Fighting in Gaza Puts Children at Risk of Injury or Death

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

As you read this, kids in at least 30 places around the world are living in war zones. The conflicts you may have heard the most about are in Iraq and Afghanistan, because U.S. soldiers are fighting in both countries.

Now a new war has captured the world's attention, one in the troubled Middle East. Children on both sides of the conflict are in the middle.

The latest fighting is between the forces of the nation of Israel and an organization called Hamas, which stands for "Islamic Resistance Movement" and has vowed to destroy Israel.

The war is unfolding in the Gaza Strip, an area of towns, villages and farmland about twice the size of Washington, D.C. The Gaza Strip is bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

Controlled by Hamas, the area has about 1.5 million Palestinians living in it, about 80 percent of whom live in poverty.

To understand this new war, you need to know that Israel was created in 1948 to be a homeland for Jewish people after World War II, when millions of them were killed by the Nazis. Many Arabs in the Middle East believe the land to create Israel was unfairly taken from Arabs who were living there, people called Palestinians. Several wars between Israelis and Arabs have been fought since then. One of them happened in 1967. Israel's army, under threat of Arab attack, took over territory that the Palestinians see as their future country. Gaza is part of that territory.

But all Palestinians do not agree on how big their country should be or who should run it. Some want it to be created next to Israel in Gaza and other land Israel has kept its army in since 1967. Others, such as Hamas, believe what is now Israel should be part of a Palestinian country. Hamas is fighting in part to take control of the land.

Israel, the United States and other countries consider Hamas to be a terrorist group because of the way it fights Israel: using suicide bombers, people who blow themselves up and kill innocent people as well as themselves. Hamas also fires rockets from Gaza into Israel.

But to many Palestinians, Hamas is a political party that runs hospitals and schools in Gaza, and so is seen by many Arabs as a defender of Palestinian rights.

From about June to December last year, there was relative calm on the Gaza-Israel border because both sides had agreed not to attack each other. Then in December, Hamas suddenly started firing rockets into Israel again.

Israel's powerful army launched an invasion of Gaza so, the Israeli government said, its soldiers could put an end to Hamas's ability to fire rockets.

Since the fighting began, more than 800 Palestinians have died and several thousand have been wounded. Hamas says many of them have been women and children. Thirteen Israelis, including six soldiers, have died.

Palestinians say the large number of dead and wounded shows that Israel is attacking them with too much force. Israel says a big reason so many Palestinians have died is that Hamas puts fighters and military equipment in the middle of areas packed with innocent people. So when Israel targets those fighters, civilians get caught in the fighting.

Other governments, including the United States, are working hard to get both sides to stop the war. But the fighting is very emotional because it involves issues of religion, land, identity and survival. That is what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult -- and why peace has been so difficult to achieve.

-- Valerie Strauss

© 2009 The Washington Post Company