Gaza: While the world looked elsewhere, another week of death and misery

Majdi Saad Athamneh couldn't easily explain why he had come back after Friday prayers yesterday to the now empty, four-storey breeze-block building where it had all happened two days earlier. "I don't know," he said in hesitant English. "It's the house where I was born and lived all my life. What can I say?"

It was also, he didn't need to remind anybody, the house outside which he had passed the most hellish 15 minutes he will ever live through.

Forty-eight hours earlier he had been in the morgue at Kamal Adwan hospital distraught and weeping as he wrote down the names on a cigarette packet while the refrigeration trays were opened in turn to reveal the bodies of his 10-year-old son, Saad, three of his brothers and nine of his other close relatives, lost as they tried to flee through the choking smoke and dust from the barrage of shells fired by an Israeli artillery battery.

The puddles in the dirt road beside the building through which the family had tried to flee were no longer dark red with blood as they had been on Wednesday. Someone, too, had moved the chickens killed by shrapnel from the backyard. But last Tuesday's wash was still there, women's long dresses, a child's frayed orange tracksuit trousers, some blouses, hanging from poles dislodged by the blasts.

The Western world, which was anyway more interested by the count in the state of Virginia than the catastrophe in Beit Hanoun, has no doubt already moved on. For the Athamneh family, now in their second day of mourning after the funerals, it is impossible to do so.

Majdi's cousin Munir Athamneh, 36, who had lived across the road, sat smoking a cigarette and weeping yesterday, hunched and alone in the doorway of the building. He pointed to the still visible patches of blood on the ground across the alley where he had first seen, amid the confusion and screams of panic, the bodies of his two brothers lying by the wall. He, too, struggled to explain his presence here two days later. "I came to see," he said simply.

Five miles away from here and an hour or so earlier, the poverty-stricken and increasingly desperate 1.3 million residents of Gaza had been thrown what may prove their first real lifeline since the beginning of international economic blockade against the new Hamas government they had elected almost 10 months ago. Ishmail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, offered publicly to step down if it was necessary to ease the boycott. He was cheered by stunned worshippers when he announced at a Gaza City mosque: "When the issue of the siege is on one side, and my being Prime Minister is on the other, let the siege be lifted to end the suffering of the Palestinian people."

While the carnage in Beit Hanoun may have stimulated further popular demand for the Palestinian factions to resolve their differences in the face of external attack, it isn't the main reason for Mr Haniyeh's declaration. It could presage the long talked about "national unity" government which President Mahmoud Abbas hopes will persuade the international community - among other things - to pressure Israel to pay up the $60m a month in duties it owes the Palestinian Authority so that salaries can be paid to the tens of thousands of employees on whom Gaza and West Bank income is now so disproportionately dependent.

For now at any rate, it will have little meaning for the Athamneh family, immersed in its private grief. It is unlikely, for example, to console Majdi's surviving brother, Ibrahim Athamneh, 26, whose wife, lying in intensive care in Shifa, has yet to be told that their infant daughter, Malak, is dead. Even less so 11-year-old Mustafa Athamneh, whose mother, Nihad, 33, was killed in the alley, whose two brothers, Yazin and Saqr, are in Shifa hospital in Gaza City, and whose 13-year-old brother, Saeb, has been transferred to the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv with severe head injuries.

As friends and neighbours continued to arrive at the blue mourning tent 150 yards from the now-deserted family home, Mustafa, the arm of his widowed father Usama around his shoulder, was unable to stop crying. "I have no one to play with," he had said a few minutes earlier. "I have no one around me."

The sense of loss and survivor guilt he will have to grow up with is scarcely imaginable. "I was with my mother when she fell down," he said. "I ran away. I haven't slept for two days and nights."

Yesterday, red-eyed but eager now to get the details right, Majdi, who had barely been able to speak on Wednesday, described how he had rushed out into the alley with his wife and children after the first shell hit the roof only to see Saad, semi conscious and gasping after being struck by the second shell, lying on the ground. He had rushed to the end of the alley, turning right into Hamad Street, to try and summon help or an ambulance, but was halted in his tracks by third shell. As he turned back, a fourth shell, he said, struck the building, killing Saad. He picked the child up in his arms and ran back and turned left into the street. Before he could reach the crossroad 50 metres away, a fifth landed. He believes this was the shell which killed four of his female relatives.

The more grief stricken the family members, the less inclined they are to mouth political slogans or, for the most part, to engage in open debate over whether the tactic of Qassams has brought more suffering to Palestinians than to Israelis. But they react with near-universal disbelief at Israel's depiction of the artillery barrage as a "technical malfunction", or at the idea that its targeting could not have been observed in real time by one of the units among the military presence in the vicinity. "One or two shells might be a mistake but not 15 or 20," said Ibrahim Al Athamneh. The number of shells was probably closer to 12. But there is no dispute that the number of civilian deaths from last Wednesday rose to 19 yesterday as one more man died of his wounds. It is not lost around Hamad Street that this is more than twice the number of Israeli civilians killed in six years by the Qassam rockets Israel has been trying to halt.

Reflecting for a moment on the meaning of the attack, Majdi allowed himself one political statement - a reference to the newest Israeli Cabinet member, the hard-right nationalist Avigdor Liberman. "It's a present for the deputy Prime Minister," he said. "The man who said he wanted to turn Gaza into Chechnya."

A bloody week

* SUNDAY

Two Palestinian militants are killed and several injured in an Israeli missile strike near Jabalya.

* MONDAY

Israeli missile aimed at a group of militants lands near a Palestinian kindergarten, killing a teenage boy, critically wounding a teacher and seriously wounding eight children. A female Palestinian suicide bomber blows herself up near Israeli troops in Beit Hanoun, injuring one soldier.

* TUESDAY

Eight Palestinians are killed by Israeli soldiers in separate incidents. Hamas fires six rockets into Israeli town of Ashkelon. Israel says it has completed its week-long Gaza operation in Beit Hanoun which killed 60 gunmen and civilians.

* WEDNESDAY

Nineteen civilians killed in artillery barrage in Beit Hanoun, including 13 members of a single Palestinian family.

* THURSDAY

Two Palestinians reported missing after Israeli missile attack on home of a militant leader. Israeli drones buzz funeral of victims of Beit Hanoun attack.

* YESTERDAY

The death toll from Beit Hanoun rises as Israeli hospital officials confirm that one of the wounded transferred to Israel, has died.

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