When the Palestinian national soccer team secured entry into the 2015 Asia Cup, winning the right to play in an international tournament for the first time in its eighty-six-year history, crowds gathered by the hundreds to dance, play music and watch the triumph of their national team on large movie-sized television screens on the beaches on Gaza. The oceanfront represents the illusion of freedom for a land otherwise encircled by walls and checkpoints. People often gather on the beach to celebrate because it is a refuge from densely populated squalor that defines so much of an area that they have been compelled to call home. This is especially the case for children.
That brings us to the four Bakr boys. There was Mohamed Ramez Bakr, eleven years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both ten, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, nine. They were all killed by an Israeli Defense Forces military strike while playing on the beach in surroundings as familiar to them as a corner playground. The first shell sent them running. The second took their lives. Existing in a land where are you are always underfoot, the beach is one of the precious few places a child can freely roam. In Gaza City, which sewage and pollution could make unlivable by 2020, according to a United Nations study, this is one of the only places where the air feels clean in your lungs. In a land where soccer fields are constantly under bombardment—Israel says that parks and stadiums are popular places for Hamas to launch rocket attacks—the beach is where you go to play.
The Bakr boys were killed in an area they believed to be safe. Mohamed’s mother, grieving at the hospital, was quoted by CNN as saying, “Why did he go to the beach and play—for them to take him away from me?” Several reporters on hand were shocked at what happened. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC, tweeted: “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them #gaza.” After this, Mohyeldin was taken off the air, and was only allowed to return following an online campaign launched to defend him. The reasons behind NBC’s decision to pull him and then return Mohyeldin to Gaza are still very much in depute. Whatever the cause, Mohyeldin was doing the kind of journalism that forced people to see Palestinians as actual human beings.
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When people write, tweet, and message me with their unquestioned belief that Hamas is using the children of Gaza as human shields, I often wonder whether they make these assertions out of unknowing ignorance or out of a deeper kind of “let them eat cake” cruelty.
Maybe they don’t know that these same “human shield” accusations, made in 2008 and 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead bombing of Gaza, were found to be without evidence by Amnesty International.
Maybe they don’t know that to even speak of “human shields” in Gaza is absurd, because the Strip is fenced-in and residents have little right to come and go as they please. Maybe they don’t know that Gaza City is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with most of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in the urban heart of Strip.
People in the United States may be ignorant about these overcrowded conditions, but the Israeli military commanders are certainly not. Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal quote that if the poor were starving and without bread, we should “let them eat cake,” has become Netanyahu’s “let them find shelter.” He says, “Let them evacuate” when the only truly safe place is on the other side of a checkpoint. Someone fleeing one missile strike may be heading directly into another.
Perhaps these four little boys are examples of the “telegenically dead Palestinians” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us we should disregard. Or perhaps what Netanyahu fears is people who see nothing “telegenic” about dead children. Perhaps he knows that there are people who cannot imagine anything more human than a group of children playing on the beach, and cannot imagine anything more inhumane than taking their lives from the sky.