The summer sun warms the Jabalya refugee camp filling the Okal family home with the scent of herbs and musky earth. Thou rickety and cramped the house brims with love and laughter. Asma Okal (33), mother of seven reclines in a corner. At her breast, eight month old Shahed nurses, her quiet suckling emanating from beneath a blanket, barely audible over Asma’s soft voice singing and soothing her baby toward sleep.
Before her, two daughters play. Somiaa (14) and Maria (8), full of the boundless exuberant energy scramble over the teetering boards suspended from the ceiling. Several months ago her husband Samir Okal slung ropes over the rafters, stringing two boards off the ground, creating seesaws for his children’s makeshift play yard within the relative safety of his family’s home.
For the children of Gaza and the West Bank, outside play exposes the young to the ravaging of settler’s bullets and the indiscriminate firing from Israeli tanks, helicopters and planes. Playing inside and out of sight, remains safer. Thousands of homes in Gaza boast indoor playgrounds as well.
Chasing each other around the room, the girls settle to opposite sides of a seesaw; straddling the boards, hands clutch each side as small feet bounce off the ground.
“Higher! Higher,” giggles Maria. “Push me higher, Somiaa!”
With determination, Somiaa falls toward the ground, bracing her legs beneath. A moment’s pause and her legs spring, catapulting her toward the ceiling. Maria on the opposite end, descends quickly, laughing her approval.
“More Samiaa! More!”
Chuckling as the girls play, Asma examines the hands of the baby in her arms before calling to her twelve year old daughter reading in the corner.
“Heba, can you get the nail clippers and a change of clothes for Shahed from the bedroom for me, please?”
These were the last words of her mother Heba would ever hear.
Outside on the horizon and Israeli tank turns its gun toward the small home as Heba leaves the room. Glancing over her shoulder she watches as Maria rises on the seesaw toward the rafters and Somiaa continues to coax her ever higher, their laugher and excited chatter filling the room.
As she grabs the nail clippers, behind her a tank shell crashes through her home, silencing the laughter and killing two siblings, her mother and mortally wounding a third.
THE WAITING ROOM
Later at the hospital, racked by tears and disbelief, Heba describes the scene. “I went into the other room suddenly…the bomb, so loud, is all I could hear. Then I saw the room, where my sisters had been playing on the seesaw. My mom and my three sisters lay there, their bodies soaking in pools of their blood.
“I cried and kept praying to God for my mom and sisters to come back,” Heba explains, her eyes like glass pools and searching. “But I knew my two sisters and mom where dead. And Somiaa, they say is clinically dead,” she states, her voice detached–using words no child should utter.
“I miss my little sister Shahed so much,” she wails, collapsing again into tears. “I want to carry her as before! I miss my mom’s voice, and my darling Maria,” she chokes through tears, now falling unchecked.
“But if Samiaa dies, I will be the oldest for my brothers and sisters Nehal, Mohammed and Amani–like a mother and do everything for them.”
Heba’s father Samir, steps forward. Steeped and bent, his stature hints at the past splendor of a once proud family man.
“The Israeli tank was positioned far from our home. I don’t know why they targeted our home. They know we’re just civilians,” he explains.
Samir’s eyes well, their redness punctuated by dark circles and balancing tears. Pausing for distraction, he motions his son to join him, hugging his shoulders and patting his head before continuing.
“I will never forget the sound of Shahed, Maria and my wife,” he chokes. “The sound of laughter, suddenly turning to screams! Never, never, never,” he states, his voice waning with the words.
“Where are the international laws protecting human–children’s rights?” he asks in disbelief. “I’m asking the world, since we’re not Israeli will this (murder of my family) simply end up a criticism here and condemnation there, then disappear?”
Frustration overtakes Samir. Unable to control his grief, he sinks into a chair allowing the tears and sobs to consume him.
His mother, distraught and feeling helpless seeing her son break asks defiantly, “Was Maria holding a tank shell? Was baby Shahed nursing at her mother’s breast concealing a rocket? Why? Why kill these children,” she demands before answering her own question. “They’re dead because of Israeli soldiers and terrorist Israel!”
And the world accepts this?
This is Israel’s seesaw, circular logic, redefining morality with standards of absolution and exemption hiding behind religion. Under international law, targeting civilians under any circumstance is a war crime. Unlike halaka, international law and morality do not come with religious exemptions.
But for Samir and his family law’s justice pales to reality. How does a man return to the shattered home, filled with memories of a wife and children? And their eulogy of things: clothes, toys and a shattered seesaw, split in two still dangling from the rafters. How does a man overcome the images of gore and tattered flesh? How does he bring his remaining children home?
As Samir contemplates how and comforts his remaining children in the hospital’s waiting room, a doctor brings word.
Somiaa, his fourteen year old daughter, is dead.