Children a fifth of Gaza dead in Israeli bombardment, with nowhere to hide

Bombardment takes its toll on young Palestinians despite the Israeli military saying it is trying to spare civilians in attacks on Hamas targets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:35am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:44am

Sobbing and shaking, Ismail Abu Musallam leaned against the wall of a hospital, waiting for three of his children to be prepared for burial. They were killed as they slept when an Israeli tank shell hit their home, burying 11-year-old Ahmed, 14-year-old Walaa and 16-year-old Mohammed under debris in their beds.

His personal tragedy is not unique. The UN says children make up a fifth of the 341 Palestinians killed in 12 days of intense Israeli bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip, where half the 1.7 million people are under the age of 18.

The Israeli military says it is doing its utmost to spare civilians by urging residents to leave areas that are about to be shelled or bombed as Hamas targets. It accuses the Islamic militants of using civilians as human shields by firing rockets from civilian areas. But even if urged to evacuate, most Gazans have no safe place to go, rights activists say.

"If you are going to attack civilian structures in densely populated areas, of course you are going to see children killed," said Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Seventy-five of those killed since fighting began on July 8 were under 18, according to a count based on information provided by Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Forty-eight of the victims were under the age of 13. Many of them were killed in their own homes.

After a relative lull on Friday, violence picked up again in the evening, with intensifying tank shelling and air strikes killing more than a dozen people. Among them were eight members of a single family, including four children, killed by tank fire on their home in northern Gaza.

One incident drew particular outrage. Four cousins, aged nine to 11, were playing on the beach near Gaza City's harbour on Wednesday when a missile fired from an Israeli gunboat hit a nearby shack. The boys fled, but were killed by a second missile.

The images of small, bloodied bodies lying face down in the sand triggered harsh international criticism.

The Israeli military said Hamas operatives were the target, and promised to investigate.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said that "Israel's efforts to try to minimise civilian casualties are unprecedented in the Western world", referring to its system of delivering evacuation warnings through text messages, automated calls and leaflets dropped from planes.

He said more than a dozen attacks were aborted when civilians were spotted in the area.

Like many in Beit Lahiya, Ismail Abu Musallam decided to remain in his apartment with his wife and seven children even as their neighbourhood came under intense artillery fire. Eventually, the children went to sleep. The oldest, Mohammed, was in one room, and little Ahmed and his sister Walaa in another, the 40-year-old carpenter said.

At some point in the night, a tank shell hit the flat, burying the three children under debris. They were taken to a local hospital, where each was wrapped in a white shroud and placed in the morgue's refrigerator.

Surrounded at the hospital by a throng of relatives and his 15-year-old son Omar, the bereaved father fought back tears on Friday as he spoke of his children.

The sadness then turned to anger. "We are with the resistance," he said, referring to Hamas militants who helped provoke the Israeli assault by firing more than 1,500 rockets at Israel in close to two weeks. "Three children died and I can offer another three just to give Palestine its freedom."

Outside the hospital, Yousef Aliyan, 14, said he had walked from his nearby home to watch dead and wounded being brought to the hospital.

"This is not the first time we came under shelling attack," he said. "I'm used to it."