Civilians pay the price as conflict escalates

Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip: The streets of Gaza are eerily deserted and those who do brave the roads drive with their eyes lifted skyward, monitoring the constant stream of rocket fire in and out of the coastal strip.

Long vapour trails drift behind rockets and the tell-tale swirls of the circling Israeli F16s fade to puffs of white against the blue autumn sky as the boom of multiple strikes echoes throughout neighbourhoods

Most of the small groups of residents who gather do so to mourn their dead. Their talk is of promising lives cut short and the fear that this latest round of hostilities could turn into a second Operation Cast Lead, Israel's last ground invasion of Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 in which 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.

Resting on the north-eastern edge of the Gaza Strip, Beit Hanoun has long been punished by the Israeli Defence Force, who say it harbours militants who fire rockets into the southern Israeli towns such as Sderot, just six kilometres away.

It is no different in this latest escalation in violence – on Thursday a series of three Israeli air strikes killed two and wounded several more, the attack driving families out of their streets in fear for their lives.

Nine-year-old Fares Ahmed Al Basuni and 16-year-old Oday Jamal Nasser died in the air strikes as they slept in a house next to a piece of land in front of the local mosque.

Tragically the boys had moved to where their families believed was a safer space as the air strikes and militant rocket fire out of Gaza grew fiercer, sleeping in the lounge room with their other relatives.

When the rockets hit at 10.15pm the already dark room filled with smoke. Oday's father used the light from his mobile phone to check on the children. Two of them were dead.

In Gaza there is little respite from the rockets – not even from their own. In Jabalya in the north of the Strip a family is in mourning, their four-year-old son and a 24-year-old relative both dead, killed in a rocket strike.

Shrapnel sprayed into the house where the boy was playing and hit the young man in the courtyard where he stood, his bloodied trousers lie in a crumpled heap against the cement wall.

Investigations are continuing but there are strong suspicions that the two were killed – and a mother and her child injured – when a rocket fired by militants on the Gaza Strip missed its target in southern Israel and instead killed Palestinians.

At the Gaza Strip's main emergency department at Shifa Hospital, families gathered to hear news of their loved ones while one team of doctors, nurses and other heath workers took a rare break to gather around portable radios to hear news of the latest air strikes.

Samir al-Safady, the deputy director of emergency said many of the injured being rushed into his department were children suffering injuries from the air strikes.

As Fairfax Media arrived at the hospital a young girl, only two or three years old, lay unconscious in the emergency room, her worried mother stroking her face repeatedly.

She has a serious head injury, a broken leg and hand, all caused by shrapnel following an Israeli air strike.

“In a normal situation we are running out of medicine and other medical supplies,” Dr al-Safady says. “When there is a lot of rocket attacks from Israel we just try to use whatever we can find – sometimes we will have to cut up a towel to use as bandages. We are short of all medications.”

For Hamdi Shaqura, the deputy director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the most striking point about the recent attacks on Gaza is the high number of civilian casualties.

According to his figures, 22 people have been killed and of those, 10 were civilians including six children and one woman.

Meanwhile 257 people have been wounded – 253 were civilians and just four were militia. Of the civilian casualties, 62 were children and 42 were women, he said.

“The civilian population is paying the price of these attacks,” he said. “You cannot imagine how people are living.”

This story Civilians pay the price as conflict escalates first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.