Thousands mourn Mohammed

A Palestinian boy who went to throw stones at the troops has become a hero, an Islamic David taking on the Goliath of Israel
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The Independent Online

Wrapped in his national flag and placed in a simple wooden box, the bloodied and unwashed corpse of a small Palestinian boy was borne through the narrow alleys of southern Gaza yesterday by an hysterical crowd.

Wrapped in his national flag and placed in a simple wooden box, the bloodied and unwashed corpse of a small Palestinian boy was borne through the narrow alleys of southern Gaza yesterday by an hysterical crowd.

Thousands of people gathered to follow the funeral procession of Mohammed Abu Aasi through the dusty streets and to take part in the grotesque process of turning him, a 13-year-old boy from a poor family of refugees, into a national and religious martyr.

Surrounded by dozens of middle-aged women wrapped in black chadors in a mourning tent on the roof of a nearby house, his mother, Miriam, waited to see her dead son for the last time, and ran through her self-deluding mantra.

Mohammed died in the name of Islam, she told me; she did not regret his death. Stunned and numb, she described how the day before his death, her boy - one of 15 children - had seen television pictures of a Palestinian with his brains blown out by an Israeli bullet at Netzarim Junction, Gaza's biggest and most notorious flashpoint. "He went crazy. I couldn't stop him," she said. "He didn't even stay for his lunch. He wanted to go straight there." And that - fatally - is what he did.

By midday yesterday, the myth of Mohammed's deathwas complete. It was present on the lips of every member of the baying crowd, wildly firing Kalashnikovs into the air. And it was present in the graffiti that had appeared overnight on the walls, showing a boy, stone in hand, with a bullet hole in his chest standing before al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem - the holy site at the focus of the current violence.

Mohammed had become an Islamic David taking on the Goliath of Israel. The mundane and pathetic reality - that of another Arab boy whose parents, for some reason, failed to stop him from going to a trouble spot to throw stones at an Israeli army post while bullets flew all around - was already lost. He was a hero, just like the young man limping behind his open coffin yesterday, with a fresh bullet wound to his foot, a crutch in one hand and an Uzi machine pistol in the other.

The funeral was at midday. Three hours earlier Israeli and Palestinian commanders, accompanied by a representative from the CIA, had met on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip and - after a week of bloodshed -signed a seven-point plan to try to restore peace. The Israelis, who now have some 3,500 military personnel in the strip, agreed to withdraw all the forces deployed since last Friday, including attack helicopters which have been firing rockets at targets around Netzarim Junction. They agreed there would be a ceasefire.

The Palestinians would ensure there was no more shooting at the Israeli army, nor at the enclaves in which some 6,000 Jewish settlers live, clinging on to the conviction that the land belongs to Israel. The settlers occupy some 40 per cent of the strip's land and are protected at great expense by the Israeli military - there are almost as many soldiers as there are settlers. The rest of this 40-mile long oblong of rubbish-strewn land is left to more than a million Palestinians. Now, after a week of bloodletting, in which at least 20 people have died in Gaza alone, this was an attempt to mend fences.

Is this also a delusion or has too much blood has been spilt to end this cycle of bloodletting? "I have to believe in it," said Brig-Gen Tzvi Foghel, Israel's chief of staff of the southern command. He was "99 per cent certain" that the Palestinians could control the street. "We have a lot of trust in Yasser Arafat's power in the area."

And yet the chances of this happening while children are dying - albeit as their fathers are behind them, firing AK47s at the Israelis - are not great, as the mood at yesterday's funeral confirmed.

Brig-General Foghel seemed to understand this, although he defended his strategy. He said every day the Palestinians had fired thousands of rounds and were hurling hundreds of Molotov cocktails at the Israeli soldiers inside the bunker at the Netzarim Junction. Only one of them has been injured - with a scratch from a bullet.

"We are here because we are defending citizens whom governments have agreed can be here," he said. "My responsibility is to defend them. I will do it with any weapon I have. Any country would do the same." But he then uttered a phrase rarely heard in this part of the world. Of the death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah - the child whose death was televised - he said: "We really are sorry."

But it is deeds that matter most. Minutes later, a message came through from Netzarim Junction. More shooting. More Molotov cocktails. And another Palestinian shot.