Sami will soon be this war's latest child martyr

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The Independent Online

The little boy is lying under a pink flowery sheet, his bandaged head tilted to one side and his cheeks still streaked with a mix of blood and Gaza dust.

The little boy is lying under a pink flowery sheet, his bandaged head tilted to one side and his cheeks still streaked with a mix of blood and Gaza dust.

His pathetically small chest pumps away steadily - up, down, up down - a human bellows driven by an artificial respirator.

His closed eye-lids, sealed by long lashes, are swollen; so are his lips, twisted by the battery of pipes and wires that connect his mouth to the beeping and buzzing life support system at his bedside.

Officially, Sami Abu Jazar - a 12-year-old Palestinian who looks no more than nine - is still alive. His heart pounds doggedly on. But, in every other sense, he is dead - "clinically dead", as the doctors put it - because of the Israeli bullet buried in his skull.

He never had a hope. He was brain dead from the moment the bullet had passed through his forehead. Islamic custom forbids the doctors from pulling the plug on Sami; only when his heart stops, will he be pronounced dead and released for burial. "We are just waiting for the end," said the doctor in his intensive care ward at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

Only then, will Sami Abu Jazar officially become - by the latest count by the UN's Children's Fund - the 24th child to die in the Palestinian uprising over the last fortnight. Or will he? It could be three or four days before his heart gives up its pointless work. By then, he could be number 25, or 26, or will it be 30?

The violence in the Middle East has many horrible forms, but the killing of children has come to symbolise the tragedy above all else. Even as Sami lay there yesterday - and the region slid into a period of comparative calm after the storm of the last two weeks - news was coming in that another Palestinian youth, 17-year-old Sami Hassan Salim, had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. He was number 23.

The search for a solution has brought the world's diplomatic heavyweights rushing to the region. The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan held talks with both the Israelis and Palestinians yesterday before unexpectedly extending his stay for 24 hours. And Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, arrived on a mission to "persuade both sides to step back from the brink".

But that already complex and ambitious goal will never be realised while children go on dying. It forms a vortex: the more bloodshed there is, the more public opinion - in Israel and among the Palestinians - hardens against peace.

In Gaza, that process is well under way. Palestinians talk now of peace only on their terms, and that means by securing what they perceive to be their rights - a full Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967. "The situation may be quiet now, but for how long?" said Dr Mouaweya Hassanien, director of the casualty unit at Shifa hospital. "A month, perhaps. Maybe two. But the violence will go on until we have a full resolution." By that, he explained, he meant full withdrawal - a condition to which the Israelis will never comply.

If he is right, it means deadlock - and the result will be one tragedy after another. Sami is the third really small - prepubescent - boy to die in Gaza - the first, Mohammed al-Durah, also 12, has become an emblem of the horrors of the conflict after TV cameras caught his final moments, huddled at the side of his terrified father.

Unfortunately, Sami's death was not filmed, so we are left to decide whose version of events to believe. The Israelis say that Israeli soldiers shot at a crowd of rioters at an outpost at Rafah on Gaza's southern border with Egypt. Their men were being pelted by molotov cocktails, one of which penetrated the outpost. Petrol bombs are regarded by the Israeli military as a deadly weapon, so the soldiers fired back - on the grounds that their lives were threatened.

Sami's family tell a different story. They say the boy - one of seven children whose father works as a farm worker in Israel - was on his way to see his sister after school when he was shot - out of the blue.

"Sami comes from a farming family in southern Gaza, a long way from the trouble. He is not involved in politics," said Abed Abu Jazar, a family member. "He has no idea of what's been going on. His dream was to make a living growing flowers and sell them. He was just a kid going home from school." The little boy was wearing his school back-pack when he was shot - not, take note, the standard apparel of the average Palestinian molotov cocktail thrower.