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Middle East

Israel's shame: Children, the true victims

In Gaza, one-in-three of those killed or injured is under 18

The rockets slammed in, two in succession, just after 11.30 at night. When Huda Tawfil had shaken herself awake through the confusion and terror, her first thoughts were for her baby. Seeing what she did through the smoke and flames, she burst into tears.

The 20-year-old started digging through the rubble with her hands as other members of the family ran into the room and joined in. She then cradled her little girl on the way to hospital in her husband's car. There was an emergency operation, but the injuries from the shrapnel proved to be too severe.

The name of Hanin Tawfil was added to a growing and particularly grim list from the latest Gaza conflict. Out of 104 civilians killed and 970 wounded, 34 and 274 respectively were children; dozens of others who survived have been orphaned and left traumatised by the violence.

The figures are startling even by the vicious standards of the recent bloodlettings in this region. It is, of course, the case that rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinians, often indiscriminately, had led to casualties among young boys and girls in Israel. But the ministry of defence in Tel Aviv had repeatedly stressed in the course of this mission that its attacks were surgical and all efforts possible had been made to avoid collateral damage.

Now the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) is preparing legal action, through its Israeli counterparts, against the Israeli authorities over civilian casualties due to military action, with a stress on child victims.

The director, Raji Sourani, said: "What has happened is truly terrible. In some cases the Israelis have said they simply got the wrong house; they were aiming at another civilian house next door. I am appalled by this logic.

"The best one can say about them is that they had a massive intelligence failure; they just did not know Gaza. So there were all these civilian houses hit and, with our young population and large families, so many children were killed. In contrast, Hamas and other resistance groups like Islamic Jihad have suffered comparatively few casualties."

According to PCHR and other human rights groups, the militias lost 51 killed and 29 injured. The Israeli authorities have accused the militants of deliberately firing rockets from heavily urban areas, deliberately putting civilian lives at risk and, indeed, there is some evidence pointing towards this.

The family of Hanin Tawfil denies, however, there were any rocket launches from its area, Zaitun, before its home was hit. Nor, the family insists, was there any warning of an impending attack, which the Israeli military sometime issues before sending in missiles and bombs.

The baby's grandfather, Ahmed Abdulrahman Tawfil, said: "We were just sitting around talking when they attacked. Would we have been doing that if there were rockets being fired from near us, or if we had any notice? There was no call, nothing."

Hanin's face is on a poster to highlight the suffering of children in the conflict. Her father, 22-year-old Khalid Ahmed, was bitter. "This time the Israelis were carrying out a war against boys and girls. They were trying to make a generation suffer."

Zaitun, near the border with Israel, was subjected to repeated strikes in the eight days of fighting with a high number of resultant child casualties. At Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, seven-year-old Nesma Khalija lay in bed, her face calm. Her mother, Alia, stood over her, imploring her to say something.

"She was in a coma after the attack. She is now awake, but she has not said anything. We don't know whether she will ever speak again," said Alia. "She has head injuries and the doctors think it may be in her mind. We don't know what kind of treatment to get or where we'll get it."

Nesma was at her home in Zaitun last Monday afternoon when a missile hit the adjoining house; she was flung through the air and landed on a concrete floor. She is one of many children who will continue to suffer from trauma whatever happens to the peace deal, Ashraf al-Qudra, the director of the hospital, said.

"This is obviously a problem we have had to deal with before. But this time we have been caught by surprise by the scale of it," he said. "It is something we shall do, but, in the meantime, we are lucky that here we have the family support system where relations get together to help each other."

On the next bed, nine-year-old Mohammed Saadi Abu-Zhour, in a coma, was very much in need of that support. His aunt, Fetima Shahar, kept a tearful vigil; five members of the family had been killed and four others injured, among them the boy's mother, Tahanir, who suffered wounds to her head and eyes.

"His mother is suffering, and she will be in no position to look after Mohammed," Mrs Sahar said. "We will have to go through difficulties for a long time. But there is no point in complaining; we just have to thank Allah for those who stayed alive."