Mahmud, 10, went looking for songbirds ... and died in hail of bullets

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The Independent Online

Mahmud al-Qayed was out doing what he did every Friday - catching songbirds in cages to sell in the markets of Gaza. But yesterday the remote olive groves where the birds nest led him close to the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. Too close for the soldiers guarding the fence.

They shot Mahmud, 10, four times, killing him as he tried to run.

The boy's father, Mohammed, was with him, and, at the funeral, he told how he took the bloodstained sweater from his son's dead body, and buried his face in it.

Mahmud was one of a group of about 20 - the rest were adults - who ventured out to the fence to catch the songbirds, which can fetch good money in the markets. There are plenty of witnesses who saw the group on their way to the fence, and confirm that they were there to catch birds.

But the Israeli army said that it had spotted three people laying what it says were electric wires and tubes used in explosives, and that is why it opened fire. According to the witnesses, what the group were laying were the cages that trap the birds.

This was not the first time a birdcatcher has been killed next to the fence here. Mahmud was the fifth to die here since the intifada began in 2000. He was the youngest, but before him a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old had also been killed.

It is a beautiful spot, narrow lanes fringed by tall cactus lead to the largely undisturbed olive groves that are home to the songbirds. In these autumn nights, the air is full of the smoke of the woodfires that warm the locals.

But on the other side of the fence may be seen a completely different landscape of vast, open modern fields and the Israeli farm town of Nakhal Oz, which in the past has been a target for attacks by Palestinian militants.

The Israeli army has declared the olive groves in this area off-limits to Palestinians, to protect Nakhal Oz.

But, in spite of the danger, the birdcatchers still come. Money and work are desperately scarce, and what was once a hobby has become, for many, a living.

Last week, said Mahmud's father, the boy managed to catch two song-sparrows and a rare songbird, a khudr. In normal times, this rare bird alone could fetch almost £100. In the current economic collapse, the boy sold all three for less than £10. But it was still enough to buy himself a new bicycle, and not many children can afford those in Gaza these days.

A witness, who would give his name only as Abu Subhi, who lives near the olive groves and saw the birdcatchers on their way to plant their traps, says the Israeli soldiers should be well aware that the birdcatchers still come and are no threat. He says some visit the groves almost every day.

Last night the Israeli army insisted that the only reason for Palestinians to move close to the fence was to attack Nakhal Oz.

Surrounded by mourners at the funeral, Mahmud's father, Mohammed, told how his son had been killed. "We left home at around 5am. My neighbour, my son and I," he said.

"I was driving the donkey-cart. We got to Shajiyeh at around 6am. We put out our traps and waited for the birds. We were about 700 metres from the border. They [Israeli forces] fired two shells, that landed near the electricity pylon, about 200 metres from us. We stayed on the ground because we were waiting for the birds. Then we saw five soldiers approaching with helmets and everything. I ran. My son could not get away."

Nimur abu 'As'us, a 26-year-old who was with the group, was wounded and witnessed Mahmud's death.

Speaking from a hospital bed, he said: "The soldiers chased us. I was running, the boy was running too. They shot at both of us. I was hit in the leg. They hit him with four bullets. They shouted to stop and he stopped. I kept running, I looked back and I saw him stop. I saw the bullets hit him. If he hadn't stopped perhaps they would have killed both of us."

His face grew dark. "Perhaps the fact he stopped saved my life."

After that, he said, a crowd of Palestinians came running to see what was happening and the soldiers gave up the chase. At first, Mr 'As'us said, the soldiers took Mahmud's body away, then later returned it.

Mohammed said: "I took his sweater. I hugged it, then I buried my face in his blood. It was wrong to kill him. He was young, he was no threat, he just wanted to catch a bird. Where are the human rights? Where are the children's rights?

"They kill children. That is wrong."