'Everything Fell Apart'

In Gaza's Shifa Hospital lie four teenagers who lost limbs when the IDF fired upon them during Sukkot. The army spokesman: 'The responsibility lies solely with the terror organizations.'

The news the day after Sukkot was delivered dryly, as usual: "12 Palestinians were killed during the holiday by Israel Defense Forces fire. More than 30 Palestinians were wounded." On the eve of the holiday, dozens of mortar shells and Qassam rockets had been fired at the Negev; in response, dozens of Israeli tanks entered Beit Hanun.

Israeli journalists have been forbidden to enter Gaza for nearly a year now, under orders from the government, and the news report from the IDF spokesman was, as usual, the only information that reached readers in Israel. "There was a confirmed hit of a cell of launchers of anti-tank weapons," the IDF reported about the incident in which there were many wounded and killed.

It's three weeks later and the survivors of that incident still lie in Gaza's Shifa Hospital. The "cell of launchers of anti-tank weapons" was actually a group of teenagers, who had gone out in the street after school and saw tanks approaching. It's hard to believe that Assad Mahmoud, for example, was a member of this "cell": He's a 15-year-old ninth-grader. Not much is left of the scrawny youth's body. He lost both legs and an arm as a result of the shell that soldiers fired at the teens, who were outside, near their homes; he was also badly wounded in the abdomen. Assad lays in bed, staring at the walls, while his father makes a plea to the world to help him acquire a pair of prosthetic legs and a prosthetic arm for his son.

Since we aren't allowed into Gaza, we asked our colleague Catrin Ormestad, a Swedish journalist who lives in Israel, to document for us last week the aftermath of the IDF shelling of a group of children and youths in Beit Hanun during Sukkot, the day after Israel declared Gaza "hostile territory." Ormestad has written a book about life in Gaza and Tel Aviv, which is due to be published soon in Sweden (by Norstedts Press). Munir and Said, our regular cab drivers, waited for her on the other side of the Erez checkpoint. Following is our account of what she told us.

Shifa, the only medical institution in the Gaza Strip that can somehow be called a hospital, was quiet last week. A deathly silence also pervaded the construction site of what is supposed to be the new surgical wing: There are no construction materials to be had anywhere in Gaza, because of the embargo imposed on it by Israel, and work at the hospital has been frozen for several months, too. The wooden scaffolding stands abandoned. There is no shortage of medicines at the hospital, and fuel for the generators that ensure the electricity supply is provided by a donation from the European Union. The holes in the building's walls were made by gun battles between Hamas and Fatah, which took place here as well. The elevators are not working, which is not unusual.

In the surgical ward, high up on the fourth floor, lies Assad Mahmoud. Upon entering his room, a visitor is perplexed at first: What is this lying here in the bed? It takes a few seconds for the eye to adjust to the unbearable sight. A boy. Half a boy. What's left of his upper body is exposed, a bandage covers his stomach, to which a drainage bag is attached; bandages cover his three stumps, a blue sheet covers what's left of his body. His expression is blank, staring, dead. His father Jabar tenderly clutches the remaining wounded hand, his eyes bleary with grief and lack of sleep. For the last three weeks, 40-year-old Jabar has not left his son's bedside except for occasional trips home to change clothes. He sleeps on the hospital floor at night. The boy's right leg is amputated above the knee, the left leg below the knee and his entire left arm, up to the shoulder, is gone. A tank shell left its mark on Assad.

The teenager is from Beit Hanun and has five siblings. His mother Maryam, 32, doesn't budge from his bedside either. Assad speaks in a weak monotone, simply recounting what happened to him on September 26, on the eve of our Sukkot holiday: "I got up in the morning and went to school. I came home from school and did homework, and then I heard that the army was coming in. I went outside to see what was happening. A lot of children went toward the tanks, a lot of tanks. There was shooting between the armed men and the tanks. I was scared but I stayed to watch. The kids moved toward the tanks and all of a sudden the tank fired a shell. The shell landed in the middle of the street. There were five people killed and 20 wounded ... I remember that the Israelis fired, I flew into the air and fell on the ground."

Assad writhes in pain. His father tries to help him. He worked for years in Israel, but has been unemployed for some time now. When the tanks entered the street he was asleep at home. "When I woke up I heard a noise and I ran to bring the children home. I wanted them to come into the house, and then to send them to their grandparents in Gaza City, until the tanks left," he says.

