Abandoned tank shell kills five Palestinian boys

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Five Palestinian boys were blown apart at a Gaza refugee camp on Thursday when one of them kicked an unexploded tank shell on their way to school.

Five Palestinian boys were blown apart at a Gaza refugee camp on Thursday when one of them kicked an unexploded tank shell on their way to school.

Another boy, Sufian Abu Jamea, 15, said he was about 300 yards away when he heard the explosion. "I turned to see from where it came," he said. "I saw parts of a leg flying in the air. Then I ran away."

A Palestinian official said the five victims, aged seven to 14, were so badly charred that they, could be identified only by their school books. The boys, all members of the Al Astal extended family, included two pairs of brothers.

The shell was apparently left on the ground after an Israeli army bombardment of the Khan Younis camp two days earlier.

The area, close to the Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal, has had frequent exchanges of fire since the intifada broke out 14 months ago.

United Nations relief workers in Khan Younis reported the camp was calm, but warned that violent demonstrations might erupt when the boys are buried after noon prayers today.

Saeb Erakat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said: "This tragedy is the full responsibility of the Israeli government."

The accident happened three days before a new American mediator, General Anthony Zinni, is due in the Middle East. Mr Erakat accused Israel of trying to undermine his mission by continuing to shell Palestinian camps and to besiege Ramallah and other West Bank cities.

Arieh Mekel, an Israeli government spokesman, expressed Israel's "grief" at the tragedy and sent condolences to the bereaved families, but stressed that no Israeli troops had been near the camp at the time of the explosion. "We know very well what it's like when children are hurt," he said. "We have had plenty of our own children hurt this past year."

Saman Khoury, the director of the Palestinian Media Centre in Ramallah, urged General Zinni to exert the full weight of American influence. "I hope they will act this time and not just preach," he said. "Even if the Israelis say they are sorry and that it was a mistake, there should be an end to the ease with which they fire on civilian areas.... It is inevitable that some shells will not explode, but they are bound to go off at one point or another," he added.

Mr Mekel retorted that the onus was on the Palestinians to stop their attacks on Israelis. "The American hope is that the Palestinians understand that the world has changed since September 11," he said. "The question the Palestinians have to answer – if they want to be numbered among the good guys – is are they ready to arrest terrorists and stop them operating from their territory."

¿ Two workers in an Israeli factory near the West Bank town of Tulkarem were wounded yesterday when three Palestinians drove a jeep through the factory gate and sprayed the compound with automatic fire. The factory owner, David Yagouri, said they then reversed through the same gate and escaped.

Israel is now kidnapping suspected terrorists rather than assassinating them, to draw less international criticism and also to interrogate the suspects about their network and operations to collect valuable intelligence. Special forces entered Bir Zeit yesterday and abducted six militants.

A day earlier, another squad arrested a senior Hamas operative and his brother, a Palestinian policeman, in Labed, near Tulkarem.

Also yesterday, Israeli troops raided Azzarieh, the New Testament Bethany, and sealed the offices of three Palestinian security services. Israel claims the offices are a breach of the Oslo peace accords. It had earlier closed Palestinian Authority institutions in Arab East Jerusalem.

Azzarieh, a village just across the West Bank border from Jerusalem, is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control.

Children killed in fighting

The killing of children has become a macabre feature of the present intifada. The start of the Palestinian uprising in September last year was marked by iconic video footage of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah dying in his father's arms after being shot by Israeli soldiers. The sequence of pictures, flashed around the world, caused shock and revulsion.

The young al-Durrah found a counterpart when a Jewish baby girl, 10-month-old Shalhavet Pass, was shot dead in her pram in June in the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Her face was soon emblazoned on T-shirts and posters.

The next month, an 11-year-old Palestinian, Halil al-Moghrabi, was machine gunned by Israeli troops while playing football in Rafah, southern Gaza. Since then, a catalogue of infant deaths has been recorded by human rights groups.

The Palestinian Red Crescent says more than 154 Palestinians under the age of 18 have been killed. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says more than 127 minors have died, including 28 Israeli children – 22 of them blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers. The youngest Jewish victim was five-month-old Yehuda Shoham, above, who died when a rock was thrown at his family's car near Shilo in the West Bank in June. The youngest Palestinian victim, three-month-old Diya Tmeizi, was shot in a car near Hebron in July.

James Palmer