Civilians pay with lives under Gaza's skies of death

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The Independent Online

When Dr Zein al-Abedin Shahin heard the first missile hit, he immediately ran to help the wounded.

Outside the clinic where he was working late, on Abu Bakr al-Siddiq street, he found 12-year-old Mohammed al-Barood lying injured.

According to colleagues at the clinic who rushed out after him, Dr Shahin was holding the boy in his arms when the second missile hit. Both doctor and child were killed in Monday night's attack, the fifth Israeli air strike in Gaza in 24 hours and the most devastating in terms of civilian casualties.

A piece of shrapnel pierced Mohammed's heart.

It was not clear whether the pilot of the Israeli helicopter saw the doctor holding the boy before he fired the second missile. But what he must have seen as he pulled the trigger was the crowd of civilians who had run into the street to help the wounded. There were hundreds of people on Abu Bakr al-Siddiq street when the second missile was fired, according to witnesses. Many of them were children.

At least nine people died in the two strikes. Seven of the dead were civilians. More than 100 civilians were wounded. The director of the nearby Al-Aqsa Martyrs' hospital said that of the cases it received, 11 of the 30 wounded were younger than 14.

The target, it appears, was a Peugeot 504 driven by militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. The remains of the car, the bonnet and a few bits and pieces of the sides lay in the street.

It started at around 9.20pm. The Israeli army claimed that soldiers had spotted the militants in the car trying to cross the fence that surrounds Gaza into Israel, and opened fire.

The Israeli military said a helicopter pursued the car and fired on it as it drove into Nusseirat along Abu Bakr al-Siddiq street.

Air strikes are part of daily life in Gaza. Radio Freedom, a local station, broadcasts alerts when helicopters are seen in the sky over Gaza.

The announcer warns where the helicopter has been spotted. Everyone keeps their radios tuned - including The Independent.

The first missile missed the car, according to witnesses. Instead, it killed two civilians. One was identified as Mohammed al-Masri, 23, but it was not clear who the other one was. Fourteen-year-old Ra'ed al-Barood carried the body of the second dead man.

"I was in the mosque when the first missile hit," he said. "We were having a campaign to collect donations for Rafah [where the Israeli army recently demolished more than 100 civilian houses]. Around 9.30 I heard the first strike. There was a loud boom. There were about 12 of us in the mosque. So we went out. The missile did not hit the car, it had hit the tarmac.

"I carried one of the martyrs. He had been hit in his head, and the back of his skull was gone. I carried him with another man, an adult. Then they fired another missile, after we got about ten metres with him. The explosion knocked us over on to the ground. Then I saw my father, he was wounded, lying on the ground."

What Ra'ed did not know at that point was that his brother, Mohammed, had been wounded by the first missile and that Dr Shahin was trying to save him. "Dr Shahin left alone," said Ayman al-Ibween, a nurse who was in the clinic with him. "He just went out to help, without saying anything.

"He found the first casualty, Mohammed al-Barood, who was injured by the first missile, and he was trying to bring him here. He had only gone two steps with the boy when the second missile hit and killed both Mohammed al-Barood and Dr Shahin."

The 30-year-old doctor left behind a wife and a four-year-old child. His widow is Russian: Dr Shahin met her when he was training as a doctor in Russia and she chose to return to Gaza with him.

"We lost him," said Na'imeh al-Zianeh, an administrator at the clinic. "He was a doctor. It was like him to sacrifice his life for another human being. I was not surprised."

The other civilian dead were identified by hospital staff as Atiya Mo'oens, 20, Abd al-Hamin Tabaza, 23, Ahmad Khalife, 49, and Mahdi Isma'il, age unknown.

The second missile hit the militants' car, and two occupants were killed. They were identified as Jaber Foju, 25, the driver, and Hadi Ayyash, 27. Two were injured and another escaped unharmed, according to witnesses.

Even an Israeli government minister, Yosef Paritzky, yesterday urged the army to admit a mistake and compensate innocent victims.

"The failure to differentiate between civilians and terrorists turns all the Palestinians into potential suicide bombers," said Mr Paritzky. But from the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the ministers close to him, there was no remorse. The most the deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, would say was that the deaths of seven innocent civilians killed outside their homes were "distressing".

The military strikes, he said, would continue.