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"The Children were Shouting. I Still Can't Sleep Remembering Their Screams"

A Prayer in Paradise

by GIDEON LEVY

The kindergarten teacher is lying on a stretcher, covered with blood. The minibus is parked alongside. From somewhere to the left, the army cannon is firing shells. The children are lying on the ground next to one another. That is how one of the children described the morning when they were driving to their kindergarten in Beit Lahia and an Israel Defense Forces shell or missile–the army spokesman refuses to say–exploded several meters away and mortally wounded the teacher before their eyes.

Two high school-students on their way to school, Ramzi al-Sharafi, 15 and Mohammad Ashour, 16, were killed in the bombing. And this week the children of the Indira Gandhi kindergarten buried their teacher, Najwa–which means "prayer" in Arabic–the mother of two toddlers, who lay in a coma for about two weeks in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.

Almost nothing was written in Israel about the shelling of the minibus carrying 20 y! oungsters. It happened two days before the shelling that killed 22 residents of neighboring Beit Hanun, at the height of Operation Autumn Clouds. By a miracle the missile/shell did not hit the minibus directly, but landed at a distance of 15 meters from it.

The traumatized children from the kindergarten have not recovered. This week they marched, bearing wreaths and signs they had drawn in memory of their beloved teacher, in the mourning procession to Najwa Khalif’s home; the adults interred her in the Beit Lahia cemetery.

Indira Gandhi Hamuda, the owner of the new kindergarten, an impressive 35-year-old woman, says that during the past months she used to tell the children that the Israelis don’t kill children, only those who fire Qassams, and that they had nothing to fear as long as they didn’t go up to the rooftops. Last week one of the children asked: "You told us that the Israelis don’t kill children, but only the Qassam launchers, so why did they shoot at our minibus?"

What can you say to a four-year-old who saw his kindergarten teacher lying covered with blood alongside their minibus? That the firing on the minibus was meant to prevent Qassams, which! have only intensified since then?

The reply of the IDF spokesman: "On November 6, the IDF attacked a cell of Qassam-launchers in the Beit Lahia neighborhood of Sheikh Zayed, whose members had come to pick up the launchers from which rockets had been fired the previous night in the direction of the western Negev. At the time of the attack, no uninvolved persons were identified in the vicinity of the terror cell. The IDF regrets all injury of uninvolved persons. Very unfortunately, the terror organizations habitually launch rockets at Israel from within residential areas, and thus sometimes unintended injury to civilians caught in the cross-fire is unpreventable."

In the wretched Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia the latest casualties are lying. You see them groaning in their unmade beds, surrounded by relatives. This one was working in the field, this one was innocently walking when the fire caught them. These are the lucky ones. The seriously wounded have ! already been transferred elsewhere.

Meanwhile a wounded man is being rushed to a local clinic–an elderly farmer, who was brought in on a donkey cart, an improvised ambulance, straight from the field after an army tank fired at him. His daughter runs after the cart, screaming. The explosion was heard all over. Passersby carry the old man into the clinic.

The IDF tanks and bulldozers are a few hundred meters from us; the road is already torn up and it is no longer passable. "The IDF at work" as the media phrase it.

A child arrives at the clinic, holding two casings from ammunition fired from an Apache helicopter. Not far away is a mourners’ tent for Taher al-Masri, a 16-year-old boy who was killed the day before.
For a moment, Beit Lahia looks like a pastoral village, and then suddenly it becomes a focus of fear and loss. Who knows that as well as the children of the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, with its colorful Mickey Mouse signs? Mickey also appears on the slide in the pleasant yard with its decorative plants. The! re are not many kindergartens in Gaza as well kept as this one.

Indira Gandhi? The father of the owner of the kindergarten fell in love with the admired Indian leader and decided to name his daughter after her. (He also named one of his sons Hassan, after the king of Morocco, and another son Hussein, after the king of Jordan.) Some people call the woman Indira, some call her Gandhi, and some call her Indira Gandhi. A yellow garbage can, a gift from Germany, stands at the entrance, adjacent to the town’s strawberry fields.

