It was, said Dr Ghassan Abu-Sitta, one of the most difficult days he had spent in the operating room of the burns unit at Al-Shifa Hospital. It wasn’t just the severity of Mohammed Badran’s facial injuries, nor that, as the doctor soon discovered, the ten-year-old would need complex microsurgery unavailable in Gaza to replace his missing eye with a prosthesis. It wasn’t even that Mohammed did not understand that he had been blinded by the Israeli air strike on his family home in the Nuseirat refugee camp and kept asking the nurses, “Why have you switched the lights off?” It was that when Dr Abu-Sitta looked at the child – as he did for hours, while he carefully reconstructed his upper jaw with tissue from his back – he was continually reminded that Mohammed was the same age as one of his own sons.
That day, amid the chaos at the hospital in Gaza City, Dr Abu-Sitta told me that Mohammed’s whole family had been killed in the air strike. I reported it in this magazine – a single paragraph in a long piece. What neither of us knew then was that the reason Mohammed was alone in the burns unit was not that the rest of his family had been wiped out, but that they were either elsewhere in Shifa or at another hospital in Deir el-Balah.
In Gaza, however, happy endings are always conditional: six of Mohammed’s eight siblings were hurt, four of them critically. His 17-year-old sister, Eman, who had suffered severe leg injuries, was soon moved to the next bed. His mother, Taghreed, was able to stay with both of them.
But the story of the Badrans was not over yet. The day after I filed an update to let readers know the family was alive, it became obsolete: on 9 August, Mohammed’s father, Nidal, was killed in an air strike on a mosque in Nuseirat.
The 44-year-old was a policeman – and therefore on the Hamas payroll, as he had once been on that of the Palestinian Authority. He was killed, his brother claims, while preparing for dawn prayers. Residents near the mosque were warned by the Israel Defence Forces to get out and someone alerted the local imam, who then left. No one warned the other three men in the mosque at the time.
Whatever Nidal Badran was doing that morning, it is now almost certain he and the men killed with him were Hamas activists. Described by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights as “members of an armed group”, they may have belonged to Hamas’s military wing. Either way, the targeting of the Badrans’ house days earlier was surely no accident.
The unfurling fate of the Badran family goes to the heart of the debate around Israel’s actions in Gaza and the high number of children killed in air strikes there.
The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has identified 72 Gazan families of three or more people that have been killed in their own home in the course of Operation Protective Edge: 547 people in all, including 250 minors, 125 women under the age of 60 and 29 men and women aged 60 or above. Many of these families no doubt included at least one militant from Hamas or another armed group. In other cases, there is no evidence as yet that they did. B’Tselem and other human rights groups, such as al-Mezan and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, argue strongly that there is no justification for the high number of casualties among civilian relatives.
In the case of the Badran family, Israel appeared to recognise this. Last weekend it allowed Mohammed, Eman and their badly wounded 13-year-old brother, Ibrahim, out of Gaza through the Erez crossing after two Spanish charities offered to fund their evacuation. Their mother was refused a permit to cross with them; an aunt accompanied them instead. Mohammed has since had surgery at al-Khalidi Hospital in Amman and after two weeks doctors will assess if he still needs to travel to Spain for further treatment.
The Israeli military has repeatedly insisted that it does not target civilians, and it blames Hamas for operating out of civilian areas – which in itself is a violation of international humanitarian law. B’Tselem points out that the attacks on family homes contradict several principles of humanitarian law: the distinction between civilian and military targets; the idea that violation by one party does not reciprocally justify violation of it by the other; and, above all, “proportionality”. Responsibility for the “harsh consequences” of the air strikes policy, B’Tselem argues, rests with “Israel’s government and top military commanders who authorised it, despite the foreseeable horrific results”.
Mohammed Badran appears to be a victim of that policy. But at least he – and most of his family – are alive.