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 land.
"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.
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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 cliché 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 refuse.
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 home.
"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."