Death on the rooftops

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A few men sat next to the Bilal Mosque near the center of Tal Al Sultan. May 22 was only the second day residents of this western Rafah neighborhood had been able to venture out of their homes after a three-day curfew. They were still not allowed out to the rest of Rafah, and it would have been the first day they saw journalists.

“Look at that,” said one man who would identify himself only as Ahmad. He pointed at the fire-blackened surface of the mosque where all the windows were missing. On May 18, the first day of the Israeli army’s “Operation Rainbow,” the mosque had been hit by a missile from an Israeli Apache helicopter just before morning prayers.

“They burnt the Koran,” said Ahmad. “What for? This is a place for prayers. It is not a home for fighters.”

Throughout Tal Al Sultan, roads had been torn up and buildings were damaged or demolished. A broken water pipe had created a small flood on Nous Street, the main road that runs through the middle of Tal Al Sultan. Off on a side street, five men had gathered plastic buckets and were filling them from a hosepipe.

Water was at a premium after nearly four days without any. When “Operation Rainbow” started, Tal Al Sultan was the area the Israeli army chose to isolate from the rest of Rafah. Along with the roads and buildings, infrastructure, including water pipes, had been damaged and destroyed. For three days, until the curfew on the residents of Tal Al Sultan was lifted on May 21, and Rafah municipality workers were briefly allowed back in to reconnect the water supply and try and repair the electricity network, people had no water, electricity or phones. They were completely cut off from the world.

And the world was cut off from Tal Al Sultan. The only news came in from people’s cell phones and that news was patchy at best. Under a 24-hour curfew, residents could report only what they saw through their windows. The Israeli army released what it wanted to release, and responded mainly when the last way news could be obtained –” by counting the dead and wounded that came out of Tal Al Sultan –” made it incumbent upon them.

Two of these bodies were those of Asma and Ahmad Moghaia, 16 and 13, respectively. According to officials at Rafah’s only hospital, the Abu Yousef Al Najjar Hospital, as well as foreign reporters who saw the bodies, the children had each received a single bullet to the head. The family blamed Israeli sniper fire. Initial Israeli army statements blamed “Palestinian explosives,” though by May 23, the incident was “still under investigation,” according to an Israeli army spokesman.

"There were explosive devices detonated against our forces in the area, and we have no specific information about any of our forces mistakenly hitting the children,” he said. But, “it is too early to say anything precisely.” On May 22 there was no evidence of shrapnel from explosives on the Moghraia family’s rooftop. On the wall at the top of the stairwell leading to the roof, beside what appeared to be blood stains, were four bullet hole marks. In the corner of the step below was a pool of dried blood.

“This is where Ahmed was shot,” explained Asma and Ahmad’s brother Ali, 26, first on the roof that day. He and his father Mohammad Ali, 49, an unemployed construction worker, were both calm, almost meticulous, as they recounted the events of the day.

“Asma was collecting washing right here,” said Ali, pointing to the corner of the roof where the same clothes Asma would have been collecting still hung, blood spattered and bullet torn. On the floor below was another pool of dried blood where Ali said Asma fell.

“Ahmed was feeding the pigeons,” he continued, nodding at a pigeon cage on the other side holding some 15 birds. “He always loved feeding the pigeons.” Ali and his father both think Asma was shot first. “Ahmad heard the shot and saw his sister, and he tried to run down the stairs,” says Ali, who did most of the talking. “I heard him shout for me, but then he was shot and we didn’t hear anything else.”

Ali said when he got to the top of the stairs more shots were fired. Besides the bullet marks at the top of the stairs, there were also three bullet holes in the satellite dish to the left of the clotheslines and behind where Asma would have been standing.

Ali recounted how he pulled his brother down the stairs. His mother was screaming in the background. He placed his brother in a spare bedroom and then went up to get his sister.

“I had to crawl on my stomach to get to her, and when I got there I could see her head was spilt open in the middle. I wrapped her head in a towel, and then I carefully dragged her body across the floor. I was flat on my stomach all the way. It took almost fifteen minutes.”

The trail of blood is still there, from the corner of the roof to the stairs. “She was a good girl,” said Mohammad Ali, quietly. “She was number one in her class, she liked performing her prayers and she wanted to become a doctor. She was a good girl.”

The shooting happened at around 11:30 am.

“We knew there was a curfew on,” said Mohammad Ali. “But there was no shooting in the neighborhood, and we thought it was safe for the children to be on the roof. We didn’t know there were snipers there.”

“There” is the Abu Jalala building, a three-story white building clearly visible from the Moghraia’s rooftop. The building stands at the end of the Salahin Mosque Street, where a T-junction has been completely torn up by Israeli bulldozers.

Mohammad Abu Jalala, 21, is a business student at the Islamic University in Gaza City. At around 10 in the morning on May 18, he said, Israeli soldiers arrived and took over the building. The family of nine were ordered to stay in their flat. “They wouldn’t allow us even to go to the bathroom without taking permission.”

Shifts of two and three soldiers took turns guarding the family, according to Mohammad. The Jalala family apartment is on the first floor. They built the house during the Oslo years, in better times, but never finished the top-two floors, which are still uninhabited.

The soldiers left plenty of evidence of their stay there, including half empty cans of by now moldy corn, half a loaf of white bread, and tuna cans, all labeled only in Hebrew. One label on an unopened can of corn depicted a smiling cartoon soldier pointing at the sky.

There were also empty bullet cases. Mohammad had collected at least 20 and showed them to reporters. On the top two floors and on the stairwell between them, holes had been punched through the walls.

The roof affords an almost uninterrupted view of Tal Al Sultan and environs. On one side it looks over the hills that lead to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam to the west and the Mediterranean beyond, maybe a mile away. On the other side, the building overlooks other rooftops, including the house where the children died, about 150 meters away. At the base of a meter high concrete wall at that corner, is a watermelon-sized hole. Through it, the bullet marks at the top of the Moghaias’ stairwell were visible with the naked eye. Next to that hole, lay a box. It’s label, in Hebrew, read: “20 rounds 7.62 millimeter ammunition for snipers.”

Mohammad said they had no clear idea what the soldiers were doing, though they could hear plenty of shooting. The soldiers only spoke directly with Mohammad’s father, who had worked as a laborer in Israel and spoke some Hebrew.

“I felt they were afraid,” he said of the soldiers. “They always had their fingers on the trigger. They even escorted me to the toilet. We tried as much as we could to ignore them.”

The soldiers finally left at around two o’clock in the morning on May 19, said Mohammed. They had been in the building for nearly 15 hours. At the Moghaia house, family and neighbors were at a loss to explain the Israeli army’s actions.

“There are no fighters here,” said a neighbor, Omar Abu Libdeh, 67. “The streets are wide, so tanks can move easily. Nobody is armed here, and there was no fighting. It was revenge. They avenged their dead soldiers by attacking citizens.”

Asma and Ahmad’s father had a simpler explanation. “Israel,” he said, “is a rogue state. It’s a lawless state.” The two children had been buried a day earlier. The closure on Tal Al Sultan made it impossible for their parents and siblings to attend the funeral, but by May 21, the children had been lying in the tiny Rafah hospital morgue for three days.

Outside the morgue that Friday there was thus only a single grieving relative, a cousin, Mohammad Abu Ahmad, 34. “It’s been three days. They phoned me and asked me to arrange the funeral,” Ahmad said simply, before he got into the ambulance that was taking Asma’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, to the mosque for prayers.

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