It was Tuesday, 20 November and Israeli warplanes were carrying out intensive air strikes on the area, and many other parts of the coastal occupied territory. All of a sudden, an Israeli drone-fired missile hit the mulberry tree, killing eight-year-old Muhammad and wounding the five cousins and Muhammad’s eighty-year-old grandfather.
Muhammad was one of nearly three dozen children killed during Israel’s eight consecutive days of intense bombing and shelling across Gaza last month.
According to the Gaza health ministry, 183 persons were killed during Israel’s offensive. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that 103 Palestinian civilians were killed. Almost 1,400 Palestinians were injured, including 155 elderly persons and 220 women, the health ministry says.
“It was almost 4pm Tuesday, and I was coming back from afternoon prayer in a nearby mosque,” recalled Muhammad’s uncle, also named Muhammad Ashour, but goes by Abu Rizeq.
Abu Rizeq was returning from giving his condolences to his neighbors, the Abu Zour family. Some of their children had been killed by an Israeli warplane.
“All a sudden, I heard a loud explosion just west of me but I didn’t imagine it was in the vicinity of my family,” he said.
“I rushed to find Muhammad laying on the ground with his leg amputated and abdomen torn apart, while the other children, who are also my nephews, were wounded as well,” Abu Rizeq recalled, pointing at an almost half-meter crater just beneath a mulberry tree near the Ashour family’s home.
Abu Rizeq added: “I couldn’t imagine my nephew would be a target for their warplanes. Our home is almost three kilometers away from the borderline and as you see, all four homes belong to me and my other brothers and no stranger can approach this area.”
“Our women, ourselves and our children are the only ones here,” he explained. “The moment the explosion hit just a few meters away from the family house, I was in shock while an ambulance came over to rescue the wounded children and my dead nephew Muhammad.”
Abu Rizeq and his son searched for Muhammad’s leg, which had been blown off.
“My son wrapped it up and sent it to the hospital, where Muhammad and the other wounded were evacuated,” he said.
Since August, Abu Rizeq had been taking care of his nephew. Muhammad’s father, Ibrahim, his mother and their four daughters had returned from the United Arab Emirates, but Ibrahim soon went back to prepare for a permanent move.
“Just one day before that Tuesday, I spoke to Muhammad and asked him to take care. But he replied, laughing: ‘Uncle, don’t worry about me, I will be a martyr, I will be a martyr,’” Abu Rizeq said.
Life-shattering phone call
Ibrahim Ashour is an electronics engineer and was in the UAE when his son was killed. The 49-year-old father spoke to The Electronic Intifada nearby a new house being constructed where Ibrahim and his now five-member family plan to live permanently, canceling plans to relocate to the Gulf.
“I was informed by phone that Muhammad was killed and by then, I kept restrained and only said alhamdullilah [praise be to God] and whispered some prayers and prepared myself to return back to Gaza to be with my wife and daughters during such a hard time,” he said.
“The moment Muhammad was born we were extremely happy as he came after we had three daughters, the eldest of whom is 16. I told myself and my wife that we need no more children after God had given us Muhammad.”
“Once I asked Muhammad, ‘Where is your brother?’ He answered me with anger, ‘My mother should bring one more brother for me,’” Ibrahim recalled with a sad smile on his face.
In the UAE, Muhammad was an intelligent schoolboy who used to excel at most subjects and showed leadership skills.
“All his teachers used to love Muhammad very much and during phone calls with me, all of them expressed great sorrow for his death at the hands of Israel,” said Ibrahim. “My son used to have a group of friends at school and his friends relied on him to lead them.”
According to the grieving father, Muhammad used to be fond of football on TV, especially Spanish football star Ronaldo from Real Madrid, and computer games.
“Once, he was playing football in the yard of our Emirates home and his mother asked him to come back before 6pm,” Ibrahim said. “Yet he came back almost two hours later and said, ‘I forgot — I was enjoying playing, forgive me mom, forgive me.’”
Muhammad’s eleven-year-old cousin, Qasem Ashour, was a close friend. Qasem sat idle under the mulberry tree where his cousin was slain, now adorned with a poster of Muhammad. Qasem was in no mood to play where Muhammad was killed and his relatives were wounded.
“Every night I dream of Muhammad. He says: ‘Qasem, let’s play around, let’s ride the bike,’” Qasem said.
“I miss Muhammad and don’t play with kids as usual. I loved Muhammad so much. He was polite, quite different from other children around,” he added.
A bird in heaven
“Muhammad is now a bird in heaven,” said Muhammad’s sister, five-year-old Huda. “Muhammad used to play with me and let me play on the iPhone,” the little girl went on. She suddenly stopped talking and smiling.
The other three sisters and Muhammad’s mother were still too grieved to speak about their lost brother and son.
Ibrahim is now set to go back to the UAE to finish his work as an electronic engineer, then return once and for all to his Gaza neighborhood. Just near the mulberry tree, some construction workers are endeavoring to finish building the family’s new Gaza home.
“I have not regretted returning to Gaza even though my only son has been killed,” Ibrahim said, holding Huda’s hand near the hole in the earth left by the missile strike. “On the contrary — I want to say it outright — we will remain here, as rooted as this mulberry tree. I pray to God that I will have one, two or three sons to fill in the gap that Muhammad has left.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.