Palestinian Family Mourns 5 Daughters as Civilian Death Toll Mounts

Death toll rises as Israel assaults targets in Hamas-run Gaza Strip, including a security compound and a group of smugglers' tunnels.
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Islam Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 29 -- Trapped in the rubble, Iman Balousha, dressed in her green pajamas, said she could hear her sisters' cries. "Mother! Mother! Where is my mother? Pull me out!" Their muffled voices slipped through the toppled bricks.

Early Monday, an Israeli airstrike on the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip destroyed the family's house, located next to the Emad Aqeel mosque, the intended target, which was also flattened. Rescuers tried frantically to save the girls. Iman was lucky: She was half-buried in the debris.

One by one, the cries stopped, Iman recalled in an interview. She could see the leg of her 4-year-old sister, Jawaher, whom her family called Ayah. She could touch her hair. But minutes later, Ayah stopped breathing.

"I've lost five sisters," Iman, 16, said at a relative's house Monday evening, her soft voice fading. Tears slid down her face. Her mother, Samira, held her 16-month-old son, whose face was bruised and specked with dried blood.

"Does my 12-days-old baby have a rocket with her?" Samira demanded. "Or my son, does he have a missile with him? Or did my daughters have AK-47s beside them? Why did they target them?" The five daughters who died were ages 4 to 17.

Concerns mounted over the growing toll on civilians in the Gaza Strip as Israeli jets carried out airstrikes for the third straight day. Many of the casualties have been civilians who live around targets in the densely populated strip. The United Nations on Monday said at least 57 Palestinian civilians have been killed since the Israeli offensive began Saturday, based on visits to hospitals and medical facilities. Officials described that number as conservative.

In total, over three days, 364 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds more wounded, said Gaza medical officials, in the deadliest wave of attacks in Gaza since Israel captured control of the seaside territory from Egypt in 1967. Hamas has retaliated, firing a barrage of rockets into southern Israel that has killed four Israelis.

"The Israelis say they are targeting Hamas, but they are targeting the innocent kids who are sleeping," Samira said.

On Monday, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said an Israeli missile targeted policemen standing near a Gaza government building, across the street from a U.N. training center. Eight students, ages 18 to 20, were killed while waiting for a U.N. bus to take them home, and 19 were injured. Eight remained in critical condition Monday, the agency said in a statement.

"They are tragic illustrations of how civilians are so vulnerable in this conflict, when such overwhelming means of force is used in such a tight and densely populated part of the world," said Christopher Gunness, a U.N. spokesman, referring to the deaths of the students and Iman's sisters.

On Monday, U.N. officials complained to the Israeli government after a U.N. building was severely damaged by two missiles targeting an adjacent guesthouse used by the Hamas government in Gaza.

Human rights groups demanded that Israel and Egypt open up humanitarian corridors into the Gaza Strip for the delivery of aid. Gazans are facing shortages of medical personnel, medicine, food, electricity and water, aid workers said.

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