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Weary civilians at mercy of Gaza conflict

by Staff Writers
Gaza City (AFP) Jan 19, 2008
Maryam al-Rahil did not know on the night she died that the car in front of her donkey cart was carrying wanted men -- but the Israeli army did, and called in a lethal air strike.

The explosion took out two militants of the radical group Islamic Jihad but it also killed the 56-year-old woman and her 24-year-old son Mohammed, hospitalising another son, Mansur, 18, with a serious head injury.

"If anyone knows they have wanted people in front of them, they will go the other way. They had no way of knowing, it came as a complete surprise," says Mohammed al-Rahil, an uncle of one of the deceased who shares his name.

As Gaza's simmering war has boiled over in the past four days -- with Israel killing more than 30 Palestinians and militants firing some 200 rockets and mortars -- civilians have been increasingly drawn into the inferno.

Israel says it does its best to avoid killing civilians, and most of the Palestinians killed have been armed. But the spiralling escalation in violence has made it harder for bystanders to avoid Gaza's scattershot battlefields.

At least six civilians have been killed in the past four days, nearly all of them poor Palestinians already suffering from a crippling economic siege.

Rahil's husband was rendered largely immobile by a stroke four years ago, so she and her sons supported the family by carting vegetables from fields in the north to the market in Gaza City.

A closure regime enacted after the Islamist movement Hamas won Palestinian elections in February 2006 has devastated Gaza's economy, and on Thursday Israel announced a complete lockdown of the coastal strip.

It was economic necessity that drove Mohammed al-Yazji and his brother Amr to embark on a trip south from Gaza City to Khan Yunis on Wednesday to pick up a load of scrap metal and batteries to break down and resell elsewhere.

On a good day Mohammed could make five dollars (3.50 euros), with which he supported his two children and pregnant wife.

But before they turned off their street an Israeli missile slammed into the car, killing the two men and Mohammed's eight-year-old son, who had begged to come along, says Yusef al-Yazji, 25, a cousin of the two men.

"The boy loved riding with his father and his father wanted to take him along. He works so much he never gets to spend time with him."

The entire family had seen the planes circling ahead of the strike.

"We see them all the time, but we cannot stay inside forever. We have to work to support our families," he says.

In the case of the Yazjis the Israeli army admitted it had made a mistake.

"During an operation against terrorists in the Gaza Strip a vehicle that was close to the target was hit in error," a spokeswoman said after the incident.

But the day after the Yazjis were killed the army struck the car in front of Maryam al-Rahil's donkey cart.

And on Friday a massive air strike destroyed a former interior ministry building in Gaza City, now abandoned, sending a tide of shrapnel crashing against adjacent apartment buildings and killing a 47-year-old woman.

Around 50 people were wounded in the blast, including several children. At least 30 of the victims had been attending a wedding party near the building.

"We attacked the building and nothing else," an Israeli army spokeswoman said of the raid. "We do not plan on hurting any civilians."

But John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement that "Israel must have known" about the wedding party.

"Those responsible for such cowardly action are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished," Dugard said.

As Israel has stepped up operations so have Palestinian militants. They have launched some 200 rockets at Israel since Tuesday, lightly wounding at least 10 people and leaving those living near the border in a heightened state of fear.

Israel has always said that in contrast to the random rockets of Palestinian militants it makes every effort to spare civilians.

But for those who have lost loved ones it is hard to believe that the army -- with its aerial drones, attack helicopters, advanced missiles and ability to open or close the Gaza Strip at will -- can make such mistakes.

"They could see there was a donkey cart with an old woman riding in it, bundled up because of the cold, and they hit it anyway," Mohammed al-Rahil says. "This was not an error."

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