In land numbed by death, teacher's unexplained killing brings fear


ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP -- It was just another killing, just another murder in a place numbed to the routine of death.

A teacher was shot down last week by four masked men in front of a classroom full of young boys. It rated a few inches in the local papers.

No one claims to know who did it. That is unusual, for this is a place where killings carry messages, and the sender usually signs his work. The Israeli authorities will announce another "terrorist" has succumbed. Palestinian vigilantes will boast of another "collaborator" silenced.

There was nothing to explain the death of 44-year-old Abdel Muti al-Buheisi. That is why it is so frightening. It has come to the point in the desperate ghettos of the Gaza Strip that a teacher can be gunned down in front of children and nobody bothers to say why.

"No one is safe now," said Mazen Timraz, a fellow teacher at the United Nations school where the killing occurred. Two days later, Mr. Timraz sat in his darkened living room, chain smoking with shaking hands, and fighting back tears.

He had been the first to reach his friend, had tried in panic to staunch the blood by putting his hand on the hole in the man's skull, had cried for help as the screaming pupils ran past him out the door of the schoolroom.

"Why is this happening?" Mr. Timraz asks, more to the dark corners of his living room than to anyone. "Even if he were the chief of collaborators, don't kill him in front of 45 students when he is holding chalk in his hand."

According to the government, there have been 39 Palestinians killed by Israeli authorities this year and 93 killed by other Palestinians for allegedly cooperating with Israelis. Mr. Buheisi did not seem a likely target for either group.

By all accounts, he was not involved in politics. In the late 1970s, his family said, he spent 20 months in an Israeli prison, detained without charges in a security sweep. The same is true of a great many males in the Gaza Strip; a prison stay is almost a rite of passage.

He was bitter about the imprisonment, say those who knew him, but he devoted himself to teaching. An Israeli military spokesman said Mr. Buheisi was not on their list of wanted men.

Likewise, he was not known to be on the "list" of collaborators TTC who are targets of Palestinian vigilante groups.

His murder, at the hands of masked men, was typical of the work of one of these violent gangs. But their killings usually follow warnings. Someone suspected of associating with Israelis is abducted and questioned, or beaten, or shot in the legs. His name is published in a leaflet or scrawled in spray paint on the town walls that act as a communal court docket. If he persists, he is killed.

None of that happened with Mr. Buheisi, his neighbors say. His family swears he had no contact with Israelis, no dealings to mark him as a collaborator.

Each day before 7 a.m., he would leave his home and walk along a sandy path lined with palm trees to his school inside the Deir al-Balah refugee camp.

The Deir al-Balah Preparatory Boys School is a simple place: three rows of bare concrete rooms around a dusty courtyard. It was built by the United Nations 40 years ago for Palestinian refugees who fled the newly-created Israeli state.

The school custodian, Jowad al-Akraa, saw the masked men come in. It was 9:30 , the third class period. He challenged the men but they said nothing. Instead, they fanned out and started opening classroom doors as though looking for someone.

Masked men at the school are not uncommon, Mr. Akraa said. When any of several Palestinian political factions call a strike, masked men often come to demand that the students leave. The only thing unusual about these men, the custodian said, was they were dressed in olive-green jumpsuits, with hoods pulled over their face instead of the usual Palestinian checkered headdresses.

Mr. Buheisi was standing at the classroom door when they reached him. He did not seem to expect danger from the men, and they said nothing to him.

Fourteen-year-old Sattar was sitting in the second row of the classroom. Mr. Buheisi was preparing to give a quiz from their textbook, he recalls.

"Nobody was afraid. Then the man shot him in the head. We all started crying," Sattar said. "He was a good teacher."

Klaus Worm, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, runs the school and 152 others in the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the "intifada" uprising in 1987, eight Palestinians working for his agency have been killed; Mr. Buheisi was the second teacher slain at a school.

"I've been here off and on for 18 years. I've been in Beirut. I've never heard of teachers being assassinated in front of school children," Mr. Worm said. "I'm shocked. I'm revolted."

"I can protest to the community, but that's about the only thing I can do," he said. "I only hope that the circle of violence ends."

Others, too, worry the occupied territories are slipping into lawless chaos as armed men have stepped up the pace of murder. There are too many factions and too many sides to know who is doing all the killing.

Last week two more human rights groups -- and the visiting foreign minister of Australia -- added to the growing condemnations of Israeli undercover units for the sharp rise in the number of unarmed men they have killed.

Similarly, masked Palestinian groups have come under new and open criticism in leaflets and the Arab press. Palestinians are now risking retribution and condemning the killing of fellow Arabs.

In the center of Deir al-Balah, men from the extended family of Abdel al-Buheisi sit on chairs, set up in two long rows, and drink the bitter coffee that is ritual to receiving condolences. Women go to the teacher's home, where they comfort his widow, Aysha.

In the corner of the room where she mourns is a portrait of her husband. The photo shows a handsome man, with a rakish wave in his full, black hair, and an amused expression.

Aysha Buheisi is also a teacher, at a nearby girls' school. She says her salary is not enough to take care of the five children now left without a father. She does not know what she will do.

Aysha blames Israelis for her husband's death, though she admits she has no proof and no good reasons why they would kill him. There are no answers to her questions, only the blunt fact that it happened.

Her lament is an accusation as good as any other: "I want to ask all the world: Why did they kill my husband?"

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