By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A10
RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza, May 24 -- On the same day that Israeli tank fire killed eight Palestinian protesters in an incident that dominated international broadcasts and headlines last week, another young Palestinian died a private, quiet death just a few hundred yards away.
Thirteen-year-old Saber Abu Libdeh was killed by an Israeli sniper last Wednesday while trying to fetch drinking water for his family in the sealed-off neighborhood of Tel Sultan, his parents and siblings said. There were no headlines and no news stories. Even some of his relatives and neighbors, locked in their houses under military curfew, didn't know what had happened to him until days later, they said.
As Israeli tanks, armored bulldozers and soldiers began pulling out of Rafah Monday morning and military officials said they had suspended a seven-day offensive, the Abu Libdeh family emerged from seven days of fear to bury their son and tell the story of his death. It was a story that in many ways captured the suffering felt by about 25,000 Palestinians in a residential area transformed into a fighting field.
About 10,000 Palestinians attended a mass funeral for Saber Abu Libdeh and 15 other Tel Sultan residents on Monday, just hours after the army withdrew. But before the ceremony, dozens of distraught relatives and neighbors crammed into the front room of the boy's house in a ritual of grief, kissing his face and hugging his tightly wrapped body. His sister Asma fainted.
"See his blood? See my son's blood?" said the father, pointing at the wall. "He was 13 years old!"
At least 42 Palestinians were killed in the weeklong offensive here that Israeli military officials called Operation Rainbow. The officials said the offensive had targeted Palestinian guerrillas and uncovered three tunnels used for smuggling weapons and ammunition across the nearby border with Egypt. Palestinian officials said more than a thousand people have been rendered homeless by Israeli demolitions, and many more have fled attacks on residential neighborhoods.
The army came to Saber's neighborhood of concrete houses, narrow alleyways and wide streets before dawn last Tuesday morning, Saber's mother recalled. An Apache helicopter gunship fired missiles at men coming out of the Bilal mosque directly across from the house, killing several people, according to the mother, Hanim, and other relatives.
The crash of the missiles shattered the family's sleep, they recalled. Shrapnel rained against the front of the house and blew out their windows. The extended family of 16 stared through the broken glass at two corpses lying outside the mosque, where they remained for several hours because no one dared go outside as the Apaches flew overhead.
Saber, the youngest of seven, was doted on by his brothers and sisters and adored by his young nieces and nephews, family members recalled. He was afraid of the violence, his brothers said.
At around 7 a.m. that day, the Israeli army announced a curfew by loudspeaker. The Abu Libdeh family gathered in the back room of the house, the family members recalled.
Jeeps and tanks began circling the area, and it seemed to the Abu Libdehs that each issued a different announcement, once in Hebrew, once in Arabic. One called on members of the Palestinian Authority police forces to come into the street with their weapons above their heads, while another demanded that all males above 16 years old turn themselves in, family members and neighbors said.
By afternoon, the Abu Libdehs noticed that the tap water in their apartment had a foul smell. The special claw attached to Israeli tanks to detect planted bombs had apparently also dug up sewage and water lines, causing them to mix. No one in the area had electricity, telephone or drinking water, residents said. The family did have a few cell phones among them, with batteries that would not last long, and a few bottles of drinking water.
On Tuesday evening, the Abu Libdehs recalled, they ran out of water. They began feeding the children tomatoes to quench their thirst.
On Wednesday afternoon, Saber and his 16-year-old brother, Yousef, decided to cross the narrow alley to their older brother's house, where water was stored in tanks, to fill soda bottles with drinking water.
Yousef recalled that they listened for danger. They heard no rumblings of tanks or humming of Apache helicopters, he said. Their older brother Ayub, 26, who had been married the previous week, promised he would wait in the doorway and watch them the whole time, Yousef added. The two boys opened the door.
The first bullet hit Yousef in the stomach, and the second hit Saber in the chest, Yousef recalled. The boys dropped the bottles. Ayub reached out to help them, but Yousef was shot twice more, and Ayub was shot in the hand, according to Yousef and hospital medical records. An Israeli army spokesman later said that Israeli troops were "likely responsible" for the death.
Saber fell into the house and into his mother's arms, bleeding from his nose and mouth, his mother and Yousef recalled. The bullet had struck his heart, hospital records showed.
"He said, 'I'm dying,' " said his mother. "But I didn't believe it."
A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance passing through the area after coordinating with the Israeli army got the call. Fathi Dirbi, a 30-year-old emergency medical technician, said Saber was in a coma when he arrived. Yousef and Ayub were conscious. "I told the brothers that we'll try to get him there in time," Dirbi recalled of the race to the hospital.
The evacuation was filled with delays, he said. A tank held up the ambulance's departure for 15 minutes while a soldier inside gave instructions from a loudspeaker for Dirbi to open the back door so that a camera affixed to the tank could examine its contents. The ambulance had to stop again at a second tank, and after five minutes Dirbi said he became impatient and walked up to the tank driver and yelled that he had to leave.
It was too late.
"When I got to the hospital, they told me to take Saber to the morgue," Dirbi said.
Back at the Abu Libdeh home, family members recalled, neighbors threw batteries through the window so they could listen to the radio. Radio Shabab, a Gaza station, announced that Saber had died. Ayub's and Yousef's names weren't mentioned, so their mother said she hoped her other boys had lived.
Wednesday night brought a constant chorus of gunfire, family members recalled, and they clung together, weeping, terrified and wide awake. They lost track of days and nights. On Thursday, said the mother, men were again ordered to leave their houses and report for search and interrogation. News spread quickly through open windows.
Finally, on Saturday, the Israelis pulled back to Tel Sultan's outskirts, allowing the Abu Libdehs and their neighbors to leave their homes to collect food and water. The next day, about 30 women, including Saber's mother, left Tel Sultan to visit the hospital, the family recalled, walking past the tanks with white flags in their hands. The mother, Hanim, 56, said she did not tell her wounded son Yousef that his brother was dead.
Yousef was interviewed at the General Hospital of Gaza, known as the European Hospital, in nearby Khan Younis, where he is being treated. He was transferred there awaiting another transfer to a hospital in Jordan for specialized surgery to remove shrapnel from his liver, said Ibrahim Hamad, the hospital's general supervisor. The Israelis have not yet approved the transfer, Hamad said.
On Monday morning, Saber lay in state at the house for just a few minutes, then was removed for the funeral. "Congratulations on your son's martyrdom," women said as they filed in to greet Hanim.
When she broke down and wept, the women tried to bolster her with assurances that Saber would be in heaven because he was a martyr. But she was not consoled.
"I feel my soul left with him when he left," said his mother. "He is the youngest of all the children and the closest to me."