“When the martyrs go to sleep I wake up to guard them against professional mourners,” is the opening verse of Mahmoud Darwish’s most profound poem When the Martyrs Go to Sleep.
“I say to them: I hope you wake in a country with clouds and trees, mirage and water; I congratulate them on their safety from the incredible event; from the surplus-value of the slaughter.” But what if the martyrs never go to sleep, what if the ‘incredible event’ never ceases to recreate itself, and ‘slaughter’ never stops?
As the frail body of 12-year-old Nasser Al Mosabah fell to the ground on Friday, September 28, history was repeating itself in Gaza. Nasser was not just another number, a ‘martyr’ to be exalted by equally poor refugees in the besieged Strip, or vilified by Israel and its tireless hasbara machine.
The stream of blood that poured out from his head wound on that terrible afternoon harkened back to 18 years earlier, to the killing of Mohammad Al Durrah, also 12, on September 30, 2000, by the Israeli army.
Between these dates, hundreds of Palestinian children have perished in similar ways.
Human rights groups’ reports are never short on distressing details: 954 Palestinian children were killed between the Second Intifada in 2000 and Israel’s war on Gaza, the so-called Operation Cast Lead in 2008. In the latter war alone, 345 child were reportedly killed, in addition to another 367 child fatalities reported in Israel’s latest war, ‘Protective Edge’, of 2014.
But Mohammad and Nasser have more in common than simply being the ill-fated victims of trigger-happy Israeli soldiers.
In that single line of blood that links Nasser Al Mosabah and Mohammad Al Durrah, there is a narrative so compelling, yet often neglected. The two 12-year-old boys looked so much alike — kind, small, handsome, dark skinned refugees, whose families were driven from villages that were destroyed in 1948 to make room for today’s Israel.
Mohammad died while crouching beside his father, Jamal, as he beseeched the Israelis to stop shooting. 18 years later, Nasser walked with thousands of his peers to the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel, stared at the face of the snipers and chanted for a free Palestine.
Between the two deaths, the entire history of Palestine can be written, not only of victimisation and violence, but also of steadfastness and honour, passed from one generation to the next.
“Who will carry on with the dream,” were the words Nasser’s mother repeated, as she held a photograph of her son and wept. In the photo, Nasser is seen carrying his school bag, and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol near the ‘fence’.
“The dream” is a reference to the fact that Nasser wanted to be a doctor, hence, his enthusiasm to help his two sisters, Dua’a and Islam, two medical volunteers at the fence. His job was to carry the oxygen masks, as his sisters rushed to help the wounded, many of them of Nasser’s age or younger.
In a recent video message, the young boy — who had just celebrated the achievement of memorising the entire Holy Quran — demonstrated in impeccable classical Arabic why a smile can be considered an act of charity.
Protesting the Israeli siege and the injustice of life in Gaza was a family affair, and Nasser played his role. His innovation of taping raw onions to his own face to counter the tears induced by the Israeli army tear gas garnered much recognition for him among the protesters who have been rallying against the siege since March 30.
Nearly 200 unarmed protesters have been killed while demanding an end to the 11-year long blockade and also to call for the ‘Right of Return’ for Palestinian refugees. Nasser was the 34th child to be killed in cold blood since the protests commenced, and is not likely be the last to die.
When Mohammad Al Durrah was killed 18 years ago, the images of his father trying to shield his son’s body from Israeli bullets with his bare hands, left millions around the world speechless. The video which was aired by France 2, left many with a sense of helplessness, but also hopeful that the publicity that Mohammad’s televised murder received could possibly shame Israel into ending its policy of targeting children.
Alas, that was never the case. After initially taking responsibility for killing Mohammad, a bogus Israeli army investigation concluded that the killing of Mohammad was a hoax, that Palestinians were to blame, that the France 2 journalist who shot the video was part of a conspiracy to ‘delegitimise Israel’.
Speaking about her son many years after his death, Mohammad’s mother described a boy who “liked helping people.”
“He was very active and liked to play. He had so much energy, bless him, and mischief. He’d be running around from the moment he woke up,” she said.
Too many Gaza boys fit that exact description; thousands of them have been killed and wounded in various Israeli onslaughts. In July, the Israeli army claimed that Palestinian children deliberately “lure IDF troops”, by staging fake riots, thus forcing them into violent confrontations.
It is that same ominous discourse that resulted in the call for genocide by none other than Israel’s Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, who called on the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.”
The killing of Nasser and Mohammad should not then be viewed in the context of military operations gone awry, but rather in the inhumane official and media discourses that do not differentiate between a resistance fighter carrying a gun or a child carrying an onion and an oxygen mask.
Nor should we forget that Nasser and Mohammad are chapters in the same book with an overlapping narrative that makes their story, although 18 years apart, one and the same.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies, UCSB.