[The following is narrative twenty-two, within a series of twenty-three narratives, to mark the third anniversary of "Operation Cast Lead." A new post will be released each day, marking the incident that happened on the same date three years ago. The narratives are developed by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.]
“As I arrived there I found many people in the area, working on their lands. It was calm so I felt comfortable and stayed there. Suddenly one of the jeeps on the border stopped and bullet after bullet was fired.
On 18 January 2009, at approximately 10:00, Israeli forces located on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip indiscriminately fired bullets towards farmers working on their lands east of Khuza’a village, east of Khan Younis. One of the farmers, Maher Abdel Azim Abu Rujailah (twenty-three), was killed when one of the bullets penetrated his left arm and chest.
“Maher was near me in the field. He was behind me when I heard him screaming ‘Allah Akbar’ and I found out that one of the bullets had hit him. People lay on the ground, screaming,” recalls his father, Abdel Azim Abu Rujailah (fifty-nine). Maher was carried to a horse cart under heavy gunfire, and then transferred to a car. He was pronounced dead upon arrival in hospital.
“On 17 January Israel declared a ceasefire,” recalls Adbel Azim. “On 18 January many people moved back to the east of Khuza’a to check their lands and their houses there. Maher and [his brother] Yousef went to our lands and I followed them because I was afraid for them. As I arrived there I found many people in the area, working on their lands. It was calm so I felt comfortable and stayed there. Suddenly one of the jeeps on the border stopped and bullet after bullet was fired.” According to a witness statement Yousef (29) gave to PCHR after the killing of his brother, the distance between Maher and the border was around 800 meters. He said the area was calm and electricians were working in the area too.
“I wish that they took all the pieces of our lands and Maher would still be alive,” says Abdel Azim. He continues: “My wife suffered from two strokes since he was killed. Since the incident I suffer from heart problems. We cannot forget him and our suffering is continuous. We remember him when we see his clothes, his room, and everything that he used around the house.”
“Sometimes when I get up at night I find my daughters crying. When they see the clothes of Maher they start to cry,” says Abdel Azim. “My children also still experience a lot of fear. Dowlat sometimes puts her hands over her ears when she hears planes and says ‘help me, father.’ She is 24 years old and afraid in the dark.”
Abdel Azim has also seen great changes in his wife. “She has been very affected. Before the incident she was well but she has been suffering since. She used to be a strong woman. Now she is crying all the time,” he says. Ma’zouza, too emotional to talk about her son, speaks quietly: “Maher was very close to his sisters, especially Arwa. Once he had some money he said ‘if I die, give the money to Arwa’. The day before his death he came to me and asked me if his father could write a will for him. I pushed him on the ground and sat on his chest. We were joking about it.”
Besides suffering from the loss of their son and brother, the Abu Rujailah’s are also struggling financially as a result of the destruction and inaccessibility of their farming lands. Together with his brothers Adbel Azim owns fourpieces of land to the east of Khan Younis, close to the border with Israel.
“Our lands were cultivated with olive and orange trees and we used to sell the fruits. But since the beginning of the second intifada the army has bulldozed it over and over again. Before the offensive we used to go to our land regularly, stay up late at night, and have barbeques there. People still used to live in the area. We also had buildings there but during the offensive they were all destroyed, along with the crops,” says Abdel Azim.
Abdul Azim faces the same violence that killed his son when attempting to continue farming his lands. “When I tried to replant seedlings for olive trees in October last year they started shooting at me so I had to leave. The seedlings are now sitting next to our house. Two of the four plots we cannot reach anymore at all. After they bulldozed them we couldn’t reach them anymore. If we try to access it they would fire at us. Those fields were cultivated with 50 year old olive trees.”
The family faces large financial losses as a result of the attacks. Abdel Azim says: “In the past the trees in our lands were big and we used to have large harvests. We would sell the fruits and had a good income for the house. But after the bulldozing of the lands we stopped to benefit from the lands. It is even risky to rebuild something; they might come again and destroy it. My sons help me with providing for a living through other work.” Wisam is temporarily contracted as a doctor, Ayman works in an exchange office, and Yousef is unemployed.
Abdel Azim’s outlook on the future is a mix of pessimism and hopes. “When I look at the future, I don’t see an sign of improvement, even on the long run. I worry about other wars that might come and don’t feel safe. When I leave the house it is for 30 minutes at most, and I never feel certain that I will return.” As for his hopes, he says: “I hope that I will be able to live freely and safely, that the occupation will come to an end, and that we can travel freely. That’s all that we need.”
PCHR submitted a criminal complaint to the Israeli authorities on behalf of the Abu Rujailah family on 8 November 2009. To-date, no response has been received.