What is there to justify when two teens die because of an old Israeli shell?

The aftermath of Israel’s devastating 2008-2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip can still be felt to this day. Earlier this Friday, two Palestinian teenagers were killed after handling an explosive device launched by the Israeli military during its brutal 22-day campaign. The artillery shell remained undetonated for two years before it exploded, killing 16-year-old Victor Batniji and injuring 16-year-old Moumin Helles who died shortly thereafter from his wounds.

The deaths of these two individuals are more than just an unlikely incident or an unfortunate accident, as news reports suggest. This is the tragic reality of life under occupation.

The explosion occurred in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City. My family happens to live close to this neighborhood and when visiting them during summer break, I would spend many afternoons walking through its dusty streets. Known for its bustling food-and-clothes markets, the neighborhood is among the most densely populated areas in an already dense Gaza Strip. So why would an artillery shell be found in such a location inhabited by non-combatants?

For two years, the shell remained largely ignored; it blended well with the surroundings. In 2004, when I last visited Gaza, it wasn’t uncommon to get your hands on Israeli-issued shell casings or to find little military-grade gizmos strewn around demolished buildings. It comes as no real surprise that the explosive was handled by humans. It’s sad to say but Palestine’s infrastructure has become so crippled as a result of Israel’s ongoing occupation that there exists no state-run bomb squad or anything of the sort. If there’s a missile on the sidewalk, your aunt and uncle help move it out of the way.

But this brings us back to the question of what the shell was doing there in the first place. As even the CIA Factbook acknowledges, the Shuja’iyya neighborhood and its neighboring districts all have high population densities. Any indiscriminate attack on the area puts civilians at risk and subsequently violates international law. An example, provided by Amnesty International:

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.
Article 48 of the Geneva Convention’s Additional Protocol I

Proponents of Israel’s actions in Gaza will argue the seemingly large presence of Hamas operatives in and around the areas targeted by the military. But is this meant to justify the deaths of these two teenagers and all the civilians who died before them?

During its coverage of the 2008-2009 invasion, Haaretz reported that “Sajaiyeh, together with its adjacent neighborhoods, has been considered a Hamas stronghold for several years”. The use of the word “considered” delegitimizes this claim but this post isn’t intended to be a criticism of these overused state-sponsored allegations. After all, Hamas is the governing party of the Gaza Strip. But being one of the most advanced militaries to date, it is only fair to expect a more discriminate and targeted approach towards enemy operatives. Instead of launching a wide-range missile at the heart of a civilian-populated city, the Israeli military could have used its superior weaponry (coincidentally funded by your tax dollars) to target those actually involved in hostilities.

But for twenty-two entire days, the shells never stopped dropping. The ones that exploded took the lives of 1,400 and maimed thousands more. Meanwhile, the ones that didn’t explode still manage to add to the list of civilian casualties.

There is no justification for the deaths of these two teenagers. While reading news coverage of the blast, I quickly noticed multiple attempts at distorting the context of the event. One article doubted that the shell was launched by Israeli forces even though it’s a standard IDF-grade weapon. Another article put the teens at fault, citing that they were “playing” with the shell. A third article vouched for the necessity of shells like these due to the inherent presence of Hamas members in the city streets. Each article spent no more than two paragraphs on the actual explosion and used the remaining 300+ words on reasons why these two deaths aren’t all that sad, suggesting they were accidental but wouldn’t have happened had Hamas never won its 2005 election in Gaza.

Like this New York Times piece, entire articles are written about souvenir-like World War II weapons found in upstairs attics. The entire community heaves a sigh of relief as government agents safely remove duds and other war paraphernalia. But when a weapon does explode and kill two innocent Palestinians, the most the press can do is try to justify the reason for the weapon’s existence and placement. Haaretz even goes so far as to use a picture of a Palestinian homemade rocket as if to suggest the shell blast was karma or payback.

Two years after Israel’s invasion of Gaza and five years into its siege, the Palestinian people still stand tall. It’s unfortunate, however, that while they focus on rebuilding their homes and their lives, they must also heed to the devastating effects of illegal warfare against a civilian population.

Sami Kishawi

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