Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 25 October 2004


A 13 year old Palestinian girl, walking past her school, was shot 17 times by Israeli soldiers when she strayed into a “forbidden zone.”   Just one incident in the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  But a story that shows up the horror of war.

There are so many images these days of bombs and missile strikes, especially in the Middle East, that it is too easy sometimes to forget how war affects the lives (and deaths) of individuals.

Last week, however, I read an article that brought out in full the horror of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.

It was about a single incident in the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza that took place a fortnight ago.

On that fateful morning, a 13 year old Palestinian schoolgirl, Iman al-Hams, left her home in the neighbourhood of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah, just before 7 o’clock and took a short walk to her school.

The walk to school is something done by so many millions of children around the world, every day.   So common is it, and so close to each of our homes, that all of us can identify with it, and with that young Palestinian girl.

That walk to school is taken too by the many thousands of Palestinian children.  Even as their homes and neighbourhoods are caught up in the cycle of violence as Israel grimly keeps its grip of power in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the Palestinians resist the continuing occupation.

But that day was to be different for Iman.   Her school is located near the heavily guarded border with Egypt.  In that area is a watchtower which serves as an Israeli gunpost.  

And the area around the watchtower is a “forbidden zone” which Palestinians are not allowed to enter and those who do risk being shot.

With her schoolbag over her shoulder, Iman walked past her school and crossed the road.  She then climbed down a sandy bank to an area that had once been an olive and citrus orchard. 

In April, the Israeli army’s bulldozers had destroyed the orchard.  Now it had become part of the “forbidden zone”.

For some reason, the young girl entered the zone and was walking towards the tower.   But she was still many hundred metres away from that tower.

Suddenly, two shots rang out.  The bullets hit her in the leg.  Iman dropped her school bag.   She turned round, tried to walk away, but she was too wounded to do so, and fell on the ground.

“Four or five soldiers emerged from the army post and shot at her from a distance,”  wrote Chris McGreal, reporting from the scene of the incident at Rafah.  His dramatic article was published in the London daily The Guardian on 21 October.

“Palestinian witnesses and some Israeli soldiers say that the platoon commander moved in closer to put two bullets in the child’s head.  They say that he then walked away, turned back and fired a stream of bullets into her body.”

Iman died from horrible wounds. At the Rafah hospital, her corpse was inspected by Dr. Mohammed al-Hams, who found at least 17 bullets in many parts of the body, in the chest, hands, arms and legs.

Said the doctor:  “The bullets were large and shot from a close distance.  The most serious injuries were to her head.  One bullet was shot from the right side of the face beside the ear.  It had a big impact on the whole face.  Another bullet went from the neck to the face and damaged the area under the mouth.”   Iman was already dead when some of bullets hit her.

The eyewitness accounts were wrenchingly sad to read.

Said Fuad Zourob, a worker at a brick factory overlooking the area where Iman was shot:  “The girl was walking in the sand.  She was shot from the army post.  She was hit in the leg and she was crawling.

“Then she stood up and started to try and run and then she fell.  The shooting went on.  The soldiers arrived by foot.  One came close to the girl and started to shoot.  He walked away, turned back and then shot her some more.”  

Another witness was Yousef Breaka who was on the balcony of his second floor flat.   “The first shot came from the army post,” he recalled.  “It hit her in the leg.

“She was starting to walk on and then fell.  She dropped her bag.  They were firing, heavy shooting.  I am sure she died before the two soldiers came and shot her bag and then her.”

Said another witness, Basim Breaka:  “For sure she died on the second or third bullet.  I could see her lying on the ground, not moving.  I can’t imagine why that soldier wanted to shoot her after she was dead.”

The behaviour of the army commander was so outrageous that his own soldiers spoke up against him to a local newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, which reported that a soldier on seeing that his commander was about to shoot, shouted:  “Don’t shoot, it’s a little girl.”      

A soldier told the newspaper:  “The company commander approached her, shot two bullets into her, walked back towards the force, turned back to her, switched his weapon to automatic and emptied his entire magazine into her. We couldn’t believe what he was doing.  Our hearts ached for her.  She was only 13.”

Despite the accounts of what happened from so many eyewitnesses and the accusation of his own soldiers, the unit’s commander was cleared last week by an army investigation.  

The officer responsible for the Gaza Strip pronounced the commander had not acted unethically in Iman’s shooting.  He was suspended only for losing his soldiers’ confidence.

Why did Iman walk into the forbidden zone?  No one knows.  Her father, Samir al-Hams, a primary school teacher, said:  “I can’t explain why she was there.  I’ve asked everyone and no one can explain it.  Perhaps she just wanted to walk on the sand. Perhaps she was confused.  I don’t know.”

That morning, the headmistress of Iman’s school called Samir to ask why his daughter had not turned up.  He ran to the school and was told by teachers the army had shot a small girl, but that she was fine.  “But then they declared her dead.  That was the worst moment of my life.”

The army initially said the soldiers suspected the girl was carrying a bomb in her schoolbag.  But witnesses said Iman  was hundreds of meters away from the watchtower and after she was shot in the leg she dropped her bag.  The soldiers shot at the bag and established it was not a bomb.  But they went on to shoot and kill the girl.

The witnesses said it was clear Iman was helpless, after she was initially wounded, and at no time did she pose a threat to the soldiers.

The story of Iman is perhaps just one tale in the continuing saga of the larger Palestinian tragedy.  A schoolgirl, in the first bloom of her teenage years, just walking past her school that morning, for some reason going on to the sand of a piece of land that just months ago had been a fruit orchard, and now converted to a “forbidden zone.”

Who knows why she decided to wander onto that piece of land.  Did she not remember that it was a forbidden and dangerous area? 

Did she merely decide to take a little walk just before going to school, to clear her mind from studies or think through a personal problem, as teenagers all over the world so often do?

Why did the soldiers shoot, and then shoot again and again, at least seventeen times, as the girl tried painfully to crawl away, and after she had already died?

It is perhaps too simplistic to say that this incident is a microcosm of all that is wrong and tragic about the Isralei-Palestinian conflict.

But Iman’s life and death is at least the story of one young girl’s tragedy in the midst of occupation and war, and that of her grieving family.

There are many other stories like this, that bring home the message to the world, that war is full of horror, tragedy and injustice, and that innocent children are too often the victims.