GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – An Israeli missile obliterated a vehicle in crowded Gaza City, killing two Palestinian militants inside, a common sight these days. But three youths also died, two of them stepbrothers, ages 8 and 16, tragic victims of an Israeli attack method that is evoking criticism in Israel alongside grief and rage in Gaza.
Israel’s air force commander defended the Monday strike, but two popular Israeli comedians proclaimed that an army that kills children no longer represents them, and a human rights group demanded a war crimes inquiry.
The boys’ mother says it’s too late for apologies. In recent months Israel has stepped up its airstrikes in Gaza, aiming at militants it says are involved in daily rocket barrages from Gaza at Israel. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire.
“I ran to the window when I heard the strike. The window shattered, and I saw a man carrying Mahmoud’s lifeless body,” said Somaya al-Batsh, 29, mother of 8-year-old Raed and stepmother of the 16-year-old Mahmoud. “But I couldn’t see Raed. I asked everyone, Where is Raed? Where is Raed? A neighbor later told me that he flew through the air from the force of the blast.”
Receiving condolence callers in a tiny children’s room in the rundown Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, al-Batsh did not try to mask her anger at Israel.
Dressed in black with only her eyes showing through her full veil, al-Batsh sat on the bed of her dead son. She said bitterly, “This was a street full of people and children. How can they fire a missile? Who is the terrorist here?”
Then she added, “My sons are in heaven now.”
The small room was decorated with the dead 8-year-old’s drawings, a winter scene, their gray, unpainted house. Raed was the studious type, she said, and was already saving to buy a house. His red piggy bank rested near his bed, close to pictures of leaders of the militant group Hamas.
Mahmoud was a handyman, and kept people laughing around the house, she said. He picked fights with his sisters and cracked jokes about their living conditions.
An Israeli air force inquiry produced a dry explanation for their deaths: The ice cream truck turned onto a crowded street after the missiles were launched, and it was too late to divert them. Drone aircraft photographing the scene did not pick up the civilians in time, the Maariv daily reported.
Another 14-year old boy, Ahmed Sweisi, was also killed in the strike. He was dumping garbage at a street corner when the missiles struck.
Air force commander Eliezer Shkedy told a conference at Tel Aviv University on Tuesday that this is the sort of thing that happens in wartime, civilians get in the way. He offered statistics showing that the air force is getting better at this. In 2002, as many bystanders were killed in the air strikes as terror suspects. Last year, Shkedy said, 28 militants were killed for every civilian in the raids.
Just as the statistics were no comfort to the grieving mother, they did not satisfy all Israelis, either. Reflecting growing concern about airstrikes in crowded cities, Shai and Dror, a two-man team of zany but bitter Israeli satirists who broadcast daily on a Tel Aviv radio station and write a column in the Maariv newspaper, turned dead serious Wednesday. The air force commander’s explanation “does not clear our conscience,” they wrote in what they called an open letter to the mother.
They wrote that they had a large circle of friends who felt the same way they did, but they would not say so in public, “because the Israeli narrative does not allow people to come out against the military … It is forbidden to say that this army does not represent me. But it doesn’t. Not when it kills children.”
It’s not the first time Israel has killed children in airstrikes aimed at militants.
In July 2002, the air force targeted Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh. A plane dropped a one-ton bomb on his house in Gaza City, killing him and 14 other people, including nine children.
That set off an international outcry that has yet to subside. Israeli military officers involved in the bombing have been threatened with arrest when they travel abroad, and two have had to cancel trips as a result. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is calling for the military to investigate whether the Monday raid involved the use of “disproportionate” force, “which is defined as a war crime,” a statement from the group said. The suffering is not over for the al-Batsh family. Of the seven children who were wounded in the airstrike, four were relatives of the dead stepbrothers, including their 18-year old brother and a four-year old cousin who lost an eye.
Their father, Ahmed, was in the hospital for two days. The mother looked to her faith for consolation over the death of the boys. “God chose them to be with Him,” she said, holding her breath as she spoke of them. “And only He can take revenge for us.”