Hamza Abu Asba, age 4, is surrounded by family and friends at his family’s home in the West Bank town of Halhul. The doorway features posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his predecessor Yasser Arafat and Hamza’s father Mahmoud; inside, there are Palestinian flags.
Relatives come in a constant stream to offer condolences on Mahmoud’s death from a missile strike on Ashkelon earlier this week, but the family has decided not to give Hamza the bitter news just yet. A few hours before the missile hit, Abu Asba wrote to his son, “Come to me in Ashkelon. I want to kiss you.”
Abu Asba, 48, spent 15 years working as a contractor. Every Sunday morning, he would say goodbye to his six children and head for Ashkelon, where he worked on various construction sites. On weeknights, he slept in an apartment he rented in the city, as he had an Israeli permit to stay overnight.
He apparently had two wives – the mother of his children, and the one found beside his body in Ashkelon, who was seriously wounded in the missile strike. Israel hasn’t yet been able to identify her, and his family in Halhul said little about her.
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“The night before he died, he sent a message to friends – ‘There are missiles from Gaza, I’m afraid,’” said his uncle, Imad. “The family was worried and asked him to leave and come back to Halhul. He said, ‘I’d come back, but there are no taxis and no buses.’”
Abu Asba’s body was found under the rubble by a passerby after rescue crews had already left the site without noticing him, the woman beside him or another seriously injured woman.
“No one from the Israeli government has called,” said Samer, his younger brother, in response to Haaretz’s question. Samer lives in Dubai, but returned for the funeral. He learned about the failure to spot Abu Asba under the rubble from the media.
“It’s very disappointing to discover that something like this could happen in Israel, of all places – a developed country that’s aware of the situation,” he said. “Mahmoud was in Israel legally, he had a permit to stay. So how did it happen that they left the building and he was found only an hour and a half later? Maybe if they’d found him five minutes sooner, he’d be alive.”
Abu Asba’s eldest son, Bashir, a 25-year-old lawyer, agreed with his uncle. “Perhaps they could still have saved him,” he said.
“Nobody has given us explanations as to how Mahmoud was forgotten under the rubble,” Samer added. “We expect the police commissioner to explain what happened. The answer is important not for me or for Mahmoud, but for residents of Ashkelon. What happened to my brother could happen to anyone there.”
But the family has tried not to point an accusing figure at anyone – including Hamas. “The fire clearly wasn’t aimed at Mahmoud specifically,” said his uncle Imad. “We don’t blame anyone.”
“We’re people who seek peace,” Samer added. “As a Muslim, I believe that what happened to my brother is from God; that’s what He wanted to happen. Mahmoud would have died whether he went to Ashkelon or was in Chicago. He’s a victim. Politically, we don’t get involved in the conflict. Hamas, Fatah, Israel – it doesn’t matter to us.”
After Abu Asba’s death, far-right websites in Israel spread rumors about his 22-year-old son Karim, who was sent to study at Russia’s military academy by the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Service. The websites posted pictures of him with a gun and charged that he was involved in anti-Israel activity.
His family adamantly denied this. When he returns, they said, he will serve in the PA’s security forces.
Mahmoud, his relatives said, loved life. He preferred living in Israel to living in the PA, Samer added.
Bashir said that when his father got paid, he quickly spent it on the things he loved. “He adored cars, clothes and the good life in Israel. Arab or Jew didn’t matter to him; he had many friends in Israel, too.”
Asked about his character, Samer smiled. “He was a funny guy,” he said. “He planned to visit me in Dubai. Then he wanted me to take him to Turkey to get a hair implant like I have. He was jealous of mine.”
Aside from Bashir, Karim and Hamza, Abu Asba is survived by another son, 20-year-old Taysir, and two daughters – Nihal, 18, and Marah, 17.