Haitham Abu Sabla is one of hundreds of Palestinians maimed by the Israeli army
Gazan disfigured by tear gas canister says 'it was like death'
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 in the head, penetrating the front of the left side of his skull.
The incident at a Gaza border protest on 8 June left the 23-year-old 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.
Haitham, who has since been taken off of critical care, speaks exclusively to The National in his first interview after the horrific injury.
"It was like death, I didn't think I would survive," Haitham said, describing his feelings while pointing to his throat with his right hand, as though trying once again to stop the gas from entering his body.
As he lies in the first floor of Khan Younis’ Nasser Hospital, a bandage covering the lower left side of his face where the canister hit and surrounded by seven family members and friends, Haitham mumbles what he remembers of the moment that would change his life.
"I saw the Israeli sniper looking at me, then he fired toward me,” he said. “I was just standing, I didn't do anything else".
His case is just one of hundreds of maimed Palestinians who have been shot and wounded by gunfire or tear gas in weekly rounds of rallies on the Gazan border to protest conditions in the enclave and a "right of return" to ancestral homes now in Israel. At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and over 3,800 wounded by Israeli fire since March 30.
Ahmed Qudah, a journalist who witnessed the incident, remembers the horror of Haitham’s howls.
"We were standing around 100 metres from the fence and the Israeli snipers started to fire gas bomb toward protesters randomly,” he recalls. “Protesters started to run, then suddenly I heard Haitham screaming and moving in crazy ways."
Mr Qudah continued: “I came back to him and saw how the smoke was going out from his ears, mouth and nose, it was horrible scene I can't forget it.”
Haitham’s mother is at his bedside. She wears black and her eyes have grown 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.
Haitham is part of a group of Gazan youths who have grown up living under a crippling 11-year siege that has made life unbearable in a territory that the UN says is already “unlivable”.
He lives with 15 other family members in a small home and has no job to accrue an income. 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, disfigurement of the face and the long-term effects of gas entering his body.
"We did not see a case like Haitham's before,” Dr Hossam Al Majaida, head of the department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery in Nasser Hospital told The National. “The gas canister stayed for 45 minutes in his face until we made a plan to start to operate on him. It means that the gas continued to enter to his body for a long time and that will affect him in the long term."
Haitham’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 losing most of his teeth,” the doctor continued. “He needs to get out of Gaza to continue treatment or he will have a permanent malformation in his face.”