Girl, 7, killed at the dinner table as Israelis retaliate for mortar attack

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The Independent Online

A seven-year-old Palestinian girl was killed yesterday as she was eating lunch in her home. Israeli troops had opened fire in response to a mortar attack which wounded four residents of a nearby Jewish settlement.

A seven-year-old Palestinian girl was killed yesterday as she was eating lunch in her home. Israeli troops had opened fire in response to a mortar attack which wounded four residents of a nearby Jewish settlement.

Relatives said that a single Israeli bullet had passed through Rana Sian's head and hit her father in the leg as the family sat at the table eating rice and meat in their home in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medics said the Israelis were retaliating for the earlier mortar attack on the Gaza settlement of Neveh Dekalim which seriously injured an 18-year-old man and an eight-year-old boy. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, which also slightly injured two other men.

The fresh bloodshed came as Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, formally invited the opposition Labour Party to join a new coalition government to push through his plan to dismantle the 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip.

The coalition plan won decisive backing from the Likud central committee on Thursday. This was a serious defeat for Likud dissidents, who bitterly opposed Mr Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan and had hoped to block a unity government with Labour in an attempt to sabotage it.

Tomorrow, Labour's central committee will be urged by its veteran leader Shimon Peres formally to approve the invitation to join Mr Sharon's government.

The outbreak of violence in Gaza threatened to cast a shadow over renewed hopes of a ceasefire as Palestinians embark on elections to replace Yasser Arafat as their president.

The dead Palestinian girl's sister Amal, 17, said last night that the bullet had gone through the window frame, entered and left the head of her sister, the youngest in the family, before striking her father, Omar, in the right leg as he stood three metres away from the table. She said her father had got up to wash his hands in the sink. "Suddenly I noticed that my father was crying out that he had been shot in the leg. We rushed over and tried to see what had happened to him.

"But then my younger sister Heba noticed that Rana was lying on the ground. She told my mother to look at her. She had fallen on her head and was lying in a pool of blood. She still had rice and meat in her mouth. We didn't believe it. My father forgot his wound and went to carry her. Blood was dripping from her." She said that her father had taken her to hospital but that she believed she had been killed instantly.

Amal Sian claimed that the house was well away from the main concentration of Israeli fire after the mortar attack and that the Israeli response had been to fire "indiscriminately" and that her sister had been killed as a result.

"I can't believe that I have lost my sister. She was cute, very sociable and good at school. We were always laughing. I had been speaking to her only a few moments earlier asking her how she was because I had been busy with my married sister's family."

Israeli military sources confirmed last night that gunfire had been directed at Khan Yunis in the aftermath of the mortar attack but insisted that it had been aimed at Palestinian mortar crews. An Israeli Defence Forces spokesman said reports that the girl had been killed were still being investigated.

In a separate and earlier incident, Palestinian militants fired a Qassam rocket at the border fence separating Israel from Gaza but no casualties or damage were reported.

Mr Sharon, whose parliamentary majority collapsed last week when the pro-disengagement secular party Shinui voted down his budget, will now seek to negotiate a new coalition with Labour and two ultra-orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas. Labour's 22 votes are vital to avoid elections, get the budget passed and force through disengagement.

One Sharon aide said of the new coalition: "It's a foregone conclusion. It will take 10 days to two weeks to form a government." But there is likely to be fierce haggling over ministerial portfolios and some Labour and Shas Knesset members will press for significant changes to the budget before guaranteeing their support. One possibility mooted yesterday was for Mr Peres to be made deputy prime minister. Mr Sharon has told Likud activists that he will try to keep the Justice Ministry - vacated by the Shinui leader Tommy Lapid - in Likud hands.

Meanwhile police and soldiers evacuating a caravan from the illegal West Bank settlement outpost of Nofei Nehemiyeh declared the area a "closed military zone" yesterday. They had run into opposition from settlers at the site, east of the huge Ariel settlement.

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