Emerging From Fear To Bury A Son
Family in Rafah Details Killing of 13-Year-Old
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A10
RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza, May 24 -- On the same day that Israeli tank fire killed eight Palestinian protesters in an incident that dominated international broadcasts and headlines last week, another young Palestinian died a private, quiet death just a few hundred yards away.
Thirteen-year-old Saber Abu Libdeh was killed by an Israeli sniper last Wednesday while trying to fetch drinking water for his family in the sealed-off neighborhood of Tel Sultan, his parents and siblings said. There were no headlines and no news stories. Even some of his relatives and neighbors, locked in their houses under military curfew, didn't know what had happened to him until days later, they said.
As Israeli tanks, armored bulldozers and soldiers began pulling out of Rafah Monday morning and military officials said they had suspended a seven-day offensive, the Abu Libdeh family emerged from seven days of fear to bury their son and tell the story of his death. It was a story that in many ways captured the suffering felt by about 25,000 Palestinians in a residential area transformed into a fighting field.
About 10,000 Palestinians attended a mass funeral for Saber Abu Libdeh and 15 other Tel Sultan residents on Monday, just hours after the army withdrew. But before the ceremony, dozens of distraught relatives and neighbors crammed into the front room of the boy's house in a ritual of grief, kissing his face and hugging his tightly wrapped body. His sister Asma fainted.
"See his blood? See my son's blood?" said the father, pointing at the wall. "He was 13 years old!"
At least 42 Palestinians were killed in the weeklong offensive here that Israeli military officials called Operation Rainbow. The officials said the offensive had targeted Palestinian guerrillas and uncovered three tunnels used for smuggling weapons and ammunition across the nearby border with Egypt. Palestinian officials said more than a thousand people have been rendered homeless by Israeli demolitions, and many more have fled attacks on residential neighborhoods.
The army came to Saber's neighborhood of concrete houses, narrow alleyways and wide streets before dawn last Tuesday morning, Saber's mother recalled. An Apache helicopter gunship fired missiles at men coming out of the Bilal mosque directly across from the house, killing several people, according to the mother, Hanim, and other relatives.
The crash of the missiles shattered the family's sleep, they recalled. Shrapnel rained against the front of the house and blew out their windows. The extended family of 16 stared through the broken glass at two corpses lying outside the mosque, where they remained for several hours because no one dared go outside as the Apaches flew overhead.
Saber, the youngest of seven, was doted on by his brothers and sisters and adored by his young nieces and nephews, family members recalled. He was afraid of the violence, his brothers said.
At around 7 a.m. that day, the Israeli army announced a curfew by loudspeaker. The Abu Libdeh family gathered in the back room of the house, the family members recalled.
Jeeps and tanks began circling the area, and it seemed to the Abu Libdehs that each issued a different announcement, once in Hebrew, once in Arabic. One called on members of the Palestinian Authority police forces to come into the street with their weapons above their heads, while another demanded that all males above 16 years old turn themselves in, family members and neighbors said.
By afternoon, the Abu Libdehs noticed that the tap water in their apartment had a foul smell. The special claw attached to Israeli tanks to detect planted bombs had apparently also dug up sewage and water lines, causing them to mix. No one in the area had electricity, telephone or drinking water, residents said. The family did have a few cell phones among them, with batteries that would not last long, and a few bottles of drinking water.
On Tuesday evening, the Abu Libdehs recalled, they ran out of water. They began feeding the children tomatoes to quench their thirst.
On Wednesday afternoon, Saber and his 16-year-old brother, Yousef, decided to cross the narrow alley to their older brother's house, where water was stored in tanks, to fill soda bottles with drinking water.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company