Lost in the Rubble

I often visited Nizar Rayan, who was
killed Thursday in a targeted assassination by Israel, at his house in
the Jabaliya refugee camp when I was in Gaza. The house is now rubble.
It was hit by two missiles fired by Israeli F-16 fighter jets. Rayan,
who would meet me in his book-lined study, was decapitated in the
blast. His body was thrown into the street by the explosions. His four
wives and 11 children also were killed.

Rayan supported tactics, including suicide
bombings, which are morally repugnant. His hatred of Israel ran deep.
His fundamentalist brand of Islam was distasteful. But as he and I were
students of theology our discussions frequently veered off into the
nature of belief, Islam, the Koran, the Bible and the religious life.
He was a serious, thoughtful man who had suffered deeply under the
occupation and dedicated his life to resistance. He could have fled his
home and gone underground with other Hamas leaders. Knowing him, I
suspect he could not leave his children. Like him or not, he had
tremendous courage.

Hamas, he constantly reminded me, began to
target Israeli civilians in 1994 only after Palestinian worshipers were
gunned down in a Hebron mosque by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein.
Goldstein was a resident of the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement. He
entered the mosque dressed in his army uniform, carrying an IMI Galil
assault rifle and four magazines of ammunition. He opened fire on those
in prayer, killing 29 people and injuring 125. He was rushed and beaten
to death by the survivors.

"Before the massacre we targeted only the
Israeli military," Rayan said. "We can't sit by and watch Palestinian
civilians killed year after year and do nothing. When Israel stops
killing our civilians we will stop killing their civilians."

Rayan was a theology and law professor at
Islamic University in Gaza. He was a large man with a thick black beard
and the quiet, soft-spoken manner of someone who has spent much of his
life reading. On the walls of his office, black-and-white photographs
illustrated the history of Palestinians over the last five decades.
They showed lines of trucks carrying refugees from their villages in
1948. They showed the hovels of new refugee camps built after the 1967 war. And they showed the gutted and razed remains of Palestinian villages in what is now Israel.

Rayan's grandfather and great-uncle were killed in the 1948 war
that led to the establishment of Israel. His grandmother died shortly
after she and her son, Rayan's father, were driven from their village
by Jewish fighters. His father was passed among relatives and grew up
with the bitterness of the dispossessed-a bitterness the father passed
on to the son and the son passed on to his own children.

Israeli militias in 1948 drove some
800,000 Palestinians from their homes, farms, towns and villages into
exile in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring countries. Israeli
historian Ilan Pappe's book "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" details
the deliberate Israeli policy of removing Palestinians from their

"There was not a single night that we did
not think and talk about Palestine," Rayan said the last time I saw
him, his eyes growing moist. "We were taught that our lives must be
devoted to reclaiming our land."

Rayan spent 12 years in an Israeli jail.
His brother-in-law blew himself up in a suicide-bomb attack on an
Israeli bus in 1998. One of his brothers had been shot dead by Israelis
in street protests five years earlier. Another brother was expelled to
Lebanon, and several more were wounded in clashes.

His sons, according to their father, strove to be one thing: martyrs for Palestine.

"I pray only that God will choose them," he said.

Hamas, which assumed power in free and
fair elections, insists that the real goal of Israel is to break the
will of the Palestinians in Gaza and destroy Hamas as an organization.
Since Israel unleashed its air and sea campaign, at least 430
Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children, and 2,250 others
have been wounded, according to Gaza medics. The bombardment has
demolished dozens of houses and raised fears of severe food shortages
and disease in the enclave, where most Gazans depend on foreign aid.

"The protection of civilians, the fabric
of life, the future of the peace talks and of the regional peace
process has been trapped between the irresponsibility of the Hamas
attacks and the excessiveness of the Israeli response," Robert Serry,
the U.N. envoy for the Middle East, told reporters in Jerusalem.

The Israeli assault began on Nov. 4, when Israel broke the truce
that Hamas had observed for several months. Israel then blocked food
supplies delivered by the United Nations Relief Works and World Food
Program. It cut off diesel fuel used to run Gaza's power station. It
banned journalists and aid workers from entering Gaza. The U.N. World
Food Program called the situation in Gaza appalling and said that "many
basic food items are no longer available on the market."

All this is being carried out by a modern military against a population with no capacity to resist.

The Israeli leadership has warned that
this will be a long campaign and hinted that it may be followed by a
ground invasion. Israeli tanks are massed on Gaza's border. The
continued pounding of Gaza and the rising death toll are sure to ignite
the rage of Palestinians outside Gaza. Israeli police forces are
already positioning themselves to deal with what they euphemistically
have labeled "spontaneous terrorism," meaning public outbursts of
support for Gaza that could turn violent. Israeli police used tear gas
on Friday to quell demonstrations
by Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem. Four Israelis have been
killed by Palestinian rockets since the latest resumption of violence.

