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In Gaza


 NETZARIM, Gaza, Oct. 7

Muhammad Rayyan, 12, was ready when the Israeli soldiers fired, the bullets whizzing and cracking in unnerving waves overhead, forcing dozens of people to sprawl motionless on the ground and crouch behind sand piles.

He had scrawled his name and phone number on his arm and on papers in his pockets, in case he was shot. He had received his parents' blessing before he left the house. And he had told his two brothers, who at one point restrained him from running with rocks in each hand toward the muzzle flashes, that if he did not become a martyr today, they would not have to wait much longer.

While the conflagration that has erupted between the Palestinians and the Israelis is overwhelmingly a teenagers' war, it has also swept up a disturbing number of children. A handful have been killed in crossfire, but a few others, including Muhammad, court death daily in what has become a ritual dance between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers.

"I wait for God to choose me," said the boy, who has been nicknamed the Lion because of his fearlessness. "When I see another fall, I am jealous. I long to be like him. This is my only goal in life."

Muhammad's father, Nezar Rayyan, 42, a large man in a flowing white robe and with a heavy black beard, sat under a canopy in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where crowds had come to pay respects to the family of Abdullah el-Muquad, a 20-year-old who was shot dead on Friday. Mr. Rayyan, who teaches religion at the Islamic University in Gaza, was preparing to deliver the oration. He had overseen the ritual washing of the body.

The impact of his words carried great weight with his hundreds of listeners. All said they admired his family's sacrifices for Palestine. His grandfather was killed in the Israeli war of independence when he went to retrieve the booby-trapped body of a comrade. His grandmother and father were driven from their home in Ashkelon and became refugees in Gaza.

Mr. Rayyan, who has a doctorate in theology, spent 12 years in Israeli jails. The Palestinian Authority has imprisoned his brother, a leader of the fundamentalist group Hamas. And his brother-in-law, Souhib Temraz, carried out a suicide bomb attack on an Israeli bus.

But those in the crowd were also keenly aware that each day Mr. Rayyan fished into his pockets to give his four boys three shekels to take a taxi to the Netzarim junction, where Palestinians throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. As he spoke to the crowd, one man, standing not far from his three boys, was shot dead.

"I give the boys a cell phone but I resist calling to ask what is happening," he said. "I wait for them to come home, either by foot or in a sack. The choice God has laid before us is to win or to die. There are no other options left. We are fated to go to war."

But beneath his oratory was a man deeply troubled. He hugged his sons before they departed and did not hide his concern.

"He has a soft heart," said his wife, Hyam Temraz, 38, her brown eyes peering out from under black folds of cloth. "Softer than mine. You should see him when the children get sick. He cannot control his worry. But he is a believer. He knows that everything is God's will, that God alone chooses how we live and when we die. He puts his faith in God, and to prove it he allows his sons, whom he loves more than life, to face the Israelis."

At the junction, Israeli soldiers on the heights of a Jewish settlement kept some 200 people pinned down most of the afternoon. As the shooting at the junction intensified, most chanted slogans from the Koran.

"Take off your neck chain," said Ibrahim Rayyan, 16, to the boy next to him. "You may face God today. Such jewelry is forbidden."

When some boys darted from one huge sand pile to the next, piles dumped along the road by the Palestinian police to provide some cover, this set off bursts of Israeli automatic fire. Men pushed their faces into the dirt, muttered angry slurs and winced each time a shot rent the air above them.

"Muhammad! Muhammad! Stay down!" Ibrahim shouted as his brother darted forward alone to toss rocks at the soldiers. "They are going to kill you."

 The New York Times on the Web

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