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Missiles aimed at Hamas figure kill family in Gaza

The local Hamas commander survives, but his younger brother and that man's wives and children are slain. Many of Hamas' leaders and facilities are in urban areas, intermingled with civilians.

January 06, 2009|Ashraf Khalil and Rushdi abu Alouf

JERUSALEM AND SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, GAZA STRIP — Rashan abu Eisha staggered out of the flaming shell of his family's three-story home, covered in dust and cradling his injured 6-year-old son.

Minutes earlier, around 1:30 a.m. Monday, a pair of Israeli missiles had slammed into the base of the building, presumably targeting Abu Eisha's brother Zakaria, a prominent local Hamas commander.

Amid the confusion, the 43-year-old lawyer said, it took him a few minutes to realize that his younger brother Aamer, along with Aamer's two wives and four children, were trapped underneath the rubble in a basement-turned-makeshift bomb shelter.

"I didn't know they had gone down there," said Rashan abu Eisha, lying in an ambulance shortly after the attack, as rescue crews dug through the wreckage. "They must have thought it would be safer."

It took 20 minutes for ambulances and firefighters to arrive, then several hours for rescuers to extinguish the flames and clear away wreckage to reach the basement entrance, which was underneath the building's ground-floor garage. The remnants of a car parked in the garage had come to rest on top of the door, further delaying rescue efforts.

In the end, the delays probably didn't matter; all seven family members were long dead when crews began excavating the bodies at dawn.

"What are the sins of these small children?" asked Abu Eisha, who along with his son suffered minor injuries. "Is this the democracy that America and Israel are always singing about?"

Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that their army is taking pains to avoid civilian casualties in its 11-day offensive and targeting only Hamas militants and infrastructure. The air and ground operation, they say, is solely designed to end the indiscriminate rocket launches by Gaza Strip militants on a widening swath of southern Israel.

But many of Hamas' leaders and facilities are in densely populated urban areas where they are intermingled with the civilian population.

Some airstrikes have targeted homes of Hamas officials and other homes and several mosques, which Israel says are being used as weapons warehouses and hiding places for militant commanders. Several Israeli officials have recently stated their belief that hospitals are also being used for a similar purpose, although none of them has been targeted.

Zakaria, the local Hamas leader, shared the family home in the Shati refugee camp with his brothers and their extended families. He had moved his immediate family out several days before, for fear of just such an airstrike. Zakaria, however, was visiting the home when the missile struck, witnesses said, but apparently survived.

In Gaza City on Monday, an Israeli tank shell struck a home, killing a woman and her three young children, medical officials reported. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian surgeon volunteering at Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital, estimated that half of the wounded he treated Monday were civilians and 30% of the dead were women and children.

"Civilian casualties and destruction in Gaza are on an unprecedented scale," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program, in a statement.

At least 550 Palestinians in Gaza have been reported killed since the Israeli offensive began, about one-fourth of them civilians. At least eight Israelis have been reported killed, including four by rocket fire into southern Israel and three soldiers from "friendly fire" Monday.

Amnesty International has appealed to the United Nations Security Council to strongly condemn violence against all civilians and demand an immediate cease-fire.

The mounting death toll comes amid an accelerating collapse of Gaza's infrastructure; the coastal territory has been under the control of Hamas since last year, when the Islamic militant group routed the security forces of the rival Palestinian faction Fatah.

Gaza City was blacked out for a third day Monday, and humanitarian organizations estimate that 70% of Gaza's 1.5 million residents have no access to clean water.

In recent days, Israel has allowed truckloads of medical and food supplies to enter Gaza. But the humanitarian group CARE announced Monday that it was impossible to distribute the food because of the heavy fighting.

"People are rationing what they eat," said Yazdan El Amawi, a CARE official in Gaza.

At Shifa Hospital, Gilbert said doctors were performing two simultaneous surgeries in the same operating room to keep up with the flow of casualties. The hospital was being powered by generators, he said, with only enough fuel to last another week.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Abu Alouf is a special correspondent.

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