Barack Obama's only comment on the
one-sided slaughter under way in Gaza was: "If my daughters were living
in a house that was being threatened by rocket attacks, I would do
whatever it takes to end that situation." He repeated word for word the
Israeli cliche used to justify an Israeli policy that Richard Falk, the
U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian
territory and a former Princeton University law professor, has labeled
"a crime against humanity." If self-defense applies to Israel, why
doesn't it apply to the Rayan family? Why doesn't it apply to the
Palestinians? It is Israel, not the Palestinians, which defies U.N.
resolutions and international law by occupying and seizing ever-larger
chunks of Palestinian land.

The walls of Gaza are plastered with
poster-sized photographs of "martyrs" shot by the Israelis. Many are
pictured holding a weapon in front of the gold-topped al-Aqsa Mosque in
Jerusalem. These are studio photos taken long before their deaths. The
gun was a prop and the glittering mosque a carefully chosen backdrop.
All that was real in these photos was the yearning of these young men
to fight against Israel and for a Palestinian state-and to die. And for
a moment, at least until the pictures fade or peel away, the slain
youths will have their brief lives and heroism recognized.

Gaza, like Kosovo's capital of Pristina,
is a derelict, concrete slum where car exhaust mingles with the stench
of raw sewage. There are 1.5 million Palestinians-70 percent of whom
are either refugees from what is now Israel or the descendants of
refugees. Half of them are now under 17. They live crammed into a
dusty, flat, coastal area twice the size of Washington, D.C. Most are
stateless and have never left the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Families are piled in boxy, concrete rooms capped with corrugated tin
roofs weighed down by rocks. They have little furniture. Water and
electricity come sporadically. The population growth rate is one of the
highest on the planet-a 3.7 percent annual birthrate, compared with 1.7
percent in Israel. Donkey carts crowd the streets, and orange garbage
bins, donated by the European Union, overflow with putrid heaps of

The only route left for most young men in
Gaza to affirm themselves is through death. I have attended countless
funerals there. The decision of the young men, sometimes boys, to die
is usually a conscious one. It is born of this despair and rage. It is
born of a sense of impotency and humiliation. It is born of a belief
that to not accept sacrifice, even death, is to dishonor those who have
gone before, to neglect the family members, relatives and friends who
lost their land, endured the decades-long humiliation and abuse of
occupation, and suffered or died resisting.

The young in Gaza have nothing to do.
There are no jobs. They have nowhere to escape to. They cannot marry
because they cannot afford housing. They cannot leave Gaza, even for
Israel. They sleep, sometimes 10 to a room, and live on less than $2 a
day, surviving on United Nations or Hamas charities and food
donations. Martyrdom is the only route offered to those who want to
achieve a measure, however brief, of recognition and glory.

Palestinians have been nurtured on
accounts of abuse, despair and injustice. Families tell and retell
stories of being thrown off their land and of relatives killed or
exiled. All can tick off the names of martyrs within their own clan who
died for the elusive Palestinian state. The only framed paper in many
Palestinians' homes is a sepia land deed from the time of the British
mandate. Some elderly men still keep the keys to houses that have long
since vanished. From infancy, Palestinians are inculcated with the
virus of nationalism and the burden of revenge. And, as in Bosnia, such
resentment seeps into the roots of society for generations until it
resurfaces or is finally rectified, often after much bloodletting.

"Tell the man what you want to be," one of
Rayan's wives, Hyam Temraz, said to her 2-year-old son, Abed, as she
peeped out of the slit of a black veil the last time I was in their

"A martyr," the child timidly answered.

"We were in Jordan when my son Baraa was
4," she said. "He saw a Jordanian soldier and ran and hugged him. He
asked him if it was he who would liberate Palestine. He has always told
me that he would be a martyr and that one day I would dig his grave."

I was caught in a gun battle at the start
of the second intifada at the Nazarim junction in Gaza. A few feet away
Marwan Shamalekh, 19, was fatally shot through the back by Israeli
soldiers. He was tossing homemade Molotov cocktails at an army outpost,
the flaming bottles landing harmlessly against the concrete wall of the
compound when he died. He had no firearms. I ran with Marwan's
companions as they carried his limp body down the road. We were fired
upon by Israeli soldiers as we fled.

I stopped shaving and grew a beard as a
sign of respect and mourning for the boy. I visited his parents. They
pulled up a chair on the cement patio outside their tiny house. They
served me plates of dates and demitasse cups of bitter coffee. Mrs.
Shamalekh was unable to speak. She sobbed softly into a kerchief.

Abdel Razaq Shamalekh, Marwan's father, clutched his 9-year-old son, Bilal. The boy stared at me vacantly.

"I had to carry Bilal to his bed after I
told him his brother had been killed," the father said. "He collapsed.
Later I found him leaving the house with a knife he had taken from the
kitchen. He told me he was going to Nezarim to kill Israelis."

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