By People Staff
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

Inspired by the Olympic games he had seen on TV, Mohammed al-Durra told his mother of his modest dream: He hoped to become the star of his elementary school soccer team in the Palestinian Breij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. But the bright, energetic 12-year-old didn’t survive even to his next match. “Death,” says his mother, Amal, 35, “was waiting for Mohammed.”

On Sept. 30 the boy was reportedly returning home with his father, Jamal, 36, an unemployed construction worker who had just sold the family’s used Fiat near Gaza City, when their taxi approached an Israeli security checkpoint. There, a vicious clash had erupted among stone-throwing Palestinian youths, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police. Exiting the cab, the father and son found themselves in the line of fire. That was when a French television cameraman captured the image that has been seen worldwide and become a disturbing symbol of the brutal conflict. Despite his father’s desperate efforts to shield him, Mohammed was caught in a crossfire and killed.

The clashes began after right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon enraged Palestinians Sept. 28 by visiting Muslim shrines on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to show support for continued Israeli control over them. Protests followed, and within days more than 55 people, mostly Palestinians, had been killed. But none of the victims commanded as much attention as Mohammed, the second of seven children living in his family’s three-room cinder-block house. Many Israelis expressed horror at the death, and government officials voiced regret but accused Palestinian leaders of placing youths—including Mohammed, who they claimed had been throwing stones—in harm’s way. “What we are seeing,” says Noam Katz of the foreign ministry, “is the cynical use by the Palestinians of children.”

Ironically, Mohammed’s mother, who denies that he threw stones, says that Jamal, hospitalized with eight bullet wounds, had taken his son with him that day to keep him away from the trouble. “He wanted to be a football star,” says Amal, left to care for Mohammed’s pet finches, “and now he is a star in paradise.”