Gaza's Children Suffer During Israeli Conflict

There is possibly nothing more unsettling than the sound of an F-16 overhead on its bombing run, when there are two or three seconds of a high whistling—hardly enough time to do anything but flop on the floor—followed by a massive explosion somewhere in this crowded refugee camp in Al Nuseirat, Gaza. It would later prove to not have been terribly close, but nonetheless the apartment tower shakes, windows rattle, teacups tinkle abruptly in the china cupboard. A look of animal-like panic suddenly distorts the chipmunk-cheeked face of 10-year-old Abdullah, who perhaps realizes, like so many other Gaza kids these past three weeks, that none of the adults in the room can do anything at all to protect him; they all look, at least momentarily, as scared as he does. He runs over to his father and sits close to him; his older brother, Hussein, 14, is already there. A few minutes later there's another whistle, another airstrike; half an hour later a third. Then a lull of a couple of hours, and late in the night a resumption; a dozen more at least before dawn.

So it went all over Gaza on Friday night, what many hope was the last night of Israel's relentless bombing campaign, sharply ratcheted up in its final days and hours. Israel's security cabinet voted Saturday night to declare a unilateral ceasefire, beginning at 2 a.m. Sunday, along the lines brokered by the Egyptians in separate talks with Hamas and Israel. Hamas has not signed on, however, and whether it ceases firing rockets at Israel, and whether Israel will pull its ground forces out of Gaza are open questions. Israeli activity was intense in the lead-up to the declaration. The Israeli military reported 50 airstrikes on Hamas targets overnight Friday. Palestinian officials said there were even more, with 50 to 60 reported in Rafah alone, on the southern border of the Gaza strip with Egypt. Just in an hourlong period in Rafah on Saturday afternoon, we could see two squadrons of what appeared to be F-16 fighter-bombers repeatedly launching what seemed to be bombs or missiles, though no impact blasts could be heard. Palestinians say these are special projectiles intended to burrow underground to destroy tunnels; there's no way to confirm that.

Israelis insist they are only targeting Hamas militants, even though the toll Friday included a U.N.-run refugee center in a school, where two were killed. The Palestinian death toll so far is 1,203, according to the head of emergency services in Gaza, Moawiya Hassanein. The Palestinians repeatedly accuse the Israelis of indiscriminately targeting civilians; the Israelis blame Hamas for firing on them from concentrations of civilians. Whatever the truth, the death toll is overwhelmingly disproportionate; so far only three Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel, as well as 10 Israeli soldiers, nine of them in ground operations in Gaza. The Israelis don't dispute the overall Hamas numbers, but say they can prove that all but 25 percent of the dead were Hamas militants. Palestinians also say that a third of the dead are children—410 in all. Judging from figures obtained from the registrar's office in Al-Aqsa hospital, a small hospital in central Gaza, children aren't always quite that high a percentage of the victims, though still worrisomely numerous. Of the 661 war admissions as of Saturday, 23 percent were children, 14 percent women, and the rest men; in all, 150 died there.

Many of the victims are caught up in aerial assassinations using high-tech weaponry—Apaches, Predators and F-16s—in crowded communities. Even when the strike is an accurately precise one, like that on the home of Issa Batran in the Bureij camp Friday, there are likely to be many civilian victims. That missile destroyed only his apartment, not touching those next to it and below it. Issa was not inside, but his wife and children were; it turns out that only five of his children were killed, rather than all six as earlier reported; the baby boy, Mohanad Amer, was found alive in the rubble of another room. Their funeral Saturday was instructive. At the mosque, Issa mourned before the bodies, shrouded in green Hamas flags, the faces of the male children on view, badly wounded; the faces of the females all covered, in keeping with Islamic sensitivities.

While everyone insisted Issa was not a Hamas militant, there seemed little doubt of that. Presiding over the service was Sheik Abu Abdullah, wearing sunglasses because he's blind—as the result of an injury he sustained fighting Israelis in previous years. "Be patient," he preached, in a near shout, "and continue the resistance." Issa was too distraught to be interviewed, but his brother Ibrahim said it was immaterial whether Issa was Hamas or not. "The children, were they from the resistance? This is collective killing," said Ibrahim, who added that this would be his 41st funeral since the Israeli campaign began Dec. 27. The Hamas deputy foreign minister, Ahmed Yousef, in an interview later at his home in Rafah, said he, like many Hamas officials, "consider ourselves dead men walking." He maintains most of the civilian casualties were just indiscriminate, but even if they occurred as the result of an assassination attempt, he asked, "Is this justified by the Western mentality? Kill the whole family to get one man?"

At the Bureij mosque Saturday, another funeral was going on at the same time, also as a result of an incident that had happened the night before, at a house not far from the Bureij camp cemetery. Amer Gadlili, 38, lost his 8-year-old son to Israeli tank shelling—which he and his friends all said was unprovoked and unexplainable. A second son lost both legs but lived. A third son was blinded but lived. "The Israelis will never destroy Hamas," he said. "It's impossible, no matter how many they kill."

Both the Gadlili mourners and the Batran mourners joined together bearing the victims on their shoulders in a mass procession to the cemetery, located on a knoll just outside the refugee camp. The cemetery long since filled up, so the gravediggers had to open old graves to find room to put these new ones on top of the old ones. They pried open one crypt but found a woman there (judging from the hair), and closed it again—unrelated female and male victims may not lie together. When the mourning parties arrived, the entire cemetery teemed with people, and a sound truck blared with prayers.

Bad as it may be, most of Gaza's 1 million people will of course survive. The bombing was heavy Saturday night and then suddenly ceased just around the time of the late-night declaration by Israel. That does not necessarily mean there still won't be victims. This is especially true of the children who have endured night after night of terror. Psychologist Hasan Zeyada, head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center, says more than half of the children may end up with posttraumatic-stress disorder, either from what they have seen and heard, or from watching the horrific cinema verité on Palestinian television. He ticks off the symptoms: "clinging behavior, regression, bedwetting, re-experience and flashbacks, intrusive memories and dreams," and, worst of all in a way, "disappointment in parents unable to protect them."

Our host Hassan says all his three children now climb in bed with their parents, which they hadn't done in years. His son Abdullah, 14, came to him half way through all this and handed him a letter, which he had carefully and beautifully written out. In it the boy pleas formally with his father to "remember me when I am dead, and promise to bury me near Grandmother and Grandfather, and please visit my grave every week." The father wept for half an hour after reading it, he says. Abdullah, his 10-year-old son, one long night when the bombing was particularly bad, held his mother and said "please watch my eyes and make sure I don't go to sleep, mama," as Hassan related it. "He was afraid he would die and not wake up."