Na’im Araj awakens every day at 4 A.M., leaves quietly by the glass door in the living room that leads directly to the cemetery, and goes to his son’s grave, just to be with him. After sunrise, his brother comes and takes him, for his own sake, away from there. “Mohammed, Mohammed,” he hears him saying. But even when they’ve left the cemetery, glimpses of the dead boy are everywhere. The crowded camp cemetery is visible from the window of the house. There in the middle of a row of headstones, where olive and myrtle branches cover the freshly turned earth, is Mohammed’s grave. The father need but look out the window to see it. An advantage of sorts that goes with living in the last house in a refugee camp, across from the cemetery.
Mohammed Araj was six and a half, and carefully protected by his father; even on the day he died, he hadn’t been to school, lest something bad happen to him. His father permitted him to go only as far as the front steps, and Mohammed did as his father told him. But it wasn’t enough: The soldier emerged from the alley between their house and the cemetery at the edge of Balata camp, and shot him once, straight to the heart.
Mohammed was eating a sandwich. Eyewitnesses say the street was quiet. The sandwich fell down and was covered with blood. Mohammed somehow got indoors and cried for his mother, then collapsed in her arms. Afterward, says the family, the soldiers barred entry to two ambulances rushing to save the child. The boy’s brother, carrying the bleeding Mohammed, ran, panicked, a few hundred meters and flagged a passing car. At the hospital, they could only pronounce him dead. For four days, the IDF prevented the family from burying their son, because of a closure.
His father is tormented most of all by the thought that, if only his son had died in an ambulance, “he’d have known at least that someone in this world was concerned for him.”
Three front steps lead up to the front door, iron, painted blue, with two black handprints on it. Mohammed was shot on these steps as he stood eating his sandwich. A dim hallway leads to the living room, whence another door opens out to the cemetery. In the alley opposite there’s a cow barn inside a house. Everything in the Balata camp is crowded, just like the cemetery, there on the edge of Nablus.
The living room wall is blank: There is only the picture of the dead boy, wrapped in a kaffiyeh, above the computer he left behind. Mohammed, in his blue school uniform, on his first day of school, less than six months ago. The picture shows a boy with almond eyes and a sad look, but they say he smiled often and laughed a lot. Someone brings the death coat, a checked wool blazer with a hole in it.
“And afterward they’ll talk about `the criminals of Balata,’” says the camp’s ambulance driver, Firas Abu-Bakri, who in the last few years has seen it all. “When someone shoots a child in the heart, he knows where he’s shooting. Whoever shot him in the heart knew he was five or six years old.” Abu-Bakri tried to save the boy, whom he’d known all his life, but the soldiers wouldn’t let him get anywhere near the child.
“It’s all lies,” says the boy’s Uncle Adnan, his father’s brother. “They’ll say the soldiers were fired on and had stones thrown at them, but it’s all lies.” Theirs is a Hebrew-speaking home. The child’s father, Na’im, has 15 years’ experience working at Champion Motors in B’nei Brak, waxing Israeli cars alongside Yigal Shlomi, his friend and today his business partner, who now telephones daily. Na’im’s brother Adnan worked for 23 years in a factory in Israel. The day the boy was killed, the soldiers came at night to conduct a search, and Na’im told them about Mohammed. Adnan relates that the officer offered his condolences, and that “he, too, was almost crying.”
Stooped, unshaven, his face lined, Na’im enters the room. On the day before his son was killed, Na’im took Mohammed along to his little factory instead of sending him to school. The IDF was in the camp, in an operation code-named “Tranquil Waters.”
“I wasn’t afraid something would happen to him, but I didn’t want him to be scared,” says the father. Na’im manufactures hair gel and cleaning supplies. That day he left his ID card at home so that his wife could take their daughter to the doctor. An IDF Jeep happened along and they asked for his ID. “You know how the soldiers get agitated when you don’t have an ID card.”
It was Mohammed who broke the tension. He stuck out his hand to shake hands with the soldiers. Na’im says that the officer smiled. “I told him: My son sees no difference between Jews and Arabs.” He believes that the soldiers who killed his son the next day were the ones from the Jeep, the ones who shook his hand.
