Welcome to Hell: Gaza's unending misery

A family of nine is among the latest Palestinian civilian casualties as the fighting continues. Ibrahim Barzak, Kim Sengupta, Geoffrey Lean and David Randall report

Israeli forces yesterday pounded dozens of targets in the Gaza Strip and dropped leaflets warning of an escalation in attacks, as southern Israel came under renewed Palestinian rocket fire. Last night, as flames and smoke rose over Gaza City, speculation grew that Israel was about to launch the so-called third stage of its offensive: the forcible entry into Gaza City by thousands of troops.

In response, Hamas said that the Gaza offensive had "killed the last chance for settlement and negotiation with Israel". Earlier yesterday, Israeli aircraft attacked more than 40 targets throughout Gaza, striking 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen. And civilians. In the day's bloodiest incident, an Israeli tank shell landed outside a home in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya, killing nine people as they sat in their garden. They were all from the same clan, and, said health administrator Adham Hakim, their bodies were so mangled they were brought to hospital in the boot of a civilian car. Two were women and two were children.

This wretched pair will be added to the nearly 300 Gaza children who have been killed by Israeli fire. In the perversely disproportionate mathematics of this conflict, 13 Israelis have been killed – four of them by militant rockets. According to the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry, the overall death toll now exceeds 800, more than a third of them children. The United Nations corroborates this, a report two days ago from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs putting the number of children killed at 265. The Israelis respond that Hamas often uses schools and homes, and therefore are the ones bringing down fire on Gaza's children. Last week, an Israeli attack outside a UN school killed nearly 40 people. Israel and Palestinian witnesses said militants carried out an attack from the area moments earlier. But it is Israeli fire, Israeli weapons and Israeli military that do the aiming – and Palestinian women and children being killed at a rate that is sickening world opinion, if not yet world leaders.

And behind the statistics, the pictures of broken bodies wrapped in winding sheets are the stories of real people. People such as Olvera Al-Jarou and her tiny son Yusuf. Mrs Al-Jarou, 36, originally from Ukraine and married to a Palestinian doctor, became the first foreigner to lose her life in Gaza. Her one-year-old son Yusuf, clinging to her in fright during a bombardment, also died when an Israeli shell hit their home. A daughter, Yasmine, was severely injured and is now in intensive care; another son, Abdulrahman, was also wounded but is expected to make a full recovery.

Mrs Al-Jarou could have left with about 300 other foreign nationals allowed to leave Gaza by the Israelis last week. But other family members were denied the same escape and she decided she could not abandon her husband and children, as well as the community that has become her home. "My wife said to me that her place was with us, here, in Gaza. She could never just leave us. So she stayed, and she died," said Dr Awny Al-Jarou, who received cuts to his head. "She died. My beautiful son died as well. My wife was cut in half and my son was in pieces. My heart is breaking but I have two other children and I now have to make sure that they live and grow up. I try not to think about my wife and son."

Death from the skies is not the only threat facing Gaza's children. Medical facilities are stretched almost to breaking point, and no one can vouch for this better than Dr Al-Jarou. He is at the Shifa, Gaza's biggest hospital, where about 70 patients are in intensive care, among them his daughter Yasmine. They cling to life through four generators working round the clock at a hospital which has been without power for the past seven days because Gaza's sole power plant has stopped working due to lack of fuel. "How terrible it would be," Dr Hassan Khalaf, the hospital's director, said, "if our patients survive attacks – and then die because of a lack of electricity."

And the threats to Gaza's families, these "collateral" inhabitants waiting to be damaged, now include, according to the World Bank, being drowned by sewage as the Israeli offensive threatens to cause the collapse of a giant lagoon of human waste. The bank says the earthen walls of the 75-acre lagoon – which contains 450 million gallons of sewage – are being weakened by the bombardment and the build-up of water pressure because pumps have run out of fuel. If they were to burst they could bring about a death toll far greater than that of the military action so far.

