Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rotting in the "Buffer Zone" or "The Shalom of Israel"

Ahmed Abu Hashish, a Bedouin teenager of 18 years from a rural community in the northern Gaza Strip had been missing for 54 days.

A shepherd then noticed a murder of crows on a patch of land from which there was also a foul stench emanating, but he could not approach close enough to investigate. This patch of land is in what Israel calls the “buffer zone”. A strip of land within “The Strip” which abuts the border with Israel, and in which the Israeli military enforce a no-go decree by shooting, from positions on their side of the border, at anyone who breaks it. It feels like a no-mans land, typically empty of people - or at least the living.

Of course most Gazans now choose not to go there. Others go out of necessity, desperation, or a resolve not to be forced off their land. Usually they survive. The soldiers don’t always shoot with the firm intent to kill. Often the shooting‘s just very, very close - enough to terrify. Enough to make one believe that the intention of the shots are to kill, and that the next one might. And the fact is that the next one might.

Ahmed’s father, Abu Ayesh, knew that this patch of land was most likely where his son now lay, slowly decomposing in the hot summer heat. No “official” organisations could or would help him search for his son’s body in this area - even the International Committee of the Red Cross who might normally coordinate with the Israeli Military in matters such as this had refused. He then requested assistance from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, and from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).

On Sunday 14th June, members of Ahmed’s family including his father, and volunteers from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative and the ISM ventured “out” into the “buffer zone“. As we arranged ourselves into a line to sweep along, and scour the land for a corpse, we could see Israeli jeeps and hummers congregating just across the border fence next to us. N from the ISM communicated with the soldiers over a megaphone, informing them of our purpose, and of our status as civilians. Many of our number were high visibility vests, drawing attention to the fact that we were a group of civilians.

Within minutes of starting our search however, the first shots rang out.

This land over which we were treading was rough, and speckled with thorn bushes. Maintaining our line, and ensuring that we didn’t pass some spot of ground unnoticed proved to be very challenging in these conditions - navigating our way through the the scrub, scanning the ground around us for a corpse, and instinctively attempting to avoid the bullets that split the air with an audible hiss.

We pressed on, and the gunfire waxed and waned - sometimes from assault rifles, sometimes from a machine gun, and punctuated with the odd explosion. Soldiers were visible on top of their jeeps, and on foot right up against the fence. N continued to communicate with them, requesting that they stop shooting at us.

Suddenly we spotted Ahmed’s body. As two of the Bedouins approached and began crouching down to examine it, more shots suddenly rang out which were obviously directed at them. They dived for cover away from the body. More of our group converged on the spot where the body was. We began wrapping it in a sheet, to carry it off the field. The stench of decay was nauseating, and a quick glance at the state of the corpse after lying there open to the elements for 54 days, was enough to induce an urge to retch.

As we rushed to take Ahmed’s body away, the shooting only intensified. We were all heading away from the fence. We’d told the soldiers over the megaphone, that we’d found the body and that we were going. Ahmed’s father hurriedly and in anguish attempted to catch up with the bearers of his son’s corpse, wailing and lamenting his loss as he did so. Still the bullets whistled past our heads, or into the ground behind us.

It struck me, when we finally got out of range of the soldiers’ guns, that our presence in that area that day must not have come as any surprise to them. It was most likely them who had shot Ahmed in cold blood some 54 days previously. They would have known where his body lay. The Israeli military never informed anyone of this. They did not pass on news of Ahmed’s murder to his family. Instead, they waited for almost two months, knowing that at some point and despite the danger, a search party might come looking for the corpse.

Was it necessary to shoot at a group of civilians on a humanitarian mission? Was it necessary to continue shooting at us as they left? Was it necessary for their bullets to force a grieving father to face his own mortality in the very moment he was compelled to recognise that of his son.