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Family Mourns 5 Daughters as Civilian Death Toll Mounts

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.

"The horrific death toll risks growing due to the unavailability of adequate medical care for the hundreds of injured," Amnesty International said in a statement, appealing to Israel and Egypt to allow the Palestinian wounded to be treated in their countries. "It is utterly unacceptable for Israel to continue to purposefully deprive 1.5 million people of food and other basic necessities."

Seeking Comfort in Their House

When the airstrikes began Saturday, Samira and her nine children were at her father's house. They decided to return to their own house because "there was no difference anywhere in Gaza," Samira said. Her eldest daughter, Tahrir, she said, remarked that she would "rather live all together or die all together."

So they returned to their house. They felt some comfort living next to a mosque, which would not be targeted, they thought.

At 10 p.m. Sunday, Samira said goodnight to her seven daughters. They all slept in the same bedroom in the tiny house without electricity in this sprawling refugee camp. Before she left the room, she doused the kerosene lamp. "I was worried that an airstrike would rattle the house and the lamp would fall and burn down the room," Samira said.

Then she and her husband, Anwar, took their son, Muhammed, and baby daughter, Bara, to their room.

The mosque next door was an Israeli target. It was named after Emad Aqeel, a Hamas member who died fighting Israel. Hamas controls many mosques across Gaza, which serve as key venues for winning popular support.

Samira and Anwar recalled waking up to Bara and Muhammed's screams. They were covered in rubble. Some bricks had struck the boy's face; the girl had been tossed from the bed. Anwar remembers telling his wife to utter shehada, the prayer Muslims say before they die.

Somehow they managed to push away the rubble and move through the darkness. Neighbors were trying to remove the debris. Samira grabbed Muhammed and handed him to a rescuer; Anwar picked up Bara and stumbled outside to the street. Samira went to her daughters' room.

"I found a mountain of concrete over my daughters," Samira said. "I could do nothing. So I ran out in the street, screaming."

" 'There are seven girls in the room,' I yelled. 'Please go and bring them out.' " Neighbors took her to a hospital. A relative told her all the girls were alive.

Inside the room, Iman struggled to escape. She cried for help. Finally the rescuers heard her and pulled her out. "Where is my father? Where is my mother?" she asked. A few minutes later, her sister Samah, 10, also emerged.

"I didn't see my other sisters until I was saying goodbye to them at the morgue," Iman said, sobbing.

As she spoke in her relatives' house, Samira looked at her baby son's bruised face and shooed away the flies around his head. "I hope the Israelis' heart will be harmed like they hurt my heart," she said.

Iman's grandmother was there. Suddenly, another airstrike hit nearby, the sounds crashing through the house.

"Please, God, save our children," the grandmother screamed.

'Why Me? Why My Family?'

Anwar Balousha entered his shattered house Monday evening. Bruises covered his face. His head was wrapped in a bandage. He could barely walk. With the help of his relatives, he hobbled around the rubble. Water dripped from a still-intact ceiling.

In his daughters' room, he found a framed verse from the Koran. It read: "Nothing will happen to us but the things that God wrought for us."

It used to hang above his daughters' bed.

Standing there, Anwar remembered how Tahrir excelled at her studies. He struggled to understand how a poor unemployed day laborer could suffer so much in one night.

"I don't have anything to do with any Palestinian faction. I have nothing to do with Hamas or anyone. I am just an ordinary person."

"Why me? Why my family?" he asked no one in particular. He sobbed. "I have lost Tahrir, Ikram, Samur, Dina and Ayah. I have lost five daughters. I loved them all." He looked around.

"I am ready to die 100 times to bring back my daughters."

Kareem reported from the Jabalya refugee camp.

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