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Gaza's children live in shadow of fear

Israeli strikes take toll on urban battle zone

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The image of a dead preschooler cradled by the prime ministers of Egypt and Gaza has drawn attention to the dangers Gaza's children face in this crowded urban battle zone.

Children make up half of Gaza's population of 1.6 million and seem to be everywhere in the current round of cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers.

Children gathered Friday outside a Gaza city morgue for a glance at the latest "martyrs." Others followed adults to funerals or even rushed to the site where Israeli missiles had just struck a government building and fire smouldered. Despite outward bravado, boys of elementary-school age said quietly fear of air strikes kept them awake at night.

So far, six of 28 Palestinians killed in Israel's offensive this week have been children, ranging in age from just under 1 to 14 years, Gaza health officials said. Most were killed by shrapnel while in or near their homes. In Israel, 12 children were hurt in rocket attacks this week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of using Gaza's civilians, particularly children, as human shields by launching rockets from crowded residential areas.

Gazans argue Israel is unleashing massive air strikes on their territory without regard for civilians. They say even Israel's self-described surgical strikes on militant targets put civilians at grave risk in Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated places.

Mahmoud Sadallah, the four-year-old Gaza boy whose death moved Egypt's prime minister to tears, was from the town of Jebaliya, close to Gaza city. He died Friday in disputed circumstances.

The boy's aunt, Hanan Sadallah, and his grief-stricken father Iyad -- weak from crying and leaning on others to walk -- said Mahmoud was killed in an Israeli air strike. Hamas security officials also made that claim.

Israel vehemently denied involvement, saying it had not carried out any attacks in the area at the time. Gaza's two leading human rights groups, which routinely investigate civilian deaths, withheld judgment, saying they were unable to reach the area because of continued danger.

Mahmoud's family said the boy was in an alley close to his home when he was killed, along with a man of about 20, but no one appeared to have witnessed the strike. The area showed signs a projectile might have exploded there, with shrapnel marks in the walls of surrounding homes and a shattered kitchen window. But neighbours said local security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.

Mahmoud's 12-year-old cousin Fares was injured in the right leg by shrapnel and was still shaken several hours after the incident. "It's terrifying. I don't sleep at night," the boy said of the massive Israeli air attacks of the past three days. "I'm staying up all night."

Mahmoud's body was taken to Gaza city's main Shifa hospital around midmorning, just as Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was showing Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil around the wards of patients.

One of the Sadallahs' neighbours, carrying the lifeless boy, pushed through a throng of Hamas security men to reach the politicians. Eventually, the two prime ministers were photographed cradling the child.

Fighting back tears, Kandil called on Israel to halt its offensive.

"What I saw today in the hospital, the wounded and the martyrs, the boy... whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something that we cannot keep silent about," he said.

In the propaganda war between Israel and Hamas, the suffering of children has served as a powerful tool.

Israel has repeatedly accused Gaza militants of cynically exploiting children. Netanyahu alleged Thursday "Hamas deliberately targets our children, and they deliberately place their rockets next to their children."

On Thursday, a rocket attack on an apartment building in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi wounded a baby and a four-year-old child, along with killing three adults. Photos showed rescuers evacuating the baby, who was covered in blood. In addition, 10 children have been hurt by shrapnel, Israeli paramedics said.

The rockets fired from Gaza are crude and Israel says their main purpose is to instil fear and harm Israeli civilians. Gaza militants have fired hundreds of rockets since Wednesday.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 $sourceSection0

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