Mahmoud and Rabiah died when a Katyusha rocket struck the city of Nazareth in northern Israel. That they were children is part of the grim reality of war. That they were also Muslims, killed by a Hezbollah rocket, makes the episode a poignant example of the absurdity of this conflict.
"It was Allah who wanted Mahmoud and Rabiah in heaven," says Nohad Talusi. Sometimes you don't understand him, she adds, but there will be a reason for his decision. The 44-year-old mother is sitting on a sofa on the second floor of a half-completed house. She's wearing a black abaya, an ankle-length dress. She cries repeatedly, sobs, convulsed with grief. Friends and relatives sit around her. They sip bitter coffee and chew dates as they mourn.
Less than 24 hours ago, Nohad lost two of her eight children. She was standing in the kitchen of her house. Three-year-old Mahmoud and his seven-year-old brother Rabiah were playing in the garden. Suddenly, at five in the afternoon, there was a loud bang. Pieces of shrapnel thundered into the wall of the house. A cloud of smoke rose above the twisting alleys of Nazareth. She knew immediately that the two children were dead, Nohad says. She buried her two sons that evening.
What Nohad attributes to divine intervention is really a question of political confrontation. Two Muslim children, killed by a Hezbollah rocket -- one of the most absurd and tragic ironies to emerge from the new war in the Middle East. Each of the two sides blames the other. The death of two young boys -- two out of a total of 15 civilian dead on the Israeli side -- speaks volumes both about the hopeless character of an endless conflict riddled with repeated acts of retaliation and, more importantly, about the slim chances for peace.
Mahmoud and Rabiah had not yet been buried before the onslaught of reaction and interpretation began. The Israelis view the incident as proof that Hezbollah cares about nothing. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's office promptly issued a statement to the effect that the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is attacking his own people. In Nazareth, on the other hand, the mayor protested angrily that there is a shortage of alarm sirens in the Arab regions of northern Israel. The mayor argued that Israel doesn't care about the Arabs on its own territory -- that it treats them as second-class citizens.
Such complaints have been heard across northern Israel for a week now: There is a lack of bunkers and shelters in the Muslim villages, the mayors of Nazareth and many other localities complain. But in the case of Nazareth, the city did have alarm sirens but they were switched off. The city wasn't automatically warned of an impending attack because the sirens also sound to celebrate Israel's Independence Day: The Palestinians wanted to have nothing to do with that. They preferred renouncing their own safety to participating in Israeli patriotism.
Hamas flags in Israel
Until Wednesday, no one in Nazareth feared Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets. The region south of highway 79 was supposed to be safe. The 75,000 inhabitants thought they were too far from the border to have to fear attacks. They also didn't view themselves as targets for the rockets of the Palestinian group. Two thirds of the population of Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, are Muslim. Almost everyone has relatives in Lebanon. Nazareth is a Muslim city in the heart of Israel. And, friendly relations have been established with the followers of other religions.
"Our passports say Israel, but we are brothers of the Arabs," the depute mayor Raji Mansour says at the memorial gathering. Green Hamas flags are displayed all around the house and in the cramped neighborhoods of Nazareth. The Arab speaker on the radio calls for solidarity with the Lebanese brothers. Hezbollah has many supporters too. Some at the memorial gathering confess they are proud to have relatives who are members of the radical Islamic militia.
Mourning the two small boys quickly becomes a secondary concern in Nazareth. Hundreds of men come into the specially rented unfinished building near the family house. They wait to give their condolences to the father of the two boys. The family still has extra chairs stacked in the basement, but there is no more room left on the first floor. The women have gathered one floor further up. The wake will continue like this for three days.
Sheikh Kamal Hatib has come to clearly state his view on the matter. The depute leader of the Islamic Movement, the largest Muslim organization in Israel, speaks only briefly about the two boys. Then the bearded man becomes angry and begins gesticulating wildly. "Israel is responsible -- the hands of Olmert and Perez are stained with the blood of Mahmoud and Rabiah," he says, almost screaming, his expression grim. More than 80 men listen to the religious leader. Even the children have suddenly grown quiet.
There is only one guilty party as far as the sheikh is concerned. "We have solved many crises by negotiations," he says, "but this time the Israelis want conflict." The last few days have shown that what is at stake is the destruction of Lebanon, the sheikh adds. Hezbollah, a group he openly supports, must launch more and more rockets, since the situation is one of war, he says. He goes on to explain that the death of the boys will only strengthen the militant group and that the boys will go to heaven as martyrs. Then he recites a brief prayer.
As absurd as it seems, no one here hates Hezbollah. The accusations are directed at everyone else -- at Europe and the USA, because they are doing nothing, and at the UN, because all it does is admonish Israel. The discussion quickly becomes one about the general situation. "The Israelis are killing women and children in Gaza and Lebanon. Houses are being destroyed in Nablus. Why is the world talking about the Katyushas and not about the dead civilians?" says Siham Talusi, the aunt of Mahmod and Rabiahasks vehemently.
One floor down, the deputy mayor talks himself into a fever. He too speaks only about Israel, not about Hezbollah. He says the Israeli troops need to withdraw from Lebanon immediately and help with the reconstruction effort. Everyone nods. The father of the two boys seems apathetic. "I don't care about politics. I'm not interested in who is responsible. My children are dead," he says quietly. The other mourners shake his hand. Then they rant about Israel in front of the cameras.
There is hardly a moderate voice to be heard in Nazareth. Only one restaurant owner says openly that he thinks Hezbollah is crazy. "The leaders in this war are only fighting for themselves -- they don't care about their people anymore," he rails. He has been feeling the effects of the crisis for a week. The tourists aren't arriving anymore. Everyone else is afraid. Asked for his name, the restaurant owner becomes more reserved. "Nazareth is full of crazy people," he says. "I don't want to get into trouble."
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