Gaza's kids collect a different sort of shell

Ten-year-old Hossam Abu Hashish smiles proudly as he lays out a pile of rusted steel shrapnel on the floor of his single-room home in northern Gaza.

“I have a good collection,” he says. “But it’s not the best in the village. My uncle’s is bigger.”

He holds up a piece of twisted metal the length of his forearm.
It has edges sharp enough to cut glass.

“This is my biggest piece, but my uncle has one this big,” Hossam says, stretching his arms out wide.

For the past two months, the Israeli army has been pounding the fields besides these villages in northern Gaza with 155mm artillery shells—more than 5 100 since March 31, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The Israeli shells explode, sending showers of razor-sharp red hot steel raining down on roofs, balconies and neighbouring fields.

For children in Umm Nasser, a Bedouin village of 6 000, and in nearby Beit Lahiya, collecting the shrapnel has become a hobby as common as collecting baseball cards in the American heartland.

Every house seems to have a jar of shrapnel on display. At the local government-run health clinic the nurses have arranged shrapnel gathered in the clinic’s garden into a map of historic Palestine.

“Here in the streets it’s a game for us,” says 12-year-old Mohammed Fares. “We see who can gather the most shrapnel, we try to find the best pieces we can and we trade with each other.”

The larger the piece of shrapnel, Mohammed says, the higher its street value among neighbourhood kids.

The youngster has three of the rarest and most sought-after finds—complete, non-splintered shells. He has painted them orange and blue and set them up as vases in his living room.

“They’re pretty,” he says. “People come to our house just to see them.”

His grandmother Fawzia, an aging woman with two cloud-coloured cataracts peering over her Bedouin veil, has a different take.

“God curse them,” she says. “Israel can keep their pretty vases. Go and tell them to stop bombing us.”

Collecting the spent ordnance is dangerous. Three teenagers in Beit Lahiya died on Friday while fiddling with an unexploded shell they had found in a nearby field.

But by turning the lethal shrapnel into a hobby, these children have found one way to deal with the constant danger, says Mary Vonne Bargues, a psychiatrist with Médécins Sans Frontières. The aid organisation provides therapy for children traumatised by the shelling.

“This is the only form of defence they have,” she adds. “They deal with the danger by collecting the objects which are dangerous for them.”

The Israeli shells are meant to put an end to the homemade rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants on an almost daily basis.

Since June 2004, 13 civilians in Israel have been killed by the Palestinian rockets, according to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem. Last week one rocket struck an empty Israeli classroom.

“What we try to do is to use artillery to try and quiet the area,” said Jacob Dalal, an Israeli army spokesperson. “And it’s working. The rockets are a lot less accurate now, and a lot of the time they don’t even fall into Israeli territory.”

“We understand that this is very difficult for the civilian population living there, but it’s not our fault that the gunmen choose to fire from those areas.”

On some days the Israeli shelling lasts for hours. Each explosion rattles windows miles away in Gaza City.

The Israeli army is authorised to target shells within 100m of residential areas.

But according to Dave Thompson, an explosives expert with Centurion Risk Assessment Services in London, a single 155mm shell can kill within 150m and cause injuries within 300m.

As for the militants whose rocket fire is provoking the Israeli wrath, this is the price Palestinians must pay to continue the struggle, they say.

“I’m sympathetic with the people who live with the shelling every day and night,” says Naim Abu Amir, a member of the Popular Resistance Committee, one of the armed factions responsible for firing the homemade rockets.

“I too have suffered, just as they are now. But you can’t take back your homeland without paying a price and without national sacrifice.”—AFP

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