Dead Children

Dead children, that’s what it comes down to in the end.

When people ask me about living in Jerusalem and covering the second Palestinian Intifada for The Independent in 2002-4, one memory always comes back. A hospital mortuary in Gaza. The staff opened up the refrigerators where they kept the bodies. And in refrigerator after refrigerator, there were dead children.

That memory came back again today, when I heard the news that an Israeli air strike had killed the head of Hamas’ military wing as he drove through Gaza City. Because those children, ten years ago, had all been killed in another Israeli air strike — one which assassinated the man who was head of Hamas’ military wing back then, Sheikh Salah Shahada.

Ten years ago, there were the same calls for retaliation from Palestinians. “Are you ready for revenge?” a man asked the crowd of mourners in 2002. “”We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight,” the crowds were chanting yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

There were the same words from Israel, too. In 2002, Ariel Sharon said the killing was “one of our biggest successes” because it “hit perhaps the most senior Hamas figure on the operational side”. It was an unavoidable step to Israelis from suicide bombers, government spokesmen said.

And in 2012, the Shin Bet security agency said the assassinated man, Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, “was responsible for financing and directing military operations and attacks against Israel. His elimination today is a message to Hamas officials in Gaza that if they continue promoting terrorism against Israel, they will be hurt.”

In 2002 there were dead children. Today there were reports of a badly burned young child being taken to hospital. And in both cases, from the political leadership on both sides, there wasn’t a word about them.

Nothing’s changed.

A week after the air strike in 2002, there was a revenge bombing by Hamas at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem which killed nine people. I remember it well. I was ill at the time but I got up from my bed and drove over to the Hebrew University campus, where they were picking up the pieces of the bodies.

And there were the same warnings yesterday. “”Israel will regret the moment they even thought of doing this,” a Hamas spokesman said.

The two sides even exchanged threats on Twitter, sounding like teenagers trying to act tough at school.

“We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” tweeted the Israeli army.

“Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)” Hamas tweeted back.

Ten years on, the two sides are going through the same old routine. And still, no one talks about the children.

But the memory that comes back to me is that mortuary in Gaza. There was a baby, with his eyes screwed up and the back of his head missing where it had been blown off. There was a four-and-a-half-year-old boy called Mohammed al-Hwiti in a bright blue top that had “My friend” written across it in English, who looked as if he was sleeping. And in the refrigerator just below him was his brother Subhi, who was three and a half.

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