Archbishop Tutu meets devastated Gaza family

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked from his car and, his head lowered, paused for a moment's silent prayer or reflection at the alley where so many of the Athamneh family had been killed.

Then he stepped forward to the warm embrace of a tearful Saad Athamneh, 55, who lost three of his sons, all of them fathers, 18 months ago. "The siege is continuing," he told the venerable South African in a short speech of welcome outside the family home. "The US is controlling the Middle East. The Israelis killed my children while I was praying. Please come in and see what happened."

The Archbishop was visiting the still ravaged house in this northern Gaza town 17 months later than he had intended. He was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the Israeli shelling that killed 21 civilians – 18 of them Athamneh family members – on 8 November 2006.

The mission intended to visit a month later but were refused Israeli entry visas, and it is only now they have been able to enter through Egypt and the southern Rafah crossing.

Yesterday the most bereaved of the Athamneh family met him at the two-storey house, a hole in the roof still testifying to the direct hit, the walls festooned with lists of the dead, adults and children alike.

Leaving the house the Archbishop would only say: "We are quite devastated. It is not something you would wish on your worst enemy."

Earlier the Archbishop, who has condemned Qassam rocket fire, stood in respectful silence as Usama Athamneh told him simply: "My wife, my mother, my sister, were all killed." One of his sons, Mustafa, 12, must live with the memory of escaping after his mother fell dead beside him. Another standing beside him, said Mr Athamneh, had shrapnel in the brain. Thanks to treatment in an Israeli hospital "he's recovered, he's OK".

The Israeli military's investigation into the shelling found that "the injury of the Palestinian civilians was not intentional and was directly due to a rare and severe failure in the artillery fire control system". But in their June 2007 report recounting their failure to visit the scene, the UN mission – which must also assess the victims' current needs – said that "whether the casualties at Beit Hanoun were caused by a mistake, recklessness, criminal negligence or were wilful, those responsible must be held accountable".