside I am broken,” she said.
In the Gaza Strip, the cramped territory of two million people controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas and under Israeli blockade, residents have grown accustomed to traumatic wounds after three wars with Israel in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
But even when there is no full-blown conflict, violence erupts. More than 8,000 Palestinians were hit by Israeli fire during the often violent “March of Return” protests which began in March 2018, according to UN figures.
Of those injuries, 80 percent were to the lower body, with only around 3 percent to the head.
In Jerusalem, despite there being no full-scale conflict, tensions remain in neighbourhoods like Shuafat and Issawiya, parts of the predominantly Palestinian eastern part of the city Israel captured in 1967.
There residents complain of increasing violence from the Israeli police, which says it is responding to growing unrest by the population.
In recent years police there have used spongy synthetic rubber bullets, deemed in theory to be less lethal. But when fired at close range, they have been known to cause deaths.
– ‘I want my eye back’ –
In February, Malek Issa, a nine-year old boxing enthusiast, was hit by a rubber-tipped bullet after buying a sandwich at a shop in Issawiya.
He was on his way home from school and his older sister, Tala, immediately rang their father, Wael, to say Malek had been shot in the forehead.
“I immediately thought ‘no, he must have been shot in the eye’,” Wael said. “I stayed there, paralysed for a few minutes.”
Malek was rushed to hospital where his parents found him, head gaping and his left eye hollowed out.
“My son is polite, clever and got good grades at school. But this soldier came and shot him. He didn’t shoot just my son, he shot the whole family,” said Wael.
Malek, who now has a glass eye, sprawled disinterestedly on a sofa next to his father.
“This is not the Malek that we knew, he changed a lot,” added Wael, who works in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. “At night Malek cries out ‘I want my eye, I want my eye back.'”
“I tried to explain to him this is the will of God,” he said, although the family struggles to understand why Malek was shot when there were no protests going on.
Contacted by AFP, the Israeli justice ministry said it had opened an “internal investigation” into the case.
– ‘Eye of Truth’-
For years freelance cameraman Muath Amarneh covered numerous protests in the occupied West Bank.
On November 15 last year, he grabbed his video camera and, wearing his helmet and a vest inscribed with the word ‘Press’, rushed to a Palestinian demonstration in the southern village of Surif.
“There was a sniper on the ground readying his weapon, saying something to the officer I didn’t understand, but they were laughing,” he said.
“I felt that something was going to happen to one of us. The soldiers were provoking us journalists.
“Then I felt something hit my face, I thought my head had been knocked off,” he said.
“I saw there was blood on my face. I fell to my knees.”
Witnesses said he was hit by a rubber bullet which had metal inside. And scans show some metal remains inside the excavated eye cavity, which now holds a glass eye.
Israeli authorities say they did not target the journalist, but Muath is convinced his injury is a metaphor for a conflict others don’t want to see.
“My injury sends a message that our lives depend on the pictures we take. ‘Either you will work as we like or you might die’.”
The injury sparked protests, with Palestinian and Arab journalists filming themselves with a eyepatch using the slogan “eye of truth”.
Months later, Muath, who is in his 30s, hasn’t returned to work, still suffers from mysterious migraines and feels his “life is finished.”
“As a cameraman it is impossible to work with one eye. You need one eye on the camera lens and one outside,” he said.