He succeeded in his task: He brought all the children inside the house and then hurried to the home of his brother and nephew, both doctors, who had set up a makeshift clinic to give first aid to the wounded who had already begun to arrive. All of a sudden, his neighbors came and told him that Assad was wounded. First they said that he had been killed, then they corrected themselves and said he was wounded. Jabar soon found out that after he had left the house, Assad had gone back out to the street. Jabar says that he went crazy when he heard the news: "I ran into the street like a maniac. I went mad. Everything fell apart for me. I ran out to the street, but I don't remember what I did."

Meanwhile, Assad's brother, 18-year-old Mohammed, carried his wounded brother to the Beit Hanun clinic, accompanied by their father. Assad was still conscious. His lost limbs were left behind at the place where he was wounded. He was sent to the Kamal Radwan clinic and from there to Shifa Hospital.

Jabar: "Why can't the children of Palestine go out to the street to play? They're just kids. I appeal to the world to get new legs for Assad, and maybe a new arm, too." He says that Assad liked to play soccer in the neighborhood, to dance the debka and to swim in the sea.

In the next room lies Mohammed Zakariya al-Bassiouni. The 16-year-old looks younger than his age. His forehead is studded with acne; he wears a blue undershirt and black shorts, above his stump. His right leg was amputated above the knee. Several fingers from his right hand were also amputated. Wounds and clotted blood are visible on his remaining leg. Mohammed smiles shyly. A bouquet of plastic flowers doesn't add much cheer to the room. He tells his story: "I went to school, I came home from school, I was sitting in the street by my house with friends, and then we heard the tanks and saw them approaching from the end of the street."

Many children were frightened and ran home, but not Mohammed. He remained standing next to his house. "The tank started firing, some children were killed, some lost arms and legs, some were wounded. My cousin, who was standing next to me, was killed. Someone put me in a car and took me to the clinic and from there to Shifa where they amputated my leg."

On the way to the hospital, Mohammed lost consciousness. He's a good friend of his neighbor in the next room, Assad, and he remembers that they were talking to each other a few minutes before the shell hit. He says he saw Assad lying on the ground with his legs missing. Mohammed is also in pain. Have you ever met an Israeli? "They're animals," he replies.

His mother, Hanan, 36, says that she had just made lunch for the younger children who weren't yet fasting during Ramadan, when she heard the big explosion from the street. She ran out and saw a lot of blood. Someone told her that Mohammed had been taken to the hospital.

In a room on the first floor lies Bilal Ahmed Zaidan, 19, with one leg and one arm in an iron splint, held together with screws. Several of his fingers have been amputated, others are injured. A strong sourish smell wafts from the bed and it's hard to get close. Pictures of old martyrs hang on the wall behind him.

He doesn't work or go to school. He's usually at home all the time. When he heard the tanks that day, he went outside. In the morning, Qassams and mortars had been fired, but he says the launching point was from about 60 meters away from the place on which the tanks fired. He says the tank was about 300 meters away from the youths when it fired. He also says there were no armed militants among the dead and wounded.

In another bed in the same room lies Majdi Diab, 14. A bloodstained sheet covers the wound in Majdi's shoulder. His abdomen is also all bandaged. The same story: school, home, out to the street to buy something for his father. But Majdi didn't make it home because of the tanks. His parents were worried, but couldn't get to him. The tanks stood between them and the child. His aunt says that at first they were told that his leg had been amputated and that now they're happy that this wasn't the case.

Said the IDF spokesman, this week, in response to an inquiry from Haaretz: "On the date in question the IDF operated in launching areas in the northern Gaza Strip. In the course of the activity, in a number of incidents, mortar shells and anti-tank missiles were fired at the forces. In one incident, an IDF force attacked a cell of anti-tank missile launchers, who was observed preparing to fire upon the forces, and a hit of the cell was observed.

"It should be noted that in most cases the terror organizations and terrorists operate from within population centers, using children and innocent civilians as cover. As a consequence of the fighting in these dense and complex areas, and from the shooting from within populated areas, it is possible that innocent civilians may be hurt and the responsibility for this lies solely with the terror organizations."