Sarah Abu Ghazal’s school uniform still lay on her mattress, untouched as she had left it before running out after her cousins Mahmoud and Yehya Abu Ghazal on Wednesday, 29 August. She was to begin the fourth grade on 2 September, but her friend Amani, who has accompanied her to school since the first grade, would walk alone this year. Sarah’s mother had bought her the blue school uniform, blue jeans and the black shoes just the day before she was killed by Israel tank fire. Her mother waited until the last minute to buy Sarah’s school supplies because she was waiting for her husband’s salary which he had not received since June. Still full of life, Sarah was readying her new clothes for the start of the school year when Yehya called for her to come out and play.
Ten-year-old Mahmoud looked up to Yehya and followed him wherever he went, as he did not have any brothers of his own. On the day he died he had just finished telling his mother not to buy him anything for school until Yehya had acquired his things. He made her promise only to buy the same things that Yehya had. Mahmoud was killed alongside Yehya and now lies buried right beside him.
One of nine children, Yehya was heading to the sixth grade this year after spending most of his summer herding his family’s goats. From a small Bedouin community at the northern border of the Gaza Strip, by Beit Hanoun and the Erez border crossing, Yehya’s family always bore the brunt of Israel’s frequent incursions into and attacks on Gaza. The army rolls in almost every week and usually razes some land, arrests a few men and pulls out again. Yehya’s father was arrested in September 2006 and has yet to be tried or charged as he sits in an Israeli prison. After Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the strip was ostensibly free, yet Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza at 3am, raided the family’s house and arrested Yehya’s father and uncle.
According to his mother, Yehya was walking his goats close to their house on that Wednesday afternoon when he lost sight of his herd. He spotted them sniffing around abandoned rocket launchers, so he went to retrieve them. Yehya followed the goats, trailed by Mahmoud and Sarah. Unseen soldiers in Israeli tanks identified them as “militants” and shot at them. The boys immediately died of their shrapnel wounds. Sarah passed away later that evening, alone in the hospital. Her family did not make it in time to see her because her body was taken to the hospital Beit Lahiya.
The Israeli army stated it had “identified and fired at several rocket launchers aimed at Israel.” According to the Abu Ghazal family, rockets had not been fired from that area for the past nine months and the Israeli army knew this. However, the tanks were close enough for the soldiers manning them to see the children and they could have also relied on their large white reconnaissance balloon that constantly hovers over Beit Hanoun.
Trying to find a driver to go to the children’s funeral in northern Beit Hanoun, on the second of the three days of mourning, was nearly impossible as it was like asking them to drive into crossfire. Beit Hanoun feels different from the rest of Gaza. The streets are empty, there is rubble everywhere, uprooted trees, razed land and there isn’t much of a market. An area that used to be green agricultural land has been turned into an empty no man’s land where no one dares to go. If there is a place in Gaza that feels like a war zone devastated by years of conflict, it’s Beit Hanoun. The infamous Qassams can be seen and heard as they fly over the Gazan border and into Israel in retaliation to Israeli F-16 and tank shelling. Also overhead is the reconnaissance balloon that constantly tracks one’s movement. The F-16s fly over the town more frequently than any other place in Gaza; no wonder drivers or anyone else don’t want to go anywhere near Beit Hanoun.
The Bedouin community that the children came from is situated amongst the northern Gaza Strip’s razed citrus groves and demolished buildings. Yehya and Mahmoud’s fathers are brothers so they lived in the same three-bedroom house. The bedrooms are covered with asbestos, the living room is comprised of a sand floor in front of the bedrooms and the kitchen consists of a small stove and a table with a few pots. They have no electricity and no running water. The fruit of the villagers’ daily labor on their lands used to provide for their subsistence but weekly Israeli invasions have destroyed their lands and therefore their livelihoods. They receive some aid from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, but have to travel to Beit Hanoun or Beit Lahiya for everything else. Their means of transportation are animal-drawn carts.
The mothers of all three children sat next to each other at their funeral while Israeli tanks at the border also sat stationed in the background. Yehya and Mahmoud’s mothers were each holding a picture of their sons, while Sara’s mother was holding a poster with Yehya and Mahmoud’s pictures with their names written below. In between their pictures was an image of a bouquet of red roses, with Sarah’s name underneath. “Israel just wants to shed our blood,” said Yehya’s mother, choking on her words. “They didn’t do anything wrong … they had no rockets, no tanks … they were just playing,” added Mahmoud’s mother. They were all sitting on the mattress Yehya shared with Mahmoud. Mahmoud would sneak out of his mother’s bedroom at night to go and sleep by Yehya. “They were meant to go together,” said Yehya’s mother, “Mahmoud would not have lived without Yehya. May God rest their souls together.”
The next day, on the BBC the Israeli military stated that the killing of Yehya, Mahmoud and Sarah was an accident: “at the very last second, it was apparent that they were children, but it was impossible to stop the explosion.” There was no mention of holding accountable the soldiers who killed them or at the very least any offer of support to the families and the community. They cannot leave their area, or their land, as they have nowhere else to go. Where’s the justice for 12-year-old Yehya and his childhood, or 10-year-old Mahmoud who wanted nothing more than to have the same things as his friend, or 10-year-old Sarah who never got to wear her new school clothes?
Yassmin Moor is a Palestinian-American writing from Rafah, Gaza. She is currently working to implement a gardening project through an organization she co-founded, Save Gaza. Yassmin can be reached at yasminemoor A T gmail D O T com.
- Israeli forces kill three children, arrest 13 in Gaza, Al Mezan (30 August 2007)