His face is on the whitewashed walls of the decrepit homes of Gaza's Bureij Refugee Camp. The stenciled portrait aims for the iconic heroism of the famous poster image of Che Guevara. But beneath the boyish flop of hair, Mohammed al-Durra's expression is quizzical, seemingly bemused by the crossfire of accusations over his fate that has been no less damaging than the barrage of bullets in which he died on Sept. 30. The 12-year-old Palestinian boy has become the totem of the Aqsa intifadeh that began Sept. 28, sparked by the visit of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the place Jews call the
Temple Mount. To Muslims it's a holy place too, the site of the Aqsa Mosque. "He's a symbol not only for Palestinians," says Mohammed's brother Iyad, 14. "He left his impact on the whole world. It was shaken by his death."
It was on the third day of the intifadeh that Mohammed's father, Jamal, had taken his son to shop for a used car. On their way home, father and son came within sight of the Netzarim junction where Palestinian rioters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers posted to protect a nearby Jewish settlement. Suddenly, from orange groves at the roadside, Palestinian militiamen began to shoot at the Israelis, ratcheting the battle up from rocks to rubber bullets to live ammunition.
When the shooting subsided, Jamal and his son hurried through the junction. Midway across, the shooting began again. Jamal and Mohammed hid pitifully behind a metal drum. In the moments before he died, Mohammed told his cringing father, "Don't worry, Daddy, the ambulance will come and rescue us." When an ambulance did come, its driver was shot dead. In any case, Mohammed al-Durra already lay quietly with a fatal wound to his abdomen.
It was the archetype of a drama played out fatally at Israeli checkpoints on the edges of nearly every Palestinian town since the intifadeh began, and Mohammed al-Durra could have been only a bit player in that drama had not a camera turned him into the tragic hero. A French news agency television crew happened to record Mohammed's final moments on footage that was soon appearing on TV screens around the world. For the Palestinians, it was a genuine horror and — for their political spinmeisters — a golden opportunity. Palestinian television broadcast the death scene repeatedly, accompanied by a song in which a voice symbolizing Mohammed calls on the Arab world for help. The symbolism spread: the Jordanian Tae Kwon Do Association named its annual championship for the dead boy. For the Israelis, it was a costly mistake, damning them in the eyes of the world and denting the confidence of a people already reeling from the disillusionment that followed the hope of the Camp David summit that began in July.
After denying, then accepting, then again denying responsibility for Mohammed's death, the Israeli army appeared to be trying to cover up its terribly public error. But the graffiti face of Mohammed on the walls of the Bureij camp will not fade that easily.