GAZA – He loved nothing more than to go down to the sea, swim, and fly his home-made kite – but on Friday morning, June 21, Abd a-Samed Shamalekh, aged 10, went instead to his family’s plot of land to pick eggplants and cucumbers.
This is how Abd a-Samed and his brother Mohammed, 12, spent their summer vacation – either by the sea, or working in the fields and selling vegetables. The family owns 4.5 dunams of land and the vegetables they grow on it support 15 people.
The Shamalekh family lives in the Sheikh Ajlin neighborhood, in the southern part of Gaza City. It is a crowded place of two-story homes built in the past two decades by people whose main livelihood comes from tilling the soil. The neighborhood sprawls over the sandy hill that rises from the beach. Red Bougainvillea sprout from the sand and climb over the iron gates and up the concrete plaster of the houses. The narrow, bottleneck of a coastal road separates the family’s home from the sea. They ride in a donkey cart to the field, about 1.5 kilometers to the south.
As in most of Sheikh Ajlin, the land was once planted with vines but the Shamalekh family switched to vegetables. A vineyard produced grapes once a year, but vegetables provide work and income throughout the whole year.
On June 21, there was shooting early in the morning. Perhaps at 5, or maybe at 6 A.M. It’s hard to remember exactly, the family says. When they looked outside, they saw the southbound traffic had come to a halt and realized it would be still impossible to get the field. Around 8:00 or 8:30, the cars began to move again and the family understood that the situation had calmed. Shooting, a traffic halt, more shooting, and then quiet again – it’s a regular routine in the neighborhood.
Netzarim settlement is 2 km to the southeast, guarded by “half the Israeli army” as they say in Gaza. Most of the agricultural land in the sand dunes surrounding Netzarim has already been destroyed in the past 22 months. Fields and hothouses have been crushed, raked over, and flattened, with grape vines uprooted or cut down. Dry tomato plants and remnants of grapevines are scattered on the sides of the road. Nonetheless, some green patches have survived and they continue to be worked by their owners or by those who have leased the plots – on the eastern and western sides of the coastal road.
The asphalt road leading to Netzarim to the east is barred to Palestinian traffic and used only for tanks and jeeps. A single dwelling, belonging to the Abu Husa family, stands alone in the scorched earth. The IDF has taken up positions in this house for over a year, keeping close watch on the farmers returning to their fields and on the vehicles and carts on the road.
Lots of blood
Abd a-Samed and Mohammed went to the field that Friday morning to see what was happening – the curiosity of children. Rumors had reached the city that an Israeli bulldozer had begun to destroy and clear out the farm plots in the area. They also wanted to pick several kilos of vegetables and bring them in the cart to their father, so he could sell them in the market. Then they’d be able to return to the sea and play with the kite, the wind and waves.
Just after 9 o’clock in the morning, about half an hour after the children left the house, word reached the parents that Mohammed was wounded. Then they were told that it was Abd a-Samed and that he had been rushed to the hospital. The parents found his dead body at the hospital with a bullet in his head. On that Friday morning, Palestinians had fired an improvised anti-tank rocket against an IDF position adjacent to the Netzarim settlement. A Givati soldier was seriously injured.
Army sources told Ha’aretz that this had occurred at six or seven in the morning and that IDF forces “identified the sources of shooting and returned fire.” Later, the IDF destroyed a nearby position of the Palestinian naval police. According to the IDF Spokesman, the rocket had been fired from this naval base. Did Palestinians also fire at an IDF post at 9 A.M.? The IDF Spokesman told Ha’aretz that it is reasonable to assume that there was and that the IDF had fired in response. Journalists who visited the spot, a researcher for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and residents of the area said that the scene had already become quiet by 8:30 and there were no exchanges of gunfire. The fact is traffic had begun to move again, farmers had begun to hurry to their fields to see what had happened to their plots of land, and photographers came to take pictures of the bulldozer moving back and forth over the ground, crushing additional vegetable plants. Heavy fire suddenly broke through the quiet.
The reporters and residents said that the shooting came either from the positions in Netzarim or from a tank that had just crossed the road. Dozens of people, mostly women and children, clung to the ground in fear, their faces buried in the sand and soil. Mohammed and his brother Abd a-Samed had had almost reached their family’s land already when the shooting began. Like everyone else, they lay flat on the ground – or at least Mohammed thought so.
After several minutes, he said to his brother that the shooting was apparently over and they could continue on. Abd a-Samed didn’t answer and when Mohammed turned to look, he saw lots of blood. He called for help, but there was no ambulance in the area. Someone dragged Abd a-Samed to a donkey cart that somebody else brought. They took the child in this cart, not knowing whether he was still alive, until they reached an ambulance.
“He was already gone when they brought him from there,” the father says. “What did he do that they shot at him? He didn’t even throw stones. The soldiers have everything – cameras, binoculars – they always brag that they see everything. So they could know very well that this child didn’t shoot at them. They could see very clearly that they were children and that they had no weapons. This was also in broad daylight, not in the dark.”
Later, the bulldozer also plowed up the Shamalekh family’s vegetable plot. All of the cucumbers, eggplants, and tomatoes were crushed. All of their livelihood for the summer and fall months was ruined in a matter of minutes. Three motorized pumps that brought water from the well were also destroyed. Since the days of the Turks, we have been working this land,” the father said. “Now we’ll go and sell lupine beans in the street,” his wife said with a bitter laugh.
Their son Mohammed contributes a small pittance to the family – he helps his uncle in construction work, returning home with black and blistered hands. The family still has another half a dunam, where it grows tomatoes. But since it is now impossible to export vegetables from Gaza to the West Bank or Israel, there is a huge supply of tomatoes and their low price in the Gaza market does not cover the cost of cultivation. A carton of 17 kilos of tomatoes sells for only three shekels.
Killing Gaza kids
Abd a-Samed Shamalekh, who was supposed to start Grade 4 after the summer vacation, was the 116th Palestinian child the IDF has killed in the Gaza Strip since September 28, 2000. According to figures compiled by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 450 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF during the intifada as of yesterday. These figures do not include those who mounted offensives against IDF positions or settlements and were killed during these attacks. The numbers do include armed Palestinian civilians or security personnel who responded to IDF attacks against residential neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip.
According to these strict criteria, 1,398 people were killed by IDF fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the intifada as of June 18. (Since then, 8 more were killed in Gaza and at least 15 in the West Bank.)
Of these 1,398 fatalities, 253 were children. This does not include Shamalekh, a 17-year old from Rafah, seven children killed by IDF fire during the past 10 days in the West Bank, and another child who died when his house collapsed after the IDF destroyed an adjacent home.
Among the Palestinian dead are 77 women, including 18 in the Gaza Strip. Since this data was compiled on June 18, another woman was also killed by the IDF in Dir al-Balah.
The proportion of children among those killed in Gaza is much higher than in the West Bank – 26 percent of the fatalities in Gaza were children, compared to 15 percent in the West Bank. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights attributes this to the higher population density in the Gaza Strip, to the fact that children make up over 50 percent of this crowded region, and to the close proximity of IDF bases to Palestinian communities. But the Center’s analysts believe that the high number of child victims primarily indicates that IDF forces have often fired at civilians and residential areas without using the means at their disposal to confirm that their fire is indeed directed precisely “at the sources of [Palestinian] fire.”
According to the Center, this high number of children killed also reflects the fact the IDF has sometimes responded to shootings hours after an incident, not as part of an exchange of fire. This is how Abd a-Samed Shamalekh was killed.