RAMALLAH, West Bank – Just a few years ago, Islam al-Bayed spent seven months in an Israeli prison for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli troops. Now, the 26-year-old Palestinian man has become an unlikely symbol of tolerance after rescuing an Israeli family whose car crashed following a deadly roadside shooting by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.
Last week's shooting, along with the fatal stabbing of an Israeli girl as she slept in her bed, have ratcheted up tensions in the southern West Bank. Israel has responded by imposing a closure around the city of Hebron and beefed up its troop presence in the volatile area.
But al-Bayed, a private security guard who lives in the al-Fawar refugee camp near Hebron, says his actions last Friday transcended politics.
"This was a very human moment. I didn't think of the occupation or the conflict. I thought only of human beings, children who needed my help," he said in an interview.
With over 300,000 Jewish settlers now living in the West Bank, contact between Israelis and the area's 2.5 million Palestinians is inevitable. But it usually takes place at Israeli military checkpoints or in Israeli-owned factories that employ Palestinian menial laborers. One of the few areas of cooperation is in the medical profession — usually with Israeli hospitals treating Palestinians wounded in conflict.
Al-Bayed said he was driving with his wife last Friday when they spotted an overturned Israeli car. He said the engine was still running and fuel was spilled all over the road. He had no idea there had been a shooting, and he was afraid the car was going to catch fire. "I heard kids' voices inside the car, screaming for help in Hebrew. It was heartbreaking," he said.
He said he forced open the door while trying to calm the children in Hebrew he learned working in Israel.
He said he pulled out a young girl first, and then a boy. His wife, a former nurse, gave them first aid to stop their bleeding. He said he then called the Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance service. Within minutes, he said Israeli and Palestinian rescue teams were on the scene treating the victims.
Israeli officials said the car was shot by gunmen in a Palestinian vehicle that overtook them and fled after the attack. The driver, Miki Mark, the head of a Jewish seminary in a nearby Israeli settlement, was killed, while his wife and two teenage children were wounded. The assailants have not been caught.
After the shooting, Mark's son Pedaya gave a similar version of events. "Arabs succeeded in opening the door and getting us out of the car so that nothing would happen to us," he told Israel's Channel 2 TV.
Dr. Ali Shrokh, a Palestinian surgeon, was among the first to arrive. He said he also was driving by when he saw the overturned car and Israeli police around the area.
"An Israeli ambulance arrived and I cooperated with an Israeli female doctor who was among the team, and we cooperated in handling the wounded and moving them to the ambulance," he said.
Al-Bayed, who pulled the Israelis from the car, said his family, like hundreds of thousands of others, was displaced from its village in what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the country's creation.
He said he believes the Jewish settlers and Israeli troops are cruel to Palestinians, and that Israel's nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank must end. He said he was arrested in 2007 after a witness claimed he had been throwing stones at an Israeli patrol. He denied the charge but nonetheless spent seven months in prison.
While he describes himself as a victim of Israeli occupation, he said he steers clear of politics and is just a "normal guy" struggling to feed his family. He said he has received mixed reactions from residents in his refugee camp. Some say he did the right thing, while others think he shouldn't have helped the settlers. But he said he has no regrets.
"I'm a refugee. My family was driven out from our home and we live in a miserable refugee camp, but we are human beings first," he said. "For me, I practiced my humanity and will always do so."