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Gaza kids at risk in crowded urban battle zone

Associated Press Modified: November 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm •  Published: November 16, 2012
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In the propaganda war between Israel and Hamas, the suffering of children has served as a powerful tool.

Israel has repeatedly accused Gaza militants of cynically exploiting children. Netanyahu alleged Thursday that "Hamas deliberately targets our children, and they deliberately place their rockets next to their children."

On Thursday, a rocket attack on an apartment building in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi wounded a baby and a 4-year-old child, along with killing three adults. Photos showed rescuers evacuating the baby, who was covered in blood. In addition, 10 children have been hurt by shrapnel, Israeli paramedics said.

The rockets fired from Gaza are relatively crude and Israel says their main purpose is to instill fear and harm Israeli civilians. Gaza militants have fired hundreds of rockets since Wednesday, paralyzing large areas of the country where civilians were ordered to stay close to home or bomb shelters. The fighting has forced tens of thousands of Israeli children to stay indoors, and schools in southern Israel have been closed for the past two days.

Israel, meanwhile, has pounded Gaza with dozens of rapid-fire airstrikes, with loud booms ringing out, sometimes just minutes apart. Few civilians ventured into the streets Friday, particularly after dark. In Gaza City, a tractor-pulled cart loaded with women and children had a white flag dragging on the ground behind it, presumably as an extra precaution.

Some of the Gaza boys trying to get close to the "action" put on a brave face.

"I'm not afraid of the rockets the Jews are firing," said 10-year-old Mohammed Bakr, waiting outside the Shifa Hospital morgue for bodies to arrive. But, he acknowledged, "I like it better when it's quiet."

Mohammed and his cousin, 12-year-old Udai, said they had seen many dead bodies, including during Israel's last major offensive in Gaza four years ago. Both boys come from large families, as is typical in Gaza — Mohammed said he has nine siblings and Udai has six. Overwhelmed parents often find it difficult to keep tabs on all their children in dangerous times.

"Our parents tell us to stay home, but we don't," said Mohammed with a smile. "We want to see the martyrs."

Earlier, another group of boys tried to get closer to the ruins of a former Hamas government building, with smoke still rising from an Israeli strike. Hamas policemen tried to push them away, shouting that there was concern about unexploded ordnance.

Adults often pressure children not to show fear. Asked if they were scared, several boys waiting for Mahmoud's funeral procession to begin nodded. However, when an adult showed up and told them that Gazans are not afraid, they quickly stopped talking.

Child psychologists say the trauma of war stays with Gaza's children for a long time.

Hussam Nunu, the head of Gaza's Community Mental Health Program, said close to a third of the about 1,500 patients treated every year are children affected by stress and violence. After Israel's last offensive four years ago, the number of children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders was "overwhelming," he said.

"Since then we have done a lot of outreach, but when another escalation like this happens, our work can be undone," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Lauren Bohn in Jerusalem contributed to this report.