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The living martyr, a visit to the Bakr family in Gaza

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Last week, the Israeli military absolved itself of wrongdoing in the killing of the four Bakr boys during the war on Gaza last summer. Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner posted a narrative on his Facebook page that was full of holes, which Guardian correspondent and witness to the massacre Peter Beaumont expertly picked apart. Paul Mason, who arrived to the scene of the massacre ten days later, weighed in too, which Peter Lerner responded to.

I recently visited the Bakr family in their home in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. Sharifa Mustafa Bakr, 48, is the mother of 9-year-old Zachariah and grandmother of Ahed, two of the four boys killed.  “Zachariah was my favorite because he was the youngest one,” she said pointing to the poster above her that commemorates his brief life. “He was the sweetest – so innocent and playful,” she told me as tears began to stream down her cheeks.

Sharifa Bakr suffers from heart problems and had just returned from the hospital on that fateful day. “Zachariah asked for a shekel to use the internet, and I promised I would give it to him when he returned,” she said. That was the last time Sharifa Bakr would see her beloved grandson. “When he left, I felt that my soul went with him,” she stammered as she collapsed into tears.

After lying down to watch the news, Sharifa Bakr read on the ticker that four children had been killed on the nearby beach. She knew that the children typically play soccer on the beach because the refugee camp has no parks or open spaces. Upon seeing the news, she ran to Al-Shifa hospital where she encountered a friend who informed her that the dead children were in fact from the Bakr family.

12-year-old Muntasir Bakr was one of the four boys who narrowly survived the airstrikes.

“We call him the living martyr,” Sharifa Bakr told me.

Muntasir was hit with shrapnel which still remains in his head and causes him headaches. He has severe trauma that remains undiagnosed and untreated, and has violent episodes which have caused him to attempt suicide and attack his siblings. I sat with Muntasir in his family’s home. He was polite and good-natured but the trauma from last summer was visible on his young face and audible in his voice. He spoke like a man who had lived many lifetimes – not like a child nearing his teenage years.

“Everyday someone dies. I went to play at the beach yesterday and I couldn’t because I was overwhelmed with fear. It’s a life full of sadness,” he said. “Netanyahu destroyed life.”

Unbeknownst to me, his father had told him to recount the massacre on the beach. “We barely started playing when the first missile exploded right next to my cousin Ismael,” he said. “We started running away and then I told them ‘lets go back and get Ismael then we’ll run away again.’ When we did that another missile exploded right next to us. My brother and my nephew died because they let go of my hand. Two missiles exploded around me. It was foggy when we were running, I turned around and saw my nephew and brother lying on the ground.”

“Before the war, I wanted to be a fisherman like my father,” Muntasir told me. “Now I want to be a fighter so that I can avenge my brother, my nephew and my cousins. Imagine if you were a child and a missile exploded right beside you. What would you do?”

Muntasir became despondent and silent as he looked down. His father, 55-year-old Subhei Fares Bakr, told me Muntasir had not slept in 24 hours. He attempted to medicate his son but Muntasir was not responsive and the pill fell out of his mouth. Subhei Bakr called a cousin over to help put the pill down his throat, but Muntasir began shaking violently. His cousin restrained him from injuring himself, and finally Muntasir passed out. His cousin lifted Muntasir’s limp body into his arms and ran down the stairs and outside into Shati camp’s dusty alleyways. I ran closely behind as they hailed a taxi. We crammed inside and the car sped through the streets of Gaza City. “Get out of the way,” another cousin in the front seat screamed at traffic.

We arrived at a barebones medical facility where Muntasir was laid down on an examination table. A doctor administered smelling salts, immediately waking Muntasir. Still dazed, his cousin helped him walk to a sink where he washed his face. Muntasir was weak and his cousin once again carried him out.

“There’s no medicine or treatment for him here. We have to get him out of Gaza,” Muntasir’s cousin told me as he carried him away. We hailed another taxi and headed back to the Bakr’s home in Shati camp.

“This time wasn’t as bad as it usually is,” Subhei Bakr told me.

Every aspect of the Bakr family’s lives have been consumed by Israeli violence. They are refugees expelled to Gaza in the Nakba and have lived in the confines of Shati refugee camp for generations. Living displaced, the family flourished into proud fishermen, but Israel’s naval blockade has crushed Gaza’s fishing industry, rendering the clan impoverished and forced to pass the days sitting in the camp’s dusty streets. Eight other Bakr family members attempted to flee on boats but died in the sea in which they used to fish.

If that wasn’t enough, the wanton violence of “Operation Protective Edge” condemned Ismail, Zachariah, Ahed and Mohammed Bakr to death. As predictable as it is disturbing, the Israeli military has brazenly absolved itself of responsibility, calling the bombing ”tragic.”

But are we to believe that given Israel’s world-class military technology equipped with high-resolution cameras, that they were unable to differentiate between armed men and small children playing soccer? Especially considering that Israel killed at least 536 more Palestinian children last summer – none of whose deaths received the lip service of being called tragic. It is only fitting that Ayelet Shaked, who demanded genocide last summer when she posted a text calling Palestinian children “little snakes,” is Israel’s newest Minister of Justice. All of this is in the greater context of Palestinian children being demonized as various versions of a “demographic threat” (New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren’s most recent euphemism is “demographic death warrant.”)

While we may never know why exactly Israel decided to bomb the Bakr children as they played soccer last July, it is abundantly clear that neither the Israeli government nor its supporters have any genuine sympathy for Ahed, Zachariah, Ismail, Mohammed, or the four survivors. If Peter Lerner or any Israeli official who shed a crocodile tear did, at a bare minimum, they would allow Muntasir Bakr to receive the treatment he so desperately needs. Sadly, Muntasir’s brutal honesty was likely accurate when he told me, “There will never be peace with the Israelis.”

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Dan Cohen,

Thank you for this article about the Bakr family. Those photos behind her of the two beautiful little boys Ahmed and Zachriah are heartbreaking.

Words cannot express the loss and devastation that show on the mother and grandmother’s face … a broken woman .

How can Peace ever emerge from so much devastation, Injustice and perfidy.

Montasir most probably has serious seizures from his brain injury – but Gaza under blockage has either no (or an exceptionally limited supply of) anticonvulsant medications. The generic forms of these drugs are inexpensive and pose no “security” threat to Israel. So, why incorporate these into the blockade of various foodstuffs and medications? Or fail to permit international specialists such as pediatric neurologists, surgeons, physiatrists to provide much needed services to seriously injured children in… Read more »

while it was absolutely a tragedy that the Bakr children were killed it should be noted that the chain of anger and retribution continues and it likely would not be any different even if the Palestinians did believe the Israeli report that the attack was an accident. This loss for these Palestinian children can only be answered by violent resistance.The author makes no comment on the boys funeral posters there are prominently displayed the symbols… Read more »

Thanks article good bless the family Bakr

Forgiveness has its place if and when the perpetrator repents, changes course, and seeks to make amends. But if the perpetrator is unrepentant then the quest for revenge is a healthier reaction. The trouble is that it is easier to take revenge not against the perpetrator but against other members of a group with which the perpetrator is associated. For that reason it is important to gather and disseminate information about individual perpetrators and the… Read more »