Gideon Levy
Selected Articles from Ha'aretz


Killing Fields

July 21, 2000

This was the last summer vacation for 11-year-old Safouan and 16-year-old Khalil. The two Palestinian boys lived in different parts of the West Bank, but died within 24 hours of each other, both killed by live ammunition the Israeli army had carelessly left behind

Safouan Assi and Khalil Abu-Akam never met each other. They were two Palestinian boys who lived an hour and a half's drive apart. Both were the sons of farmers, lending their families a hand on their summer vacation. Khalil was tending his father's sheep, while Safouan was helping to care for the family orchard. All they had in common was a sudden and untimely death. Khalil died on Wednesday, two weeks ago; Safouan died 24 hours later. Khalil was 16 and four months, Safouan 11 and nine months. When you are that young, you still count the months.

Both boys were killed by shells left behind by the Israel Defense Forces. Sudden explosions shattered both small bodies, killing the boys instantly. No one suspects the IDF of wanting to kill them. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Israeli army acts with far less vigilance when Palestinian lives are at stake. The fact is that victims of such explosions are almost always Palestinian children.

According to the B'Tselem human rights organization, 124 people have been involved in such incidents since the start of the Intifada. Ninety-six of them were children under the age of 17. Thirty-four people have died as a result of these explosions, only one of them was an Israeli. The disregard for the life of Palestinian children is apparent not only in cases in which soldiers' fingers prove too itchy on the trigger, but also in the careless way the army cleans up after itself in areas in which these children work and play.

This week, I followed the death trails of Safouan and Khalil. No signs, let alone fences, kept these poor boys from meeting their grim end. Both places were indeed marked with signs, but not enough of them and none of them facing the direction from which Palestinian children made their way every day.

Khalil's meadows are strewn with unexploded mortar shells, turning them into veritable killing fields in the heart of the "cave country" of southern Har Hevron. Safouan's orchard is privately owned and surrounded by fences. There, on his father's land, near the old, wrecked van he used as a hideout and home away from home, Safouan died in an explosion.

On Sunday, waves of shimmering heat rose from the yellow-brown soil of Har Hevron, just short of the Judean Desert. A few months ago, the IDF drove hundreds of Palestinians out of the area, until the High Court of Justice ruled that they be allowed to return to their cave-homes. The IDF argued that this was a training area in which live shots were fired. The court, however, decreed that the inhabitants could move back. Did this mean that their lives need not be protected? Khalil Abu-Akam's family was among those forced to leave and then permitted to return to the cluster of caves known as Hirbat Janba. Back home at last, the family threw a celebratory bash; now they are mourning the loss of their child.

A hot path, dotted with death
It was late morning when we arrived, and shepherd Omar Abed-Rabu was already on his way home. On such scorching days, he likes to take his livestock back early, before the ground becomes too hot. The dry valley in which we walked was surrounded by yellow hills, dotted with the blackened wrecks used by the IDF for shelling practice. Shepherd Maher Abu-Issa also arrived out of nowhere, and the two volunteered to guide us along their friend's final path.

We walk down into the valley where Khalil had led his sheep. He was a ninth-grade student on holiday, tending his family's herd. Maher stops and points out the first 18-millimeter mortar shell nestled among the rocks. Sometimes the older shepherds hide the fallen shells they find, to keep them away from the children. Sometimes they inform the officers at the small army base on the edge of the valley. Sometimes, they say, the soldiers come and collect the shells; sometimes they don't. But you can't report every shell - they are everywhere and not only under the rocks. I saw at least 20 of them scattered along the paths the shepherds use, almost obscured by black, sheep droppings.

A pile of rocks marks the spot where Khalil died. The ground there is still wet with the blood of a slain sheep; crushed rocks give testimony to the powerful explosion. Khalil's head was blown apart by the blast; his arm was torn from its socket; he died instantly. A wooden practice target in the shape of a man lies nearby, alongside another abandoned shell. Omar stands beside it, cane in hand, and poses for a photograph of this dangerous trinity: a shepherd, a shell, and a man-shaped target.

An old man comes riding up from the valley on a donkey: This is Omar's father, terrified by the sight of his herd returning alone. After what happened to Khalil, the parents here fear for their children's lives.

On Wednesday, two weeks ago, at about 8:30 A.M., Omar heard an explosion echoing from the valley. He and Maher, who had just brought his herd to drink at a nearby pool, both hurried towards the noise - to the horrible sight of Khalil's torn body - his sheep scattering away in fear. The victim's father and brother came quickly from their village; two other brothers hurried to the military base for help; and soldiers took the body away on a stretcher.

Another shepherd, wearing a red, Israeli army T-shirt and black cowboy hat, his watch covered in leather in the manner of Israeli soldiers, says that 16-year-old Khalil was too experienced a shepherd to have picked up a shell. One of his sheep, he says, must have stepped on it. Down below in the valley, at the exit from the far-off base, a sign declares, in stiff military language, that the area is dangerous. But Khalil never entered the valley from the direction of the base.

Khalil's father's face fills with pain each time his son is mentioned. At 70, Yusef's sight is failing. Khalil was the youngest of his 14 children. The family divides its time between the town of Yatta, where it is now mourning, and Hirbat Janba. On the evening before his death, Khalil was in Yatta. He set out for Hirbat Janba that night, so that he could rise early and take out the herd on which his large family's livelihood depends. At 6:30 in the morning, he went out with the sheep and was joined a little later by his brother, Ibrahim, and his nephew, Mouatez. When the two arrived, Khalil sent them to the well for water. Ibrahim, 14, says that Khalil warned them not to touch anything on their way. A few minutes later, they heard the explosion.

