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January 9, 2009

257 Children killed in Gaza

POLITICS - Tiny bodies of children lying side by side wrapped in white burial shrouds. The cherubic face of a dead preschooler sticking up from the rubble of her home. A man cradling a wounded boy in a chaotic emergency room after Israel shelled a United Nations funded school.

Palestinians have large families and children, who make up more than half of crowded Gaza's 1.4 million people, are the most defenseless victims of the war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli army has unleashed unprecedented force in its campaign against Hamas militants, who being civilians themselves are embedded in the civilian population.

A photo of four-year-old Kaukab Al Dayah, just her bloodied head sticking out from the rubble of her home, covered many front pages in the Arab world Wednesday. The preschooler was killed early Tuesday when an Israeli F-16 attacked her family's home in Gaza City. Four adults also died.

As of Thursday night 257 children had been killed and 1,080 wounded, with about a third of the total casualties since Dec. 27, according to UN figures released today.

Israel says it is targeting Hamas in response to its repeated rocket attacks on southern Israel, and is doing its utmost to avoid civilian deaths. However, foreign aid officials note that civilians can't escape blockaded Gaza and that Israel's bombing of crowded civilian areas inevitably leads to civilian casualties. The Israeli military has used tank and artillery shells, as well as large aerial bombs.

Children have been killed in strikes on their houses, while riding in cars with their parents, while playing in the streets, walking to a grocery and even at UN shelters. No place is safe and the Israeli forces won't let Palestinians leave the country.

"It is worse than concentration camp," says one Palestinian. "Its like they're trying to exterminate us."

Sayed, Mohammed and Raida Abu Aisheh – ages 12, eight and seven – were at home with their parents when they were all killed in an Israeli air strike before dawn Monday. The family had remained in the ground floor apartment of their building, while the rest of the extended clan sought refuge in the basement from heavy bombardment of nearby Hamas installations.

Those in the basement survived. The children's uncle, Saber Abu Aisheh, 49, searched today through the rubble for survivors. He said Israel gave no warning, unlike two years earlier when he received repeated calls from the Israeli military, including on his cellphone, that a nearby house was going to get hit and that he should evacuate.

"What's going on is not a war, it's a mass killing," said Abu Aisheh, still wearing the blood-splattered olive-coloured sweater he wore the night of the air strike.

The Israeli military did not comment when asked why the Abu Aisheh house was targeted.

In the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, medics found four young children next to their dead mothers in a house, according to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. "They were too weak to stand up on their own," the statement said.

The Red Cross did not say what happened to the children, but noted that the Israeli army refused rescuers permission to reach the neighbourhood for four days. Israel said the delay was caused by fighting.

Medic Mohammed Azayzeh said he retrieved the bodies of a man and his two young sons from central Gaza on Wednesday. One of the boys, a one-year-old, was cradled in his father's arms.

In the Jebaliya refugee camp, five sisters from the Balousha family, ages four, eight, 11, 14 and 17, were buried together in white shrouds on Dec. 29. An Israeli air strike on a mosque, presumably a Hamas target, had destroyed their adjacent house. Only their parents and a baby girl survived.

"We are talking about urban war," said Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, the Jordan-based spokesman for UNICEF in the Middle East and North Africa. "The density of the population is so high, it's bound to hurt children ... This is a unique conflict, where there is nowhere to go."

Successive generations of Gaza children have grown up with violence, part of the accelerating conflict with Israel. In the late 1980s, many threw stones at Israeli soldiers in a revolt against occupation. In the second uprising, starting in 2000, some children were even recruited by Hamas as suicide bombers.

Having experienced trauma and their parents' helplessness, this new generation of children may be more vulnerable to recruitment by militants.

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