On July 16, 2014, the Israeli navy fired at a fishermen’s jetty on a Gaza City beach. Boys, who had been playing nearby, ran from the explosion. The IDF killed four of them with a second missile. They were cousins, aged 9 – 11, and they were small. Journalists, some of whom had been playing soccer with the boys earlier, watched and filmed from the Al Deira Hotel as the boys crumpled onto the sand.
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They died a few hundred meters from my apartment, although I wasn't at home. As a member of UNRWA's emergency response team, I was working in the Central Operations Room some blocks away. The room fell silent with word of the four boys' killing.
The war was one week old. One Israeli had died. Of Gaza’s 213 deaths, 43 were children. Gazans, like Israelis, feel each death as a personal, family loss. Those boys were everyone’s boys.
Also in common, each for their own reasons, Gazans and Israelis clung to a protective myth of perfect aim. My Israeli relatives "knew" that their technology was clear-sighted and precise, because the shots were fired by their peers. My Gazan colleagues needed that to be true, as shots might be fired into the window next door. We used to joke about painting an arrow on our windows, pointing the missiles somewhere else.
The killings on the beach begged a terrible question. Either the IDF could see the boys they killed, or they could not. Which possibility was more frightening?
Next day, the IDF killed three children playing on the roof of their house. One of my team members called, whispering so that her own children could not hear. "I'm afraid. They're trying to break our will by killing our children."
"No," I assured her. "No, no. I'm sure they're not."
"How do you know? Have you heard something?"
"No. But I don't believe that."
A year later, Israeli investigators found that the boys had not been identified as children. They explained that the beach was militarized, unused by civilians, and dominated by a Hamas compound that removed its civilian status. Journalist-witnesses saw and filmed only a beat-up fishermen’s hut where the boys played hide and seek. They saw no compound and no militants.
I lived on Beach Road four years, 2011 – 2015. Although buildings obscured that spot from my window, I know that stretch of beach to be civilian. It would have been 'militarized' only insofar as every inch of Gaza is militarized: exposed and unsafe.
A UN commission found that the IDF had failed to take appropriate precautions to protect civilians. It noted the boys' small stature and the public nature of the location, in a densely populated neighbourhood close to the journalists’ hotel.
The Israeli investigation ruled out criminal charges, because no one intended to kill children on that beach, on that morning. I am sure that is true, but sadly the investigators did not go on to ask, "Given that no one intended to kill children, why are those four boys dead?"
It must be asked because, if a visitor saw four small figures playing on a different beach, in a seaside community half populated by youth and children, they would see four children. Why couldn’t they see the children of Gaza?
An Israeli soldier killed those children after hearing incessantly that Gazans hate him. His judgement was the product of educational, social and state institutions that have been enmeshed in Occupation for two generations. A decade ago, his government deemed Gazan hatred so incurable, so infectious that the whole community had to be locked away to protect soldiers like him. Ein breira – he has no choice but to kill them first.
Even pre-emptively. Two weeks before he fired, Israel’s future Minister of Justice urged him on Facebook to kill all the little snakes, kill the mothers who would give birth to more, and destroy the houses in which little snakes would be raised. Two weeks after, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset spelled out his vision for a war of "annihilation".
Plenty of people were culpable for the boys’ deaths, although the investigators' phantom child killer remains at large.
I do not attribute malice to that soldier. He was primed to see – and kill – four skinny enemies scrambling across the sand. Soldiers are not trained to reflect on the regime that manufactures their assumptions. It would have taken an exceptional young man to challenge all that by asking, "What shall I believe, everything I've been told, or the children in front of my eyes?"
One must be able to see the children, in order to protect them. The walls of Gaza block the sightlines. The walls blind people, and relieve them of the need to see where the missile or the rocket lands. Beyond the wall on either side, it's just enemy territory: fire at will.
Gazans and Israelis used to meet each other. However, most of the cohort that is coming of age in Gaza have never met an Israeli. My young Israeli relatives’ friends - who felt that the war ended too soon - have probably never met a Gazan Palestinian.
The media rushes to fill the blanks with images from the fringe. My Israeli friends heard that Gazans celebrated the M75 rocket. We in Gaza heard that Israelis picnicked in Sderot, watching the bombardment of Gazan cities as entertainment. YouTube has equal and opposite footage of children parroting their parents’ hatred both in Israeli settlements or Gazan kindergartens. Between the rockets and the hilltop youth, there is enough debased behavior to go around.
The blindness may be reciprocal, but the weapons of war pose grossly asymmetrical threats. Demonized and walled-in, Gazan civilians cannot get out of the way.
In late 2014, Gazans began to slip into gloomy speculation about the next war. They feared that it would be fought with no pretense of the civilian protections to which every person is entitled.
If they cannot see Gazan children, my colleagues reasoned, can they see civilians at all anymore? Do Israelis still remember that Gazans can be non-combatants? Will they remember that in time, before the next war comes?
Marilyn Garson lived in Gaza 2011 - 2015, working for Mercy Corps and UNRWA. She writes from New Zealand, and blogs at Contrapuntal: Transforming Gaza