Gaza City – Izzddin Akila knew what he wanted to do on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, when Muslims around the world celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But the 35-year-old’s wishes – to exchange gifts, visit relatives, and watch the children of the family play games – didn’t go as planned.
Holding brown prayer beads and white flowers, he instead spent the first day of the three-day holiday digging a small hole in which to put flowers at the head of his 20-year-old cousin Mohammed’s grave.
“You have always been the moonlight and inspiration to your brothers,” said Izzddin, sitting beside the grave.
“Come back Mohammed, return to your weeping mother, she has your Eid gift,” another cousin cried, as people tried to comfort him. There wasn’t a dry eye at the gravesite.
Mohammed was killed last week when an Israeli tank shell hit his home. He was sitting in the family’s living room. The blast also injured his aunt’s husband, and eight children. “In one second, an Israel missile ended his short 20 years of life,” said Izzddin, unable to hold back tears.
Before he died, Mohammed and his father had opened their home to displaced Palestinians fleeing Israeli bombings in Shujayea. They shared food and drinks with women and children who had been driven out of their homes.
“He hadn’t planned his future yet, but was intelligent and keen and had already managed to memorise the whole Quran, verse by verse,” Izzddin cried, as his fingers moved across the sand on top of Mohammed’s grave.
At least 1,110 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, and more than 6,200 others injured, in the ongoing Israeli offensive. Fifty-three Israeli soldiers have also died, along with two Israeli civilians and one Thai worker.
Overnight on Monday saw some of the heaviest Israeli shelling of Gaza, as more than 30 Palestinians were killed. The Israeli military called and sent text messages to people in Shujayea, Zeitoun and eastern Jabaliya, instructing them to evacuate their homes.
For most in Gaza, the widespread death and destruction of the last three weeks of violence has made this a sombre Eid, devoid of celebration.
“We should be celebrating Eid with happiness and family love. As usual, our children would enjoy themselves and play together. But the Israeli occupation denied us that right and forced us to take our children to the graveyard, to say goodbye to murdered relatives instead of letting us all celebrate the joy of life,” said Izzddin.
Thousands of Palestinian families across Gaza have also been displaced. According to United Nations figures, more than 10 percent of the local population – about 215,000 people – are now taking shelter in UN-run facilities or are staying with host families. At least 3,695 families, or 22,200 people, have had their homes completely destroyed, or have sustained major damage.
We cry for those we have loved and lost, but we say that God is also watching these atrocities upon innocent people.
At least 22 hospitals or medical centres have been affected by Israeli shelling, while the UN estimates that 133 schools across Gaza have been damaged.
The main cemetery in eastern Gaza has also been under heavy Israeli air strikes, making even burials dangerous. As a result, the Akila family had no other option but to bury Mohammed somewhere else.
“We had to dig into the grave of Mohammed’s grandfather in order to use his space,” Izzddin said, as his brothers wept beside him. “It’s like opening up the old wounds of [my] grandfather’s body, to lay the newly-wounded body of Mohammed next to him.”
While Izzddin and his brother, Khaled, visited the grave, Israeli drones hovered overhead. This cemetery was bombed on Monday by an Israeli F16 missile; bones are now scattered throughout the sand. “Then we had to rush to bury him immediately, under Israel’s constant bombing,” Izzddin said. “At least Mohammed is warm, with his grandpa.”
At 6:30pm on Monday, the first day of Eid, the graveyard was full of people coming to visit their loved ones, killed during Israel’s latest offensive. As the crowds of people tried to comfort each other, Khaled and Izzddin poured water and sand into the grave to remould it, and make sure it stayed intact.
“We cry for those we have loved and lost,” Khaled said, “but we say that God is also watching these atrocities [committed] upon innocent people”.
Follow Mohammed Omer on Twitter: @mogaza