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In Gaza clan, the strife hits home

An Israeli strike has radicalized one family that lost 16 members.

November 10, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA STRIP — It took three generations for the descendants of Abdullah Athamna and his three wives to grow into one of this town's largest and most respectable middle-class families.

It took 15 minutes of errant Israeli artillery fire into a row of apartment buildings to kill 16 members of the clan and push surviving relatives, once aloof toward armed struggle, into a vengeful fury.

In an outburst that could foreshadow an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tens of thousands of Palestinians wept in anguish and screamed for retaliation as they crowded into a cemetery here Thursday to bury the Athamnas and two other victims of the shelling.

The scene was an all-too-familiar ritual of the conflict: Women collapsed in grief as the dead were taken from ambulances on stretchers. Men fired weapons into the air as the bodies were lowered into a row of graves. Cries of "God is greater than Israel and America!" filled the air.

What was unusual was the number of victims from a single family -- one that, by all accounts, had shunned the militant Palestinian groups that clash with the Israeli army and deploy rockets or suicide bombers against Israeli civilians.

In addition to the dead, 19 family members were wounded, including four children who lost limbs.

"We are educated people," Inaz Athamna, 24, wounded by shrapnel in the blasts, said of the family of doctors, engineers, farmers, taxi drivers, merchants and university students.

"Our men never thought of themselves as fighters. Until now."

What happened during those deadly minutes before dawn Wednesday, after a traumatic week of Israeli troops occupying the town, has radicalized some men in the family. Seven of the dead were children, including an 18-month-old girl; six of the adult Athamnas killed were women.

"We know the victims and we know the killer," Ali Athamna, a 29-year-old doctor, said as he joined a line of 60 male relatives to receive condolences at a mourning tent after the funeral. "Who will punish the killer?

"The consequences of our striking back, they don't matter," he said, answering his own question. "Our families are already destroyed. We need justice for our families."

That sentiment was echoed more explicitly by other Athamna men, threatening to pull the family into the cycle of killing and revenge that has driven the conflict for generations.

"We used to think that firing those crude rockets at Israel was useless," said Amjad Athamna, 35, whose 12-year-old son Mahmoud died in the shelling.

"Now I am ready to launch them from the roof of my house."

The turning point in the family's saga began Nov. 1. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers backed by tanks, bulldozers and assault helicopters seized Beit Hanoun, which had become a prime launching ground for the crude Kassam rockets falling almost daily on southern Israeli communities.

Asma Athamna, 14, got wind of the raid the day before. Undercover Israeli intelligence agents, she said, were snooping around a row of apartment blocks on Hamad Street at the southern edge of Beit Hanoun. Many of the town's 200 or so Athamnas live there.

The family had stayed out of trouble. Politically, it identified with the Fatah party that ran the Palestinian territories for years until the election last spring of the more militant Hamas movement, which has defended the rocket attacks on Israel.

Isam Athamna became a member of a Hamas-led police force, but most of his relatives stuck to civilian jobs.

The Athamnas' row of four-story buildings faces 10 acres of land where the family grows citrus, figs, tomatoes and olives, and tends livestock. Beyond their property, as far as the eye can see, stretch other farms -- open land from which the Israelis suspect the rockets were being fired.

Entering the town, Israeli troops selected two of the buildings as lookout towers to survey the fields. Dozens of soldiers herded all 47 Athamna inhabitants into a single ground-floor apartment in one of the buildings and occupied the rest, moving in with bomb-sniffing dogs to detect booby traps.

"They put the women and girls in the kitchen and the men and boys in the living room and kept us like that for two days," said Sakher Athamna, 14. "We were practically suffocating. We were like hostages."

Israelis patrolling the streets ordered everyone to stay indoors. Their tanks and bulldozers ripped down power lines, cutting off electricity and water pumps, villagers said. They churned through the Athamnas' fields, ripping through greenhouses and killing chickens and goats, family members said.

Yasir Athamna's $17,000 used Mercedes-Benz taxi, just purchased but not paid for, was crushed.

Mohammed Athamna, 27, sneaked out of his building to fill buckets from an outdoor tap, prompting his widowed mother, Nimeh, a 55-year-old diabetic, to faint from fright. When he returned, she revived enough to scold him: "You're going to get yourself killed!"

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