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Bulldozers Crush Gaza Children's Dreams and Build Its Martyrs
Published on Sunday May 30, 2004 by the Observer/UK
Bulldozers Crush Gaza Children's Dreams and Build Its Martyrs
Young made homeless as Israel widens its buffer zone
by Lindsey Hilsum in Gaza
 

Ahmed was only 12, but he wanted to be a militant. A skinny kid with a ready giggle, he hung out with the masked men in the labyrinthine alleyways of Rafah refugee camp, trying to impress them by posing with a metal tube, pretending it was a shoulder-launched missile.

He and his friend Mohammed played shooting games and then went on the streets to do the real thing, fashioning home-made hand-grenades from nails, sulphur, sugar and charcoal to lob at Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Najla, 16, a white headscarf framing her round face, was studying hard, dreaming of becoming a lawyer 'so I can give justice to people'.

Six of her young relatives had been killed during her life, as Israeli troops periodically swept through Rafah. 'They all died sad,' she said.

That was last year, when Ahmed and Najla featured in the documentary Death in Gaza, shown on Channel 4 last Tuesday, about children living under Israeli occupation. In the last few weeks, as Israel launched its biggest operation in Rafah for decades, both children have endured a new trauma: being made homeless.

As the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tries to push through his plan for a phased withdrawal from the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, he first sent the Israeli Defense Force to Rafah to capture Palestinian militants, find smuggling tunnels and widen a buffer zone along the border with Egypt, which Israel will control even after pulling back from the settlements.

Ahmed and Najla are among the estimated 2,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in the course of Israel's Operation Rainbow. United Nations staff say the Israeli force has demolished 167 houses so far this month.

Ahmed's family now sleeps in a school; Najla is staying with her uncle. Everything in their recent experience has reinforced the propaganda messages of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the groups which send suicide bombers into Israel. 'The Jews love destruction and killing people,' said Najla.

In the film, Ahmed was inseparable from his friend Mohammed, but now they have been parted. 'I don't know where Mohammed's family went. Their house was destroyed. They might have gone to Brazil camp or Sultan, where their relatives are,' said Ahmed, sitting in the rubble of Block O, the neighborhood where they used to live.

Ahmed shows little attachment to material possessions. 'There were many things I couldn't get out,' he said, describing how bulldozers came to his home in the middle of the night. 'My video game, my books, my exercise books, my photographs.'

His concern was for his family. 'I had to struggle to get my brothers out. We went to bed at midnight. They were fast asleep, and it was me who had to wake them all up.'

Ahmed has absorbed the militants' language. All Palestinians who die are shahid (martyrs); all Israelis are Yehuda (Jews); all Jews are the enemy.

In this culture of death, children rush to gather pieces of flesh when Israel assassinates militants in missile attacks. Boys cluster round the body at the daily funerals, 12-year-olds aspire to die for Palestine.

Two of Ahmed's friends have been 'martyred' - one in front of him, as they threw stones at a tank.

The ruined streets of Rafah are plastered with badly produced posters of young men and boys carrying weapons, standing next to the golden dome of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem - 'martyrs'. Graffiti proclaims murderous triumphs: 'The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade celebrates the al-Quds bombing. We killed seven Jews.'

Amnesty International says Palestinian militants killed 21 Israeli children last year, while Israeli troops killed more than 100 Palestinian youngsters. Doctors in Rafah say 12 children were killed in Operation Rainbow.

Ahmed says he no longer acts as a lookout for the militants, but they are still his heroes. During the making of the film he grew close to its director, James Miller. But on 2 May last year, as the TV man emerged from Najla's house, Miller was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.

A year later, Ahmed said: 'I think about James a lot. He came here to defend us. He used to film me in the street and we played football.' After Miller's death, Ahmed decided that, rather than be a militant, he would like to be a cameraman when he grows up. Now, he's not so sure.

'After seeing all this damage I can't think what to be. Maybe a doctor. But I keep telling myself I could get killed tomorrow. All the brothers want to be martyrs.'

These days Najla, too, wishes to be a martyr, and sometimes wears not just a headscarf but a black cloth leaving only slits for her light brown eyes.

Her family abandoned their home when they heard rumors the bulldozers were on their way - and returned next day to find it was rubble. At first they slept in a tent in her uncle's olive groves, but as Operation Rainbow continued Israeli tanks and bulldozers began to tear down the olive trees, so they moved into her uncle's house.

A tank is now parked opposite and others move threateningly up and down the road. Najla worries that her uncle's house will be demolished next. She has lost her schoolbooks, finds it hard to concentrate and missed three school exams, but she still dreams of becoming a lawyer.

'It's because of all the things the Jews do,' she said. 'They lie on TV by saying there are resistance fighters shooting at them when there are no fighters. They destroy houses on the pretext there are tunnels, but there are no tunnels. They kill children. They never tell the truth.'

There is little anyone can say to Najla to counter her feelings. The demolition of her home has made her mourn afresh for her cousins, shot in a series of incidents involving Israeli soldiers. 'I miss the courtyard in front of the house where I used to play with my cousins,' she said. 'I always liked going there because it brought back memories of them. We lived together, but they were martyred.'

Like Ahmed, she has absorbed the militants' language. 'I wish to become a martyr,' she said. 'This is not a life and they've stolen our childhood. The Jews have planted hatred in our hearts since we were little.

'What is there to live for? Our houses have been destroyed, and they took our land. They took everything beautiful in our life. What's the point of living?'

· Israeli helicopter missiles hit a motorcycle in Gaza City early today, killing three people, including a senior Hamas commander and his assistant, witnesses said. Seven others were wounded in the attack in the city's Zeitoun district

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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