Saja’iya, Gaza City — Abdullah a-Zakh identified his son’s body by the belt. The shoes and socks also looked familiar, irrefutable proof that he had lost his son. In the morgue of Shifa Hospital, after hours of searching, he found the bottom part of the boy’s body. The next day, when Operation “Gan Na’ul” – “Locked Kindergarten” – ended and the Israel Defense Forces exited the Saja’iya neighborhood of Gaza, leaving behind 22 dead and large-scale destruction, the other body parts were found.
Mohammed was buried twice. He was 14 years old at the time of his death. He was killed last week, three days before the start of the new school year, so he never got to enter ninth grade. Did the planners of the operation give thought to the children who would be killed before giving it the satanic name “Locked Kindergarten”? Did the IDF computer that comes up with the names know that there would be five children and adolescents among the dead? Did they think about the popular song that the operation’s name evokes? It was unpleasant, very unpleasant (in the words of the song) this week to see the results of Locked Kindergarten in the Saja’iya neighborhood in the eastern section of Gaza City.
This sprawling, overcrowded residential neighborhood was occupied for almost a week by the IDF. The army wreaked destruction in it. A monstrous bulldozer maliciously potholed a few roads, scarring the asphalt with gaping wounds, for no apparent reason. Houses were hit, street tiling was uprooted, electricity poles were cut down, cars were crushed, dozens of trees were destroyed and 22 residents were killed. For almost a week the tens of thousands of residents lived in terror, some of them unable to leave their homes.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office explained this week: “The IDF operated in Saja’iya as part of the overall activity to create the conditions for the return of Gilad Shalit, damaging the terrorist infrastructures and the firing of Qassam rockets. In the course of the operation, a tunnel was uncovered which was dug from the direction of Saja’iya toward the Karni terminal. This tunnel is only part of the tunnel threat that affects the orderly transit of goods on a daily basis. The IDF does all it can to avoid harming non-involved people and under no circumstances does it intend this.”
Now Abdullah a-Zakh is a bereaved father who saw his son’s body torn apart. Burdened by suffering and struggle, with long years in Israeli prisons, deported to Lebanon as a member of Hamas and probably an activist in Islamic Jihad, he mourns for his son. On the wall of the mourners’ home, which was demolished by the IDF in 1971, Mohammed’s photograph hangs next to a photograph of his uncle, who was killed four years ago. And also the photographs of the other children who were killed in Locked Kindergarten, along with Mohammed.
When the children of Saja’iya went to school this week, at the start of the school year, carrying their new schoolbags and also the horrors of the previous week, they found a few empty seats in their classrooms. This week the streets of this neighborhood were more fraught than ever with devastation, mourning and fury.
The zoo of Gaza is locked, too. It’s a new zoo, built by France, with a model of the Eiffel Tower at the entrance, but this week it stood empty, the lone lioness downcast in her narrow cell. Two shekels to get in for a child, three for an adult, but the place is locked. No one visits, Gaza can’t afford to visit a zoo these days. In the Abed Rabbo neighborhood the residents emerge anxiously from their homes to view the damage inflicted by night, uprooted orchards. This is where the tanks invaded last Saturday night. In Saja’iya the electricity and telephone technicians are laboring to repair the damages of Locked Kindergarten, and farmers are returning to their wrecked plots, trying to salvage what can still be salvaged.
An angry passerby stops us and begins to shout loudly against Israel and Europe, which, he says, is supporting Israel. The bitterness here is great. Next to an apartment building a yellow cab is stuck in the ground, its back pointing skyward, its belly in the earth. Another source of income gone. In the industrial zone at the Karni crossing are containers from Copenhagen that were made in Shanghai, now perforated and savaged from the battles that raged here last week. A Zim shipping lines container is here, too, by the side, as though shy, with Herzl’s seven golden stars emblazoned on it. The soldiers did not shoot it.
Half a family was killed here two months ago in a lone house at the edge of the neighborhood: Amana Hajaj, 45, her son Mohammed, 23, and her daughter, Rawan, a girl of six. The family had gathered beneath vine and fig tree in the evening to roast corn on the small barbecue that is still here, when three missiles slammed into the yard. The Hajaj family doesn’t live here anymore; only the son, Yasser, a handsome youth of 17, comes every few days to feed the dog that is guarding the house and the chickens in the coop. The family left the house immediately after their tragedy, because of the fear: when you open the iron gate that leads from the house to the street you see an IDF position on the hill at the edge of the horizon to the east, its very presence enough to instill fear in the hearts of those in the exposed house. The grapes of wrath attest to what happened: they still hang, scorched, on the vine in the yard.
On the second day of the school year, children are burning electric cables that they pulled from the houses that were destroyed last week in Saja’iya in order to extract the copper from them. Mourners’ tents have been put up in every corner of the neighborhood. A group of grim-faced men sit at the entrance to the home of the boy Hussam a-Sarsawi, too. The bereaved father has gone to the mosque to pray and they are unwilling to talk in his absence. Hussam was 10 years old at the time of his death – one of those who fell in Operation Locked Kindergarten.
The atmosphere on the streets is bleak and tense; the looks of the passersby say it all. In the footsteps of fighters: It’s easy to distinguish between the streets the IDF used here and the streets that were not gutted by the tanks. These are the footsteps of devastation. An elegant yellowish villa on a street corner is punctured by bullet holes and half wrecked. This is where the boy Mohammed a-Zakh was killed.