Khalil Yunis, mayor of Yatta, says to me at the mourners' tent in Yatta: "This is a grazing area. It's true that the army declared it a firing zone, but the court allowed the people to return. Therefore, the blame is divided between the army, which must clean up the area after each maneuver, and the residents, who must inform the army of every shell. The large number of shells found there leads me to accuse the army of negligence. I'm not saying the army wants to hurt us deliberately, but it does so by being careless. I'm told that the soldiers who saw Khalil cried. Anyone who expresses sorrow that way is still human, but the army must clean the area up."

Here is Khalil's picture: a smiling, blue-eyed boy wearing his baseball cap backwards. This photograph is all that remains of his 16 years. Mouatez, Khalil's nephew, tells the mayor that as they walked to the meadow, he and his uncle were talking of their future. Khalil told Mouatez he was not happy with his achievements at school and planned to work harder the following year. A relative of his is studying medicine in Iraq, he said, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

A home away from home
The remains of a maroon-colored Volkswagen van stand in the middle of Ahmed Assi's land, located on the outskirts of the Beit Lahia village. This is the west end of the West Bank, not far from the 1967 border and just across from the cement monstrosity that is Modi'in. Assi's 20 dunams are fenced in and guarded by a locked iron gate. His orchard boasts fig and plum trees, as well as some very young grapevines. The old van stands in the middle of the vineyard. Assi brought the wreck here to serve as a "summer home" for his 13 children. When on holiday, they watch over the family's plot of land and help cultivate it.

Safouan, not yet 12, used to spend his vacations here. He would rise every morning and walk to the orchard - sometimes alone, sometimes with his brothers - every day, seven days a week, until nightfall. What did an 11-year-old boy do in the sweltering wreck of a van for 12 hours a day? We'll never really know. His father says he used to comb the orchard for rocks, check on the vines and then seclude himself inside his home away from home.

A fourth-grade, Arabic textbook lies tossed on the ground. Safouan had just finished sixth grade in the village school. Sitting under the vine, his grieving father tells of his child's last day. On Thursday, Safouan rose at 8:00, as usual, ate his breakfast of pita and olive oil and went out to the orchard with his brother, Rifat, 16, and his cousin Nazel, 10. Rifat went to the left of the van, Safouan to its right. Then came the explosion. Nazel, who stood across from him, saw his cousin take a few more steps alongside the van, before he collapsed, moaning.

Mohammed Rian, a forest ranger working nearby, called the boy's father on his cellular phone. Ahmed Assi came with the village doctor, who pronounced Safouan dead. An autopsy was performed at the Ramallah clinic. Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers and Shin Bet security service officials arrived at the orchard to investigate. One officer said to the father, "All your talk is just aimed at securing compensation." Ahmed was deeply insulted.

There are two ways of getting to the orchard: either on foot from the village or along the road by car. The road is now blocked by a soldier, who cautions passers-by not to enter the IDF training area. Several times a year, the soldiers hold their maneuvers here; the road is then closed off and warning signs are posted. But all this is apparent only if you drive down the road; there are neither signs nor soldiers on the stretch of land between the village and Assi's orchard. No one even bothers to inform the villagers that maneuvers are taking place.

Assi says he does not understand why soldiers must hold their maneuvers here, on this cultivated land, when there are uncultivated areas all the way to Sha'ar Hagai. Someone suggests an answer: "That's where Israelis go to hike." Assi dismisses this as untrue.

Two people from Beit Lahia have already been injured as a result of the IDF maneuvers. Fahariya Yusef was hit by a stray bullet in her own home and Ayman Bader, another boy, was injured by a shell.

What caused Safouan's death? What blew up out there, near the van? No one knows for sure. "This was a child," says Ahmed Assi. "What does it matter if he brought something in from somewhere or if something blew up here in our orchard? He was a child, not a prime minister, not even a mayor, just a little boy. Even if he stole the bomb from the soldiers' base, it's the guard's fault, not his. The army is responsible. They see children running around here and the officers are responsible for what their soldiers leave behind."

The IDF spokesman issued the following response: "All firing zones in the Central Command are marked with signs in three languages - Hebrew, English and Arabic. The IDF has long ceased to hold live ammunition practice in the Beit Lahia area because the area is settled. It is important to note that the people living in the training area near Beit Lahia do so knowing that this is a firing zone. At the end of each maneuver, the soldiers comb the area for undetonated ammunition. This is done under specific orders aimed at protecting human lives, both Israeli and Palestinian. The IDF investigates each incident in which people are hurt by the explosion of undetonated ammunition and then draws the necessary conclusions that are studied throughout the army. Both cases are, therefore, under investigation by the Military Police. When the investigations are completed, the findings will be passed on to the Adjutant-General's Office."

So, is the training area outside Beit Lahia a firing range or not? Can anyone figure out the answer from the IDF spokesman's response?

Ahmed Assi claims that the security officer of the nearby Jewish settlement, Mavo Horon, who came to the site of the explosion, told the army officials: "Today an Arab child was killed here, tomorrow it might be a Jewish child."

This week, people in Beit Lahia thought that perhaps after this last warning, the IDF would start to be more vigilant

 

 
 
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