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.
Yousef recalled that they listened for danger. They heard no rumblings of tanks or humming of Apache helicopters, he said. Their older brother Ayub, 26, who had been married the previous week, promised he would wait in the doorway and watch them the whole time, Yousef added. The two boys opened the door.
The first bullet hit Yousef in the stomach, and the second hit Saber in the chest, Yousef recalled. The boys dropped the bottles. Ayub reached out to help them, but Yousef was shot twice more, and Ayub was shot in the hand, according to Yousef and hospital medical records. An Israeli army spokesman later said that Israeli troops were "likely responsible" for the death.
Saber fell into the house and into his mother's arms, bleeding from his nose and mouth, his mother and Yousef recalled. The bullet had struck his heart, hospital records showed.
"He said, 'I'm dying,' " said his mother. "But I didn't believe it."
A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance passing through the area after coordinating with the Israeli army got the call. Fathi Dirbi, a 30-year-old emergency medical technician, said Saber was in a coma when he arrived. Yousef and Ayub were conscious. "I told the brothers that we'll try to get him there in time," Dirbi recalled of the race to the hospital.
The evacuation was filled with delays, he said. A tank held up the ambulance's departure for 15 minutes while a soldier inside gave instructions from a loudspeaker for Dirbi to open the back door so that a camera affixed to the tank could examine its contents. The ambulance had to stop again at a second tank, and after five minutes Dirbi said he became impatient and walked up to the tank driver and yelled that he had to leave.
It was too late.
"When I got to the hospital, they told me to take Saber to the morgue," Dirbi said.
-- A Boy's Quiet Death Amid Rafah's Chaos: 13-Year-Old a Victim of Israeli Offensive
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A10
Photo: T-shirt printed for members of an IDF elite unit who had completed sniper training, reads "The smaller they are - The harder it is!".
Source: Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009 (Ha'aretz); via Mondoweiss.