In the courtyard sit the mourning women, in black, among them the bereaved mother, Abir, opposite photographs of the dead and verses from the Koran in the black and gold of Islamic Jihad. Mohammed a-Zakh set up a booth next to his home, to make a little money during the vacation. Every day he sold gum, wafers, biscuits and chips for a pittance to the neighborhood children, and took in about NIS 20 or NIS 30 a day. Last Tuesday, too, he was open for business. There were two days left in the summer vacation. At about 11 A.M. he went up to his mother on the second floor and saw her baking pitas. Afterward he went to the mosque, for the midday prayers, and then went back to his mother to ask for an electric cable – there happened to be power in the neighborhood just then – in order to vacuum the dust from the carpets in the mosque. “You’re still making pitas?” he asked.
When he got back from the mosque he noticed that someone had opened the door of his dovecote and that all the doves had flown off. Mohammed ran after one dove and managed to return it to the dovecote, which was in the roof of the house. He then went down to his grandmother’s apartment and ate lunch. Afterward he went down to the street and was not seen again alive and well.
Mohammed walked toward Mansura Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, where the tanks were. According to one account, he was asked to go there to see how his uncles, who lived in the line of fire, were doing; another version has it that he went to see the tanks and help the “defenders,” as they call themselves in this fighting family. The father of the family, Abdullah, who joined us later for a conversation, has seen his share of struggle. In 1971, when he was 17, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison by Israel for security offenses which he declines to specify. He was released in 1985, after 14 years, in the Jibril deal. A year later he was rearrested and sentenced to four years in prison.
Three years later, in 1992, he was deported to Marj al Zahur, in Lebanon, together with hundreds of Hamas activists, including Ismail Haniyeh, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Mahmoud Zahar and Saeed Seyam, who became leaders of the organization. He was allowed back to Gaza a year later and in 1995 was arrested for brief periods by the Palestinian Authority. He says that everyone claimed he was active in Islamic Jihad, something he denies. Now 54, he works for the Palestinian Authority as a very senior officer, in charge of the veteran fighters. Between one incarceration and another, he fathered eight children, among them Mohammed.
The grandmother closes her eyes. The aunt weeps silently. She relates that in the war of 1956, five members of her family were killed. Abdullah asks the women to move to another part of the courtyard. The marks of mourning and trauma are very apparent on him, as he tells his story: Last Tuesday his sister came to the house and said there was a wounded boy on Mansura Street. Abdullah rushed to Shifa Hospital. “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find him. I thought maybe he was in surgery, but no. I had a feeling that Mohammed was a shahid [martyr].
“I thought maybe he was transferred to another hospital and I sent relatives to look in Al-Quds Hospital. They didn’t find him there. The feeling that he was a shahid grew stronger. I thought that if he was not in the hospital, he must be lying at the place where he was killed. It would be very hard to get there and get him out. We know that if anyone is wounded there, no one can get close enough to get him out. We know that the army shoots at anyone who approaches there, even at rescue parties. There were cases of people who tried to rescue the wounded and were shot.
“Then I thought he must be in the hospital refrigerator. I asked my cousins to go and check. There were a few shahids there, and they saw them, but they came back and said they did not find Mohammed. The feeling that Mohammed was a shahid grew stronger in me. But there was no announcement.
“I decided to go to the morgue and look. I went in but I didn’t find Mohammed. Then I saw half a body, the only one that was not identified. I saw that it was Mohammed’s half-body. By the belt. It’s a belt that I bought him. And the shoes he wore. I looked at the socks and I knew it was Mohammed. I was sure it was Mohammed. The upper half of the body had disappeared.
“Mohammed was killed by two shells fired by a tank, and both shells hit him. Mohammed is fourteen years and four months old. He was not armed and he didn’t know what a weapon was. They saw that he was a boy. Maybe he went there to see the defenders, maybe he wanted to take part. Maybe he threw stones at a tank. They fired a shell at him. That is Mohammed’s story and that is the end of Mohammed.”
Mohammed was buried that day. The next day, last Wednesday, when the IDF left Mansura, they went to the killing place to look for the other half of Mohammed. They found his body parts together with the body parts of Yusri Abu Jabber, a press photographer for the Al-Quds network, who was also killed there. The rest of Mohammed’s body was buried on Wednesday. Abdullah, the father: “Mohammed was a schoolboy. That is the whole story of Mohammed. It happens every day, every day. Can a boy like this, like Mohammed, be a danger to them? And if he was a danger to them, they could have wounded him instead of killing him. They could have thrown a teargas grenade at him. Even if he was a danger to them, you don’t fire a shell at him.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office, this week: “The IDF is not aware of a 14-year-old boy being hit other than from media reports, and is not familiar with the circumstances in which he was hit. It should be noted that on the day the report was published there were heavy exchanges of fire, which included the firing of antitank missiles, the detonation of explosive devices, and light-arms fire against IDF forces.”
His youngest child, Ibrahim, is on his knees, scribbling on himself with a pen. Abdullah gags every so often. Abir is pregnant, and if it’s a boy they will name him Mohammed. “Israel must know that we must live together. We are ready to live in one state, not two states, and all the refugees will return and we will all live in a democratic state, call it Israel or Palestine. I am certain that we are ready to live together. We long to live in a good democracy, but I am sure you [Israelis] will not accept that. Israel will not agree to a two-state solution, either. Israel only wants more and more, and the right wing in Israel wants to destroy us. But Israel, what does it hear?”
This year they didn’t buy Mohammed a new schoolbag. He kept putting it off. Photos in the family album: Mohammed as a baby in uniform; Mohammed as a boy in a boat in surging rapids – a studio photomontage; Mohammed with a toy rifle; Mohammed with Yasser Arafat, shaking his hand during a visit Arafat made to the neighborhood; Mohammed against a background of two cardboard Qassam rockets in a photo studio; and the last photograph, taken about a month ago, of the whole family together in the studio, for a group portrait to get a health insurance certificate.