Palestinians 'terrorised' by sonic boom flights

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The Independent Online

Human rights groups launched a High Court battle to stop the "physical and mental harm" to Gaza's civilian population they say is caused by Israel's new weapon against militant attacks: the sonic boom.

Miscarriages have increased sharply and children have been driven to panic by Israeli jets systematically breaking the sound barrier over Gaza, according to a petition filed with the court yesterday.

The petition, served by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, seeks a court ruling requiring the Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, to halt the low-altitude supersonic flights.

The groups say the fear and damage caused, particularly to children, by the "mock air raids" - a response to two phases of about 80 Qassam rocket attacks into Israel in September and October - are a form of "collective punishment" against the civilian population as a whole and therefore violate international law. Denying this, the Israeli military says the flights are a "less threatening" alternative to artillery fire and targeted assassinations, which have also increased in response to the rocket attacks and the suicide bombing that killed five Israelis in Hadera on 26 October.

According to UN figures 12 Palestinians were killed, including some civilians, in the last week of October. On Tuesday an Israeli Army sergeant, Yonatan Evron, was killed in a shoot-out with Palestinians in a village near Jenin. An Israeli was injured last night when two mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants hit Netiv Ha'asarah, a community just north of the Gaza Strip, hours after the army killed an al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant in Qabatiyeh, near Jenin.

A medical opinion submitted to the court by Dr Eyad el-Sarraj, a prominent Gaza psychiatrist, points out that the flights have often been timed when children are on their way to and from school. Dr Sarraj says there is already evidence the flights are triggering in young children "poor concentration leading to low academic achievement ... fear of losing a close relative ... fantasies, nightmares, depressive thoughts, glorification of violence, increased feelings of vulnerability and alertness". He said this was because "loud sounds are associated with danger in the minds of children, who are unable to comprehend the distinction between real shelling and mock air raids".

As well as citing bedwetting, "night terror", headaches, hyperventilation, and palpitations as symptoms, Dr Sarraj's report quotes Palestinian Ministry of Health figures that point to a 30-40 per cent increase in the number of spontaneous abortions during the period 27-29 October, when the use of the sonic boom was at its peak. Dr Sarraj, in whose own house a window was blown in and a ceiling cracked by the booms, said yesterday: "For children between two and eight, a loud sound like this is a sign of imminent danger. For others who are older it is a nuisance - troubling, alarming - because they know it is not an actual attack, but for young children it is traumatic and we don't know what will be the long-term effect. I am against suicide bombings, but I am also against subjecting civilians here to this form of punishment. I fear that at a time when we should be thinking about peace and negotiations, this will sow the seeds of hatred."

The UN Relief and Works Agency says 350 of its doors and windows were destroyed or damaged in the first phase of the overflights.

An IDF spokeswoman said the booms were a "message to the terrorists", which was "non-fatal" and "does not do long-term damage". There was already evidence that it had had a deterrent effect on rocket attacks. Research showed foetuses were not harmed by loud noises.