On Saturday a 12-year-old Palestinian boy went out to look at used cars and within hours had become a potent symbol of one of the world's most bitter and enduring conflicts. But was he the victim of stray gunfire? Or was he targeted by Israeli soldiers? Suzanne Goldenberg searches for the truth behind the pictures that rocked the world
Listen to Suzanne Goldenberg reporting on attitudes to the death of Rami al-Dirreh:
Special report: Israel and the Middle East
Tuesday October 3, 2000
A circle of 15 bullet holes on a cinder block wall, and a smear of darkening blood. That is what marks the spot where a terrified 12-year-old boy spent his final moments, cowering in his father's arms, before he was hit by a final shot to the stomach, and slumped over, dead.
Those last minutes in the life of Mohammed al-Durrah, captured in sickening detail by a Palestinian cameraman working for French TV, have taken on a power of their own. His death, aired around the world on Saturday night, has become the single searing image of these days of bloody rioting.
The pictures of Mohammed's death seemed not just to encapsulate the horror of these last five days but also to have become its motor. Outside the al-Durrah home in a sandy lane of the Bourij refugee camp, children his age and even younger are fighting over photocopied strips of the final eight frames in the boy's life. Here, the version of his death includes images too disturbing for most broadcasters: the loosening of a dying boy's grip on his father, Jamal, and his father's convulsive twitch when he was struck by more rounds.
Though more Palestinians have been killed since Mohammed's death - including a two-year-old yesterday - it is his image that haunts Israel. For all of the claims of the prime minister, Ehud Barak, and other officials that their soldiers only fire to protect Israeli lives, Mohammed's death seems an irrefutable reply.
The images of al-Dirreh and his son cowering, vainly, behind a barrel would have been emotive enough if, as first reports suggested, they were caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police or protesters. But by the end of the weekend the evidence was pointing to a still more chilling conclusion: that the 12-year-old boy and his father were deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers.
For Israelis, the camera footage of Mohammed's death makes exceedingly uncomfortable viewing. Which might explain why - for all the furore his death has caused worldwide - it has caused barely a ripple here. The English-language edition of the Ha'aretz newspaper, the most liberal of Israel's press, confined its reporting to 21 lines on the front page, focused on an Israeli army investigation into the killing. For those who have been tracking the pattern of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the location of Mohammed's death could almost have been predicted.
Over the years, Netzarim junction, where Mohammed was killed, has been a regular point of confrontation between Israeli troops, and Palestinian youths. The source of the friction on an otherwise unremarkable junction on Gaza's main coastal road is an Israeli army post, a hunkering fortress of armoured steel and concrete with watchtowers on each of its four corners. The post, on the north-west corner of the junction, is the frontline defence for the Jewish settlement of Netzarim to the west. So contentious is the Jewish settlement that its occupants - a mere 60 families - are under strict orders to travel only by military convoys.
For Palestinians, the heavily guarded Netzarim settlement is a symbol of their continued occupation, seven years after the start of the peace process. So, by extension, is the post at Netzarim junction, which any Palestinians from Bourij or the other refugee camps to the south have to negotiate, if they want to visit Gaza City.
"When the people of Palestine are crying out against Israel, they find this place to throw stones. It is a target for all the anger against the people sitting in their belly and in their bedroom," says Brigadier General Osama al-Ali.
He was speaking from the other installation that played a crucial part in Mohammed's death. As well as the Israeli position, the junction also houses a small command post of Palestinian security forces who, under interim peace arrangements, are mandated to jointly patrol the area with Israeli troops.
The post, a small hut really, lies diagonally across the junction from the Israeli position, at a distance of perhaps 100 yards.
This was the stage on which the al-Durrahs blundered, father and son, on Saturday morning. Although Mohammed's uncles feel obliged to describe him as a studious boy, his mother and his six surviving siblings recall a playful child who wanted always to be where the action was. His mother, Amal, says he had wanderlust and would often run off to the beach or, when there were protests, to watch the older boys throw rocks.
On Friday night, in his home in the Bourij refugee camp, Mohammed was watching the rioting on television. "When he saw what happened in Jerusalem on TV, he asked me: 'Can I go to join the protests in Netzarim?' I did not dare to answer him. I did not want him to go," she says.
Which is why on that fateful morning, Jamal al-Dirreh says he took steps to steer his son away from trouble. The two set off for the used car auction in Gaza City. Mohammed was excited at the outing. They started for home by taxi, but, with the trouble already starting, the driver refused to cross Netzarim. Jamal and Mohammed tried to cross the junction on foot; it was a fatal mistake.
Caught in a burst of firing, the pair sought shelter behind a concrete water butt, about 15 yards to the east of the Palestinian post, diagonally opposite the Israeli position. The father gestured frantically towards the Israelis, as if pleading with them to stop firing. They did not.
"They were cleaning the area. Of course they saw the father," says Talal Abu-Rama, the camera man who watched the horror unfold. "They were aiming at the boy, and that is what surprised me, yes, because they were shooting at him, not only one time, but many times."
The result of that salvo is visible on the cinderblock wall. Aside from the circle of bullet holes - most of them below waist level - the expanse of wall is largely unscarred. This appeared to suggest that the Israeli fire was targeted at the father and son.
The impression is reinforced by other Palestinians at the scene, including a volunteer in the ambulance which tried to get the pair out. "There was still some breath left in him when we reached the ambulance, but when we opened the doors, they started shooting again," says Bassam al-Bilbays, who was riding with the ambulance. The driver was shot dead.
Inevitably, the Israeli army version of Mohammed's death is rather different. Although the army expressed regret about the boy's death, it said the soldiers in their armoured post had been under fire. "I am sorry for this kid. But we are sure that this kid and his father were not there by accident. They were there like the others throwing stones, and throwing Molotovs [petrol bombs]," Major-General Yom Tov Samia told Israeli radio.
But in an interview with Israeli television, General Samia suggested the boy had not been killed by Israelis at all, but by Palestinian police, or rioters: "I have no doubt that the gunfire, as it appears in the television close-up, was not from Israeli soldiers."
That explanation is also difficult to sustain. During the fury of these clashes, Palestinian forces have turned their guns on Israeli troops - rather than try to contain their own people. The Palestinian General al-Ali admits his men did open fire at the Israelis. However, he claims that his men did not try to exact revenge until much later on that bloody afternoon.
"We saw our kids dying and we could not help them," he said. "Of course, some people went mad later in the afternoon, when they saw what happened."
Palestinians at the scene - including the cameraman - also cast doubt on the Israeli claim that father and son were caught in the crossfire between the two security forces. "At the beginning of the clash, there was some shooting from the same area, but after five minutes they [the Palestinians] ran away from there. Nobody was shooting from the base," says Abu Rameh. He says he heard fire from only one direction - the Israeli camp.
Abu Rameh also believes it unlikely that the Israeli fire could have been directed further down the road from the water butt where the al-Durrahs sought shelter. "In that whole area, there was nobody except me, the boy and his father," the camera man says.
Whatever the truth about the circumstances surrounding his death, Mohammed's terrified face has now entered the grim gallery of images that have come to symbolise - and often to powerfully influence - a conflict. That is of little comfort to his mother, Amal al-Durrah. She keeps imagining he will walk in the door to check on the love birds in their pink cage.
"Nothing good will come of this. We will have many more martyrs, and nothing will change."