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'Why Did the Beautiful Boy Not Reach 20?'

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Mourners console the mother (C) of 15-year-old Palestinian teenager Azzam Oweida during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 28, 2018.
Mourners console the mother (C) of 15-year-old Palestinian teenager Azzam Oweida during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 28, 2018. Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

No Israeli remained unmoved by the deaths of 10 teenagers from the Bnei Zion pre-military academy – nine young women and one young man – in a flash flood Thursday. Some societies react to this type of disaster with restraint. Israel responded with effusive outpourings of grief combined with the sacralization of death, as is its wont. Fair enough.

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The media, expert picking up on its consumers’ emotions and also at fanning them, performed its role, supplying expanded coverage with dozens of pages and pictures and giant headlines meant to tug the heartstrings: “In the flower of youth,” “Salt of the earth,” “How will we explain?,” “River of death,” “Deadly hike,” “Why?” and of course the life stories of the dead, all of them outstanding students, amazing children, the most beautiful flowers. Nor did the politicians pass up the opportunity: Their hearts were broken, they tweeted.

There is something touching about a society that expresses such solidarity with its mourners, and perhaps it’s perfectly okay for media outlets to briefly fan the flames of these emotions. But one could expect a society that so sanctifies and eulogizes its dead, uniting in the face of disaster, that glorifies the victims and laments their deaths, to be able to spare some empathy for the deaths of other people from this land, who die in sickening numbers by its hand.

We surely cannot expect to have the same feelings for our neighbors as we do for our children, for our enemies as we do for those we love, but at least a tiny bit of compassion for others? That never happens here. It sometimes seems as if Israel expresses grief for its dead in portions so great that they leave no room in its heart for a pinch of human feeling for the death of the other nation – its own handiwork.

In the past several weeks, dozens of people around the same age as the teens who died in the Tsafit River have been killed. They too died on the sandy soil of the south; a two-hour drive is all that separated the two death sites. In the Tsafit River, young people died in a natural disaster; at the Gazan border, they die by human hand. Force majeure in a raging river, the force majeure of the ruling state at the border.

The Gazan dead, too, were pure and innocent – how could a 15-year-old boy like Azzam Oweida, who died Saturday after being shot in the head Friday, not be pure and innocent – and they too could be called salt of the earth, salt of their earth and their people. They too said “we are always first,” they too were ready to fight on behalf of their nation, and like the Bnei Zion students, they too loved their country. They certainly would have happily hiked its length and breadth, including the Tsafit River, were they only allowed to do so. They too were the most beautiful flowers, and now they are dead.

And they too are mourned by an entire nation. Can Israelis at least understand and accept this? They too had parents, relatives and friends whose world fell apart, in their case when an army sniper shot them and stopped their heart. The lives of these bereaved families, too, will never be the same, their grief and sorrow unbearable. Their short lives were much more desperate and miserable than those of the Israelis their age. No Israeli can imagine what’s it’s like to grow up under siege.

The Bnei Zion students whose lives were cut short were scheduled to join the army soon. Beyond the border there is no army in which to enlist, no advanced weapons to operate. And so they use rocks, mirrors and tires in their hopeless war for liberation. Their deaths barely register in the Israeli media and among Israelis, save for their number. No names, no pictures, no life story, nothing that might suggest that they are equally human.

Neither group deserved to die. “Why did the beautiful boy not reach 20?” goes the song by Ehud Manor. This must be asked in the face of the death of Tzur Alfi, 17, of Mazkeret Batya, just as much as it must be asked in the face of the no-less-terrible death of Muhammad Ayyoub, 14, of the Jabalya refugee camp.

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