GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The image of a dead preschooler cradled by the prime ministers of Egypt and Gaza in a hospital hallway has drawn attention to the dangers Gaza's children face in this crowded urban battle zone.
Children make up half of Gaza's population of 1.6 million and seem to be everywhere in the current round of cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers.
Children loitered Friday outside a Gaza City morgue for a glance at the latest "martyrs." Others followed adults to funerals or even rushed to the site where Israeli missiles had just struck a government building and fire was still smoldering. Despite outward bravado, young boys of elementary school age said quietly that fear of airstrikes kept them awake at night.
So far, six of 28 Palestinians killed in Israel's offensive this week have been children, ranging in age from just under 1 to 14 years, according to Gaza health officials. Most were killed by shrapnel while in or near their homes. In Israel, 12 children were hurt in rocket attacks this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of using Gaza's civilians, particularly children, as human shields by launching rockets from crowded residential areas.
Gazans argue that Israel is unleashing massive airstrikes on their territory without regard for civilians. They say that even Israel's self-described surgical strikes on militant targets put civilians at grave risk in Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated places.
Mahmoud Sadallah, the 4-year-old Gaza boy whose death moved Egypt's prime minister to tears, was from the town of Jebaliya, close to Gaza City. The boy died Friday in hotly disputed circumstances.
The boy's aunt, Hanan Sadallah, and his grief-stricken father Iyad — weak from crying and leaning on others to walk — said Mahmoud was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Hamas security officials also made that claim.
Israel vehemently denied involvement, saying it had not carried out any attacks in the area at the time. Gaza's two leading human rights groups, which routinely investigate civilian deaths, withheld judgment, saying they were unable to reach the area because of continued danger.
Mahmoud's family said the boy was in an alley close to his home when he was killed, along with a man of about 20, but no one appeared to have witnessed the strike. The area showed signs that a projectile might have exploded there, with shrapnel marks in the walls of surrounding homes and a shattered kitchen window. But neighbors said local security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.
Mahmoud's 12-year-old cousin Fares was injured in the right leg by shrapnel and was still visibly shaken several hours after the incident. "It's terrifying. I don't sleep at night," the boy said of the massive Israeli air attacks of the past three days. "I'm staying up all night."
Mahmoud's body was taken to Gaza City's main Shifa hospital around midmorning, just as Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was showing Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil around the wards of patients.
One of the Sadallah's neighbors, carrying the lifeless boy, pushed through a throng of Hamas security men to reach the politicians. Eventually, the two prime ministers were photographed cradling the child.
Fighting back tears, Kandil called on Israel to halt its offensive.
"What I saw today in the hospital, the wounded and the martyrs, the boy ... whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something that we cannot keep silent about," he said.