Published on Monday, October 2, 2000 in the New York Times
Muhammad al-Durrah: A Young Symbol of Mideast Violence
by William A. Orme Jr.
JERUSALEM — Saturday would normally have been a school day for Muhammad al-Durrah, a boisterous, blue-jeaned Gaza fifth-grader, but a general strike had shut down the Palestinian government for the day and left him without much to do.
So when his father, Jamal, headed out the door to hunt for bargains at a nearby weekly used car auction, he begged to tag along.
The father, shouting that his boy had been killed, was also hit, taking four bullets in a volley that he later said had come from Israeli soldiers. A local ambulance driver, Bassam al-Bilbeisi, who was trying to come to the aid of the wounded father and son, was also killed by the gunfire. The entire horrific scene was filmed at close rage by a France 2 television crew.
Shown repeatedly on the Saturday evening news programs in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel, and throughout the Middle East, the shooting turned the 12- year-old boy into a potent new symbol of what angry Palestinians contend is their continued victimization by Israeli occupiers.
Though 11 other Palestinians were killed in the day's fighting — most of them while taking part in the rock-hurling clashes with Israeli troops — the enduring image of the violence was a terrified Muhammad al-Durrah trapped by Israeli gunfire and then slumping lifeless into his father's lap.
Palestinian leaders demanded the criminal prosecution of the boy's unidentified and perhaps unknowing killer, and a prominent liberal Israeli legislator, Ophir Pines, called tonight for an official commission of inquiry into the death.
"My son didn't die in vain," his mother, Amal, 34, wearing the long black gown and headcover that is the traditional dress of most married women in Gaza's refugee camps, told a visitor to her home today. "This was his sacrifice for our homeland, for Palestine."
There is no indication that Muhammad had any intention of making this sacrifice.
His mother, his four brothers and two sisters and his friends described an ebullient boy whose life revolved around school, swimming with pals at the Gaza beach and tending after his new pet birds. He was an excellent English student, his teacher said today.
He watched reports of the clashes on Thursday and Friday between Palestinians and Israeli troops outside the fabled Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, and relatives have been quoted as saying that in the past he joined other neighborhood boys in throwing stones at Israeli convoys, but his interest in religion and politics was said to be no more acute than that of most 12-year-olds.
Nor did his father have any desire to join the protests on Saturday, Mrs. Durrah said.
Jamal al-Durrah, 37, who was flown from Gaza today to a hospital in Amman, Jordan, was a house painter by trade who normally worked for Israelis in the wealthy suburbs north of Tel Aviv.
When he set out with his son on Saturday morning, his family and neighbors said, there was little indication of the violence that would envelop the area later that day.
He told his family that after perusing cars at the auction, he and his son had caught a taxi home, but the driver stopped as they approached an angry crowd of demonstrators blocking a junction near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a few miles from the refugee camp where the boy and his father lived.
Refusing to go farther, the driver let them out, and Mr. Durrah apparently made the tragically wrong decision to cross the junction on foot and flag down a cab on the other side.
Last night, worried by their failure to return, Mrs. Durrah distractedly watched the news reports about the increasing fighting just miles from her home and noticed a fleeting scene of a young boy and a man under fire. But she did not recognize them as her son and husband, she said, until she saw the scene again in a later broadcast. She screamed at the sight and then fainted, her children said.
As is customary, Muhammad was buried soon after he was pronounced dead at the hospital last night.