At Kamal Odwon hospital in this northern Gaza town, a woman in her late thirties is pounding on a steel door. Mona Musallem wants to be let in so she can see her three children for the last time. They were killed in the late morning of Friday when a single Israeli tank shell hit their third-floor flat in a building near the Hamas checkpoint outside the Erez border crossing to Israel.
Eventually someone from inside the morgue pulls back the bolts that hold the double doors shut and the sobbing woman can enter.
Mohammd, 15, and his brother Ahmed, 11, were brought into the hospital’s emergency ward on a single stretcher. What was left of Ahmed lay between his dead older brother’s legs. Walla, their sister of 13, was carried in a separate stretcher, wrapped in a blanket. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Across the Gaza Strip, the scene is being repeated in major hospitals here and in Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafah.
Overnight, Palestinian authorities reported that some 23 Gazans were killed as Israeli forces rained down a torrent of shells from artillery, tanks and ships. Their cover fire allowed thousands of ground forces to push across the Israeli border and advance perhaps 200 meters into Palestinian territory.
But today, in more isolated shelling, a number of civilians, many of them children have been killed: three children here in Beit Lahyia, three others in Khan Yunis, a baby in Rafah.
Israel warned on Friday it could “significantly widen” a Gaza land offensive but was cautioned by its main ally, the United States, about the risks of further escalation as Palestinian civilian deaths mounted.
Palestinian officials said 58 Palestinians, at least 15 of them under the age of 18, have been killed since Israel sent ground forces on Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will travel to the Middle East on Saturday in a bid to end the fighting between Israel and Palestinians, alarmed at a serious escalation that includes a ground offensive by Israel, said a senior U.N. official.
Israeli government and military officials originally said the incursion is to be limited, only going as far as is necessary to expose and destroy tunnels dug under the border into Israel. Such tunnels, they say, are part of the Hamas organization’s “terrorist infrastructure.”
One such tunnel, at the southern-most portion of the frontier, was used Thursday by a squad of Hamas’s military wing, the al Qassam Brigades, to penetrate into Israeli territory. They quickly fled back through the tunnel and into Gaza after an Israeli fighter jet opened fire on them. The Israelis appeared to be waiting for them.
Israeli forces met reportedly little resistance as they advanced, though one Israeli soldier was killed and another three wounded. Now, the Israeli security cabinet, which met at midday Friday, says they have authorized the military to prepare to greatly expand the ground operation.
Last night at 8:45, in the heavy bombardment that preceded the Israeli advance, a shell landed on the home of the Enteis family in Zeitoun, east of Gaza City, one of the neighbourhoods the Israelis warned people Wednesday to evacuate.
Instead of fleeing, the extended Enteis family – 60 people – crowded into the patriarch’s three-story home.
The shell that struck the house travelled through three floors and killed two of Salem Enteis’s children, aged two and 13. This Friday morning, Mr. Enteis is walking through the room where Mohammed was playing last night, scraping up pieces of flesh from the floor and wall and placing them in a plastic bag. He shows us visiting journalists what he’s gathered.
It seems these past three days we have seen a lot of incidents of children shelled, by accident, without planning, but dead.
Considering that families here have an average of six or more children, it means that child fatalities will outnumber adults by a wide margin. When you shell into a family neighbourhood, it’s what those firing must expect.
Around the Gaza Strip, which measures roughly 40 km by 10 km, the streets are mostly empty, few people are venturing out. Coming from Zeitoun, we pass a number of families walking to the homes of relatives in safer districts. Hatam al Katati, walking with four of his eight children, says the shells Thursday night fell at the rate of one every three minutes. “Everyone was terrified, “ he said.
In some areas, such as Jabalia, northeast of Gaza City, there’s a small fruit and vegetable market where a number of women crowd round, snapping up as much as they can, bracing for the next night of shelling should Israelis decide to advance further.
It’s midday prayer time now, and rugs are spread out on the hall outside the hospital morgue. Quickly the room fills with the many men who are here: uniformed orderlies, ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors and lots of friends and relatives of patients and the deceased.
The sound of the Imam leading prayers resonates through the hall and around the hospital. He prays for the souls of the young “martyrs” Mohammed, Ahmed and Walla.
Now the bodies of the three children, shrouded in white burial sheets are being carried through the hall on the way to the nearby cemetery, amid plaintive cries of Allah hu akbar (God is great). It’s a scene being repeated frequently in Gaza on Friday.\
With a report from ReutersReport Typo/Error