Twighlight Zone / The IDF is Investigating

Gideon Levy
14 January 2005

Twelve kids sliced to ribbons by Israeli anti-personnel shell.

Four children, each of whom has lost two legs - halves of human beings - are now lying in Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Three of them are conscious; one is on a respirator. At home, in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, their parents mourn their dead brothers. In a single moment on the first day of the Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) holiday, Maryam and Kamal Raban lost three sons, two nephews and a grandson. Another son is in intensive care after losing two legs, a hand and an eye, and is connected to a respirator. His father doesn't know yet that both his son's legs were amputated; he was only told about one. How much loss can a man absorb?

The lives of 12 children and teenagers, out playing early last Tuesday morning in the family strawberry plot, were cut short all of a sudden. Seven of them were killed, four will remain without limbs, severely disabled for the rest of their lives. That's what one Israel Defense Forces shell can do. Not one child emerged whole from this lethal incident.

A senior IDF officer said after the accident that at least some of the casualties were "Hamas activists." Who? Rajikh, who is 11 years old? Issa, 13? Bisaam, 14? Mahmoud, 14? Jabir, 15? Hanni, 16? Mohammed, 17, the eldest of the casualties?

Anyone who arrived at the spot immediately after the accident was greeted by a terrible sight: The 12 children and youths were lying on the sandy path, alongside the strawberry field, their limbs scattered in all directions, bleeding profusely. There was a great silence there. Only one injured boy, Islam Oud, cried out for help. Four days later, when we arrived in Beit Lahia, human tissue could still be seen on the killing field. The injured boys lay in Shifa Hospital, and their parents are begging Israel at least to treat the wounds of their children, who will be disabled for the rest of their lives.

The Raban family of Beit Lahia sells its strawberries to the Israeli export company Agrexco, which sends them to Europe. On white plastic chairs on the sand, next to the strawberry field, sit the bereaved farmers, who have prolonged their days of mourning because of the dimensions of the tragedy. Maryam, a bereaved mother three times over, traveled this morning to the polling station, to vote for Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Maryam's brother-in-law, Abdullah Raban, worked for years in Israel, in Kfar Hess, Gan Haim and Kfar Sava, and was injured and disabled in a work accident in Israel. Last week's tank shell killed his son, Jabir, 15. Unshaven, his face expressing great pain, he hasn't slept in four days. He speaks of his loss in Hebrew.

His nephew, Ghassan Raban, lost his son Rajikh, 11, and he speaks of his loss in Arabic. Ghassan was a witness to the horror. From a distance of several dozen meters he saw the children, who had gathered together in the early morning in the strawberry field, brothers and nephews along with the neighbors' children, playing marbles, picking strawberries and eating them with enjoyment, on the first day of vacation. Those who fire the mortars had left a long time before, he says.

"We are people who are lost between the Israelis and the Palestinians," says the bereaved father. "If we try to prevent the Palestinians from firing Qassam rockets, they will shoot at us. Sometimes they come here, fire a Qassam, and we try to stop them. But they say to us: `They shoot at us, they destroy our homes, so how can we stop the firing?' When we pressure them they say: `We have nothing left, neither land nor homes.' Now we hope that the election of Abu Mazen will bring quiet."

Wrapped in a poncho, a sweater, a coat and a scarf, Kemal Raban arrives, stumbling as he walks. He lost three sons, two nephews and a grandson; another son is fighting for his life in Shifa. He was attending a cousin's funeral when he received the phone call: Come quickly, there's been a big accident. Hanni, 16, wanted to be a teacher; Bisaam, 15, wanted to be an engineer; Mahmoud, 14, wanted to be a doctor. Mohammed, 17, lost his legs, eye and hand, and is on artificial respiration.

Maryam, his wife, returns from the polling place: "We are calling on [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz and all people of good will, a good heart and compassion: I will never forget all the flesh of my children that I gathered and tied into a rag. On the first day of vacation they received a gift, a shell. When I would see an Israeli killed, I would cry over him. I would cry for his mother. We don't deserve to have Sharon and Mofaz kill our children, children of this age, who are picking strawberries.

"I am calling on Sharon and Mofaz, who killed three of my children: I have nobody to help me. I still have the child in the hospital. I ask that they take him to a hospital in Israel. If they only take him to a hospital, we will forgive them for the children who were killed. If they take them and treat them, we will say thank you. We are looking to God and to the State of Israel, not to the Arab countries. We grew up with the State of Israel."

The IDF Spokesman's Office: "On January 4, 2005, two mortars were fired at the Erez industrial zone. One of them fell near Israeli territory, and injured an Israeli citizen. At about the same time as this incident, in the area of Beit Lahia, an IDF force identified a band of mortar launchers, some of whose members belong to Hamas. The force opened fire at the band, with the intention of hitting it. It should be mentioned that the band of terrorists was operating from within populated Palestinian territory. The IDF is investigating the incident, and at the conclusion of the investigation, the findings will be presented."

Not a word of regret for the killing of children. Not a word begging forgiveness from the bereaved families. Instead, a blatant, hard-hearted disregard of a question addressed to the Spokesman's Office, regarding the fact that the injured were not transferred for treatment in Israel. The IDF is investigating.

On the way to Shifa Hospital, they reminisce about their Israeli employers. Two bereaved fathers and another relative in the taxi recall their Israeli bosses, of whom they have only good memories. Moshe Kishana from Moshav Kidron - Ghassan says that he loved him like his own father - and Yaakov from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, who once told them that his soul was not worth more than theirs, and therefore he drove to their home to bring them the magnetic ID card they had forgotten. Munir, the taxi driver, asks if anyone in the cab hates the Jews, and they reply in unison: No, we don't hate them. In black bags they are carrying strawberries for the injured boys.

First floor, the intensive care unit: Mohammed Raban, 17, is on a respirator. From time to time he opens his one remaining eye and scatters frenetic looks in all directions. From time to time he also smiles a nervous smile, perhaps an involuntary, meaningless tic. Less than half of his body is left, barely one whole hand, it's not clear whether he is aware of that. Second floor, Orthopedics: Issa Relia, 13, with both his legs amputated above the knee. In a diaper, with a transistor next to his ear. He remembers the Hamas men who fired and fled. On a faded piece of cardboard he has drawn a picture with a pen: a tank firing a shell at children. The corridor of the second floor, next to the window: Imad al-Kaseeh, 16, and Ibrahim al-Kaseeh, 14. Two cousins, each with two legs amputated. Now they have been taken into the corridor, in order to see the world a bit. Two children with both legs amputated, staring from their beds out of the window of Shifa Hospital. For the information of the soldier who fired, and the commander who gave him permission, and the spokesman who isn't sorry and isn't apologizing for anything.

Originally published here.