There are 260 children enrolled in this kindergarten, from Beit Lahia, Beit Hanun, the Jabalya camp and the surrounding area. They are divided into groups in colorful rooms decorated with murals–children aged four and five, learning reading, writing, arithmetic and English, between 7:30 A.M. and noon. Only about one-tenth of the parents were able to pay the tuition: NIS 300 a year. Children of the fallen and of prisoners attend free of ch! arge. The entrances to several of the classrooms are covered with grat ing and sheets of plastic, and have no windows. Indira does not have the money to complete construction of the new facility, and most of the parents have no money to pay.

For eight years the kindergarten wandered among various premises, until this year it moved to this spacious and attractive structure. Every morning the children who live far away are transported in two Volkswagen Transporters, one blue and one yellow; the blue one was the one involved in the incident. Now the two minibuses bear signs in memory of the teacher who was buried Sunday, when we arrived.

There is firing in the background. The kindergarten is almost empty; most of the children joined the mourning procession for their teacher. Indira’s daughter, Hadil Hamuda, 14, is watching over the handful of children who have stayed. This morning she went to school, but after half an hour, when the tanks came loudly rolling in, the teachers decided to send the students home.

A bird is hopp! ing on the sand in the kindergarten. Naim al-Rahal, a smiling young man of 23, the driver of the blue minibus, made his usual rounds on that Monday two weeks ago. At 6:50 A.M. he arrived at the Sheikh Zaid neighborhood and waited for one of the children who came downstairs late. The minibus was already full, 20 children and three teachers. They didn’t go to Beit Hanun that morning because it was dangerous. Teacher Najwa Khalif was sitting in the middle seat with her young son Wasim, 3, on her knees and her daughter Manar, 5, beside her.

While he was still waiting for the child who was late, the driver suddenly heard a deafening boom. He says that the shock waves sent the minibus flying. He started the engine and tried to escape. The child who was delayed did not manage to board and Al-Rahal saw him running after the bus shouting, unable to catch up. After the driver drove away, he noticed that Najwa was bleeding from her neck and head, and that her head was leaning ! sideways. It turned out that two shells had penetrated the window and hit her. She was already unconscious and the blood was dripping onto Wasim who was sitting on her knees. "The blood spilled onto the little children, onto their briefcases and onto the books," he recalls.

Al-Rahal quickly drove toward the nearest hospital, Al-Ouda, while the children’s screams filled the vehicle. "The children were shouting. I still can’t sleep remembering the screams," he says.

The children haven’t been sleeping since then, either. Immediately after the incident, dozens of frightened parents came to the kindergarten to see what had happened to their children. The place was filled with little cries of grief–not only from the children who had been witnesses. They were all sure that the teacher was dead, but Indira tried to lift their spirits and told them she would recover from her wounds. Then she was forced to close the kindergarten for five days. Some of the children have not returned since then, others still refuse to travel in the minib! us; one child asked his parents to move next to the kindergarten so he won’t have to travel in the bus.

It’s been two weeks since the incident and Indira tells of children who still don’t utter a word all day long, and of kindergarten teachers who still burst out crying.

The sound of a passing helicopter or tank makes everyone in the kindergarten nervous now. The driver, Al-Rahal, says that today he saw the boy who came downstairs late and ran after the minibus, after the shelling, hiding behind the kindergarten building. It turned out that he had wet himself and was embarrassed to board the minibus en route home.

"Before this they would see an Apache and say, ‘Here’s an Apache,’" says Indira. Since the incident the children have been using dough only for making weapons. Beforehand there were some who made dough rifles, but now they’re all doing it," she says. Even the girls.

Najwa Khalif worked in the kindergarten for three years. Here is a ! picture of her surrounded by children, and there is her classroom with miniature plastic chairs in a variety of colors, arranged carefully around the little tables, with drawings on the wall: a mother duck and her ducklings, 2 apples + 1 = 3. In the first days after her death they divided the children in her class among the other classes, but now they already have a new teacher, a substitute. During the two weeks when Najwa was fighting for her life they held daily prayers for her welfare in the kindergarten.

On Sunday morning, when they learned that she had died, Indira gathered all the kindergarten children and told them not to be angry, because she had gone to paradise.

GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz.