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Middle East

'We have lost loved ones in Gaza and so have they. We hope for peace'

The death toll mounts, as do fears of a drawn-out conflict, reports Donald Macintyre from Beit Hanoun in Gaza

As an arc-shaped vapour trail from a rocket fired by Gaza militants began to dissipate high in the afternoon clouds behind him, 50-year-old hospital nurse Nafez Al Basuni yesterday glanced down the road at the house where his sleeping eight-year-old nephew Fares had been killed some 14 hours earlier by stray shrapnel from an Israeli air strike and said simply: “I hope for this to end. But I don't think it will.”

By last night the firing of at least one rocket in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the activation of sirens in Tel Aviv for the second successive day, and the authorisation of an additional reservist call-up from 16,000 to 30,000, suggested that Mr Al Basuni may be right.

Earlier, the road north out of Gaza City to this town hard by the Israeli border and repeatedly battle-scarred over the last 13 years, was eerily deserted even for a normally quiet Friday, making even clearer the regular noises of a – so far – aerial conflict: the ominous whoosh of the outgoing rockets, followed by a distant thump as they make impact somewhere across the border, or the ground-shaking, window-rattling explosions from the air strikes that were still echoing yesterday across the territory well after dusk.

Most of those venturing on to the streets appeared to have left home to pay their respects to the grieving Al Basunis and another family, that of Odeh Nasser, 16, and also killed in the same triple strike on a stretch of shrub-strewn land outside their neighbouring houses on Thursday night.

It was just after 10:15pm, the families say, that three separate explosions, the first at least from an F16, shook the ground, cutting the electricity in neighbouring buildings and sparking a fire which filled the Nasser house with smoke. Another of Fares's uncles, shopkeeper Naji, 45, said he had been playing on his computer when his own house was plunged into darkness after the first strike. He started to use the torch on his mobile phone to ensure his own children were safe before hearing Fares's father screaming for help from the house across the street. Running into it he said he found Fares, a "super active" boy, lying dead in the ground-floor bedroom, his head split open by metal from the missile.

This is strikingly unlike the first week of ferociously comprehensive airstrikes in the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead, of course, when many hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

Hamas's health ministry said last night that 27 Palestinians had been killed since Wednesday. Hamdi Shakkura of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which is often as critical of Hamas's internal violations as it is of Israeli attacks, said yesterday that of the Palestinians killed in the 600 airstrikes – starting with the sudden escalation that began with the killing of Ahmed Al Jabari, the leader of the ruling faction's military wing – 10 (like the three Israelis killed) were civilians, including six minors and one woman. And that the civilian proportion of those wounded was vastly higher – 253 out of 257, of whom 62 were minors and 42 women. "Who pays the price for this?" he asked. "It is the civilian population."

The vast majority of course are victims of Israeli strikes. But not necessarily quite all of them. Yesterday, we came on a bleak little corner of open space between multi-occupancy buildings in Jabalya, where a missile had an hour earlier killed two civilians; Atman Abu Warda, in his early 20s, who suffered a direct hit, and Mahmoud Sadalla, a four-year-old boy killed by shrapnel that flew through a first floor window of a neighbouring house. In another upstairs room, the boy's mother, clutching her other young son surrounded by mourning women, was too distraught to speak. The PCHR said its fieldworker's initial investigation suggested that the lethal rocket had been one fired by militants, which fell short of its target.

That said, most Palestinian accounts put the start of the off-on, but now very much on, escalation as the shooting by Israeli troops of a 13-year-old boy as he played football hundreds of metres from the border.

It was after that that one soldier was injured by a booby-trapped tunnel and two days later that four Israeli soldiers were wounded by militants firing from inside Gaza. Hamas claims that the Israelis had acted duplicitously by using an Egyptian-brokered lull to launch Wednesday's strikes, the first of which killed Jabari, and followed by more than 600 rocket attacks in the current dangerous wave of violence.

The visit yesterday to Gaza of Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil was a self-professed act of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. "The Egyptian people are supporting you," he said at Shifa hospital. "The Egyptian people are supporting you and the Egyptian revolution will side with the Palestinian people. The world should take responsibility for stopping this aggression." Earlier hopes that the visit might result in a fresh ceasefire appeared misplaced last night.

Anger among many Palestinians at the Israeli strikes was illustrated yesterday at Gaza's main Shifa hospital, when staff gathered round a radio cheered the "news" that a rocket had hit the Knesset in Jerusalem. In fact this had no more basis than the later announcement in a central Gaza City mosque that an Israeli Apache helicopter had been downed by militants. But back in Beit Hanoun concern that the conflict could spiral into a much larger war was etched in the faces of grieving relatives.

Jaal Nasser, father of the dead 16-year-old, his own head bandaged after shrapnel wounds, insisted rockets had not been fired from the land outside his house, because it was near a mosque. "The place they fire the rockets from is 400 metres away," he said. The uncles of eight-year-old Fares, meanwhile, were notably reluctant to resort to familiar militant rhetoric. "We hope for peace," said Naji Al Basuni. "We have lost [loved ones] and so have they. Of course we would prefer our children to be alive."