Family barbecue in Gaza ended in tragedy

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The Independent Online

A badly injured 12-year-old Palestinian boy described yesterday how his family were barbecuing corn on the cob in the backyard of their home when it was struck by a missile which killed his mother, older brother and six-year-old sister.

The Hajaj household was the first civilian family to suffer such losses since the beginning of the military campaign in Gaza mounted by Israeli forces 12 days ago in response to the capture of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier.

The funerals of the three victims of the blast, which injured three other family members, at least one critically, were held in Gaza City yesterday as John Ging, the director of the UN relief agency UNRWA, said the situation in Gaza for civilians had become "dangerous and desperate" since the incursions began. Mr Ging was strongly reinforcing a weekend declaration by Kofi Annan that Israel should take immediate action to relieve a humanitarian crisis in the Strip, including restoring badly depleted water and power supplies to its residents.

Speaking from Gaza City's Shifa hospital, Rani Hajaj, a leg and arm both in plaster, covered in shrapnel cuts, and with one eye closed, said that as they sat in the yard behind the house on Saturday evening they could hear an unmanned Israeli drone overhead but added that there had been no shooting in the area at the time.

"Suddenly the drone rocketed us. The force was so great that one of my brothers was lifted over the fence. My father carried me and gave me to my sister and they called someone from the street and put me in an ambulance. I didn't feel anything at first but then it hurt a lot."

His father had come into the yards seconds after the blast after seeing a guest off at the front door. Rani said that his older brothers Khaled and Shaban had been doing the barbecuing and that his third brother, Mohammed 27, who was killed, had been "cut to pieces". His sister Ruan, six, and his mother Amuna, 50, were also killed.

In response to widespread charges among Palestinians that the Hajaj family were victims of an Israeli attack aimed at militants, the Israel Defence Forces yesterday said it was investigating the incident. But denying claims of "alleged tank or artillery fire" - not made by the family - a statement added: "The Israeli Air Force targeted a group of gunmen carrying anti-tank missiles in a street in Shajaiya, and identified hitting them."

Unnamed Israeli military sources insisted that "intelligence" had found that the family were hit by a Palestinian anti-tank missile in the blast on Saturday evening.

The front of the house is in a relatively exposed position on the outer edge of the residential area of Shajaia, a suburb of Gaza City facing towards the Karni crossing, but the yard was behind the house. Israeli tanks moved over the crossing into Gaza at the end of last week opening a third front in their operation in the Strip.

As repeated artillery shelling resounded in the mainly deserted area yesterday, a relative of the family, Abu Souhal Hajaj, 63, pointed to a small hole about two and half inches in diameter in the base of the rear wall of the house which he said he believed had been left by the missile.

Shrapnel and what looked like panels of electric circuitry were lying on the ground, which contained a large scorched patch and burned corn cobs. Mr Hajaj said he had been at the petrol station near by when he heard the drone, and then the explosion. "I went quickly to the house but when I arrived the mother, the son, and the girl were all dead." The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who has denied there is a mounting humanitarian crisis in the Strip, won cabinet support yesterday for the operation and for an official policy refusing to negotiate with militants on an exchange of prisoners. The Israeli government has ruled out a ceasefire called for by Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, until Cpl Shalit is released.

But Mr Ging, who toured northern Gaza where troops pulled out of Beit Lahiya on Saturday leaving cut water pipes among some other damage, said: "It has come down to a struggle to survive day by day. The mood I encountered was a mixture of anger and desperation, a feeling of 'when is it going to end?'" He said that Israeli civilians were living with a daily threat from Qassam rockets and Palestinian civilians in Gaza "every night and day from the consequences of the military operation here" including the loss of power and water.

He urged both sides to resolve the crisis. Members of all the armed factions, several firing volleys into the air, joined in the funeral procession as it left Gaza City's al Omari mosque.

The body of Ruan Hajaj was draped in an Islamic Jihad flag. One faction member told the mourners through a loudspeaker: "Here is the martyr, here is the child, here is the mother of martyrs. Where were the Arab countries, were they watching?"

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