Mohammed hadn’t gone to school on the day he died, December 21, either. In the morning, the boy told his father that the army was in one of the houses on Na’im’s route to his factory, outside the camp. “Be careful, Daddy, don’t go to work,” said the child. Mohammed wanted a falafel sandwich with tomatoes for breakfast but the tomatoes in the house were green, Na’im relates, so he rushed out to buy red ones. That was the next-to-last meal, the one before the sandwich. Na’im wanted to take his son with him again to the factory, but Mohammed was afraid he’d be bored there. He stayed home, to play it safe. His father left him NIS 5 so he could buy an egg sandwich for lunch.
At lunchtime, someone came to the factory to buy a gallon of dishwashing soap, and told Na’im that his son had been lightly wounded in the arm. At the hospital, he learned the truth. A little while earlier, he’d seen the IDF Jeep driving up the road toward his house. From the hospital, he couldn’t go home, because of the closure. He stayed with his sister for four days, grieving alone, until the funeral.
Someone brings in a suitcase. All Mohammed’s clothing is folded in the worn brown imitation leather suitcase. “When you see the clothes, you’ll see that he was a special kid,” says the father. Uncle Adnan opens the suitcase, displaying the neatly folded clothes, and Na’im breaks down and cries bitterly.
“There’s nothing left for me in this life,” laments Naim. “Everyone knows how I protected him. Everyone was angry with me for not letting him go to school. I was bonded to this child. I have another son, who’s 20, who was shot with a rubber bullet a few months ago. I heard about it and sat right where I was. I said: If he was shot, he was shot. It’s God’s will. He knows how to look after himself. But the little one? My most beloved child. My model. Like my jacket, that kid. With me all the time.
“Mohammed knew nothing. He thought the end of the street through the camp was where the world ended. That pains me. He was born and didn’t even know he was a kid. He received nothing; only food. He has nothing else. I can’t even sit here for two hours. Nowhere to play, nothing to do. No child, not a Jewish child nor an Arab child, deserves a life like this or a death like this.”
Recently his friend, Yigal Shlomi, bought a little live donkey for Mohammed, so he’d have someone to play with. One of Na’im’s customers, Jacques, met Mohammed at a checkpoint not long ago and was amazed to see how he had grown. A child of six, wearing a size 36 shoe, says his father proudly. Here’s a picture from the beach in Tel Aviv, a long time ago: Mohammed at 18 months, with a friend from the camp, both of them in swimsuits, the photo taken by Yigal. And here he is in a camouflage uniform at the kindergarten graduation party, saluting. And here’s his first, and last, schoolbag. Such a short life.
Na’im removes a notebook and puts it to his lips, heatedly, either to kiss it or just to inhale the scent, the scent of his child. Outside, children are playing barefoot on this winter day. Abu-Bakri, the ambulance driver says that on the day the boy was killed, children were throwing stones just like today; they do it every day. But Sami, the owner of the grocery store at the corner of the alley, who witnessed the killing, says that the street was quiet beforehand. He saw the Jeep come bursting up the alley and he saw the soldier who got out of the Jeep … and fired.
Here’s where the soldier was standing when he shot the boy, maybe 25 or 30 meters from the steps. One bullet to the heart. Sami says that if the street hadn’t been quiet, he would have closed his shop in a hurry, as he always does when it gets dangerous. But the shop was open. A few days ago, the soldiers tore Na’im’s picture of the boy off the window of his car. “They don’t want people to see that picture of a little boy,” says Uncle Adnan.
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office responds: “Following intelligence warnings that five suicide terrorists were planning attacks in the center of the country, the IDF has been operating throughout the city of Nablus, especially in the casbah and the Balata refugee camp … In this type of operation, disturbances often break out involving large numbers of people, which the terrorists take advantage of to try to harm the soldiers, using residents as cover …
“Regarding the incident in question, a disturbance involving dozens of rioters, who threw firebombs and rocks at the soldiers, who were in the adjoining building at the time. After a firebomb was thrown at the soldiers from the crowd, the soldiers fired warning shots at a wall far from the place, in order to disperse the crowd … At no point was a hit on any person identified. Later, a complaint was received that a Palestinian child was killed in the incident. The army expresses sorrow for the death of the child and continues to investigate the incident.”
As for allegations that ambulances were not allowed to reach the child, the IDF spokesman said this was the first complaint to be raised regarding this incident, and “from our perspective, it is unfounded.”