The bank said: "Pumps transferring sewage from the lake to infiltration basins, critical to the relief of pressure on structure, are not in operation due to lack of electricity and fuel. Failure would put about 10,000 residents of the surrounding area in danger of drowning, and spark a wider environmental and public health disaster." It called on Israel to provide fuel for the pumps, let staff and spare parts through to the lagoon, and secure "a wide no-fire zone" around it.

There was no hope of that yesterday. Saturday's fighting raged after both Israel and Hamas ignored a UN resolution calling for an immediate and durable ceasefire that would lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israel has dismissed the Security Council resolution passed on Thursday as impractical, while Hamas, whose government in Gaza is not recognised internationally, is angry it was not consulted about the diplomatic efforts. Yesterday, Syria-based Palestinian militant groups including Hamas rejected the deployment of international observers or troops in Gaza. They also rejected any security arrangement that "infringes on the right of resistance against Israeli occupation". The statement came after the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, called on Hamas, which controls Gaza, to reach an agreement to end the fighting. Mr Abbas, in Cairo for talks on a truce to end the fighting in Gaza, said the Egyptian proposal, put forward earlier this week by President Hosni Mubarak at a news conference with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, is the only way forward.

Meanwhile, on the ground, some of the heaviest fighting occurred on the strategic coastal road north of Gaza City, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli forces moved to within about a mile of the city before pulling back slightly. While Israel has largely taken control of the road, militants continue to operate from hidden positions in the area. The road is often used to fire rockets into Israel or attack Israeli naval boats off the Mediterranean coast. By Saturday morning, 10 rockets had landed in Israel, the army said. One rocket scored a direct hit on an apartment building in the southern city of Ashkelon, lightly wounding two people and causing extensive damage to the structure.

The offensive has caused extensive damage throughout Gaza, fuelling fears of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates two-thirds of Gaza's 1.4 million people are without electricity, and half don't have running water. There was a lull for three hours on Saturday to allow the territory's besieged residents to stock up on supplies, for medics to rescue casualties, and for aid groups to rush through food distribution. But agencies say three hours isn't enough time to do their work. Salam Kanaan of Save the Children said that, in previous lulls, the agency distributed food to 9,500 people – far short of the 150,000 people it serves. UN official Adnan Abu Hasna said the Palestinian refugee agency would distribute aid to 40,000 people, half of them holed up in UN schools transformed into shelters.

Israel says any ceasefire must include assurances that Hamas will halt attacks and end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border. Hamas has said it won't accept any ceasefire deal that does not include the full opening of Gaza's border crossings. The UN resolution emphasised the need to open all crossings, which Israel and Egypt have kept sealed since Hamas militants seized control of the territory 18 months ago. Israeli leaders oppose that step because it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on Gaza.

The rising civilian death toll has drawn heavy criticism of Israel from international aid groups and triggered anger throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere. There have been daily protests in the Middle East and in Europe, where there also has been a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said it is difficult to protect civilians in a place as densely populated as Gaza. "It's also an area in which Hamas participates in activities like human shields and using buildings that are not designated as military buildings to hide their fighters," she told reporters.

Rules of engagement: Is Israel in breach of the laws of war?

Critics of the Israeli invasion of Gaza say that the military response has been disproportionate and in breach of international rules of war. According to international agreements based on principles dating back to St Thomas Aquinas and enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, Israel should adhere to rules on:

Proportionality No more force should be used than is necessary, and casualties should be kept to a minimum. The response should be in proportion to the level of the threat.

Civilians Should not become victims of the war and have the right to be protected and their safety ensured.

Children Are not to be treated as combatants; medicines, food and clothing should be allowed through.

Targets Only military targets should be attacked and indiscriminate bombing is forbidden.

Weapons White phosphorus should not be used as a weapon of war in civilian areas, but Israel has argued that there is nothing to stop it being used as a smokescreen.

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