They were only children: The Gaza conflict’s youngest victims

At least 69 children were killed in the Israel-Hamas war this month. This is who they were

During 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, at least 66 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel. Photograph: New York Times

During 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, at least 66 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel. Photograph: New York Times

 

Just minutes after the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, a five-year-old boy named Baraa al-Gharabli was killed in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. A 16-year-old, Mustafa Obaid, was killed in the same strike, on the evening of May 10th. Around the same time, four cousins – Yazan al-Masri (2), Marwan al-Masri (6), Rahaf al-Masri (10), and Ibrahim al-Masri (11) were killed in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.

“It was devastating,” said Mukhlis al-Masri, a cousin. “The pain for our family is indescribable.” When asked to describe how they felt, many parents answered with a simple “It’s God’s will,” their voice often reduced to a whisper, the words conveying resignation. They said their children had wanted to be doctors, artists and leaders.

“I’m in disbelief,” said Saad Asaliyah, a taxi driver from Jabaliya, who lost his 10-year-old daughter. “I try to calm myself by saying it was God’s will for her to go.”

During 11 days of fighting this month between Israel and Hamas, at least 67 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel, according to initial reports. Nearly all of the children killed were Palestinian. Gaza is crowded, and its population skews young, with about half under age 18. So when Israeli warplanes hit homes and residential neighbourhoods, the number of children at risk is extraordinary. Sometimes nearly entire households disappear with a single blast.

Muhammad al-Hadidi at his brother’s house holding his son Omar, who was pulled alive from under the rubble after his mother and four brothers were killed in an Israeli air strike on May 15th. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
Muhammad al-Hadidi at his brother’s house holding his son Omar, who was pulled alive from under the rubble after his mother and four brothers were killed in an Israeli air strike on May 15th. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll in Gaza because the group fires rockets and conducts military operations from civilian areas. Israel’s critics cite the death toll as evidence that Israel’s strikes were indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Children are the most vulnerable. In Gaza, they grow up amid widespread poverty and high unemployment and cannot freely travel in or out of the territory because of the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt. They also live under the constant threat of war. An average 15-year-old would have lived through four major Israeli offensives. Nearly everyone in Gaza knows someone who has been killed in the fighting.

“When I think about the children who died,” said Ola Abu Hasaballah, a child psychologist in Gaza, “I also think about the ones who survive, those who were pulled out of the rubble and lost a limb, or those who will go to school and see their friend is missing.”

Top student

In the Arab village of Dahmash in central Israel, when the sirens wailed at about 3am on May 12th, Nadine Awad (16) and her father ran outside for cover, said her uncle, Ismail Arafat. But a rocket fired by militants in Gaza slammed into the ground next to their home, killing both of them.

Nadine was a top student, her academic adviser, Sirin Slameh, said. She spoke English proficiently, taught herself how to play the piano and participated in Jewish-Arab coexistence programmes, Slameh said. The week before, she had scored 97 on a maths exam, a subject she had struggled with.

She was very close to her father, Arafat said, and would follow him everywhere. “The sad part is, she followed him outside when the sirens blared,” he said, “and now she has followed him to the grave.”

While most of the children were Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes, there are exceptions. At least two of the children killed in Gaza – Baraa al-Gharabli and Mustafa Obaid – may have been killed when Palestinian militants fired a rocket at Israel that fell short, according to an initial investigation by Defense for Children International-Palestine, a children’s rights organisation.

And one of the children killed in Israel, Nadine Awad, was Palestinian. “The rockets don’t differentiate between Arabs and Jews,” said Ismail Arafat, her uncle.

Safe room

Once the war started, Ido Avigal (5) was so anxious that he did not want to sleep, shower or eat alone, said Shani Avigal, his mother. When sirens started blaring in Sderot, Israel, he huddled with his family in a fortified safe room at his aunt’s home. But when a rocket hit a nearby building, shrapnel punctured the thick glass of the safe room, tearing into his stomach and killing him.

Avigal said her son was caring and loving and had recently told his classmates that “not all Arabs are bad”.

“I said, ‘They all don’t want to kill us,’” he told his mother. “I eventually convinced them.”

The same day, May 12th, Hamada al-Emour (13), went with his cousin, Ammar al-Emour (10), to get haircuts at a barber shop – a tradition among many Palestinians before the festival that follows the end of Ramadan. They were nearly back home in Khan Younis when an Israeli air strike killed them both, said Atiya al-Emour, Hamada’s father, who said he witnessed his son’s death.

“I wish I didn’t see what happened to him,” said al-Emour. “It was awful.”

‘Bright future’

Mahmoud Tolbeh (12) was an excellent student, his father, Hamed Tolbeh, said. He liked the sciences and dreamed of becoming a mechanical engineer. He was helpful around the house, making eggs and sandwiches for his siblings, tea and coffee for guests, cleaning the house and picking up groceries.

“He was the backbone of our family,” Tolbeh said. “We could rely on him for anything.”

On the last night of Ramadan, he went to help a cousin at his barber shop. Mahmoud was steps from the shop’s entrance, his father said, when shrapnel from an Israeli air strike hit his head and neck. He died two days later. His sister Nagham cradled his body. “He had a bright future,” his father said. “But it was buried with him in the grave.”

The mother and brother of 13-year-old Yayhya Khalifa are comforted by relatives as they mourn his death in an Israel air strike in Gaza City on May 13th. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/New York Times
The mother and brother of 13-year-old Yayhya Khalifa are comforted by relatives as they mourn his death in an Israel air strike in Gaza City on May 13th. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/New York Times

Precautions

Yahya Khalifa (13), enjoyed riding his bike, had memorised several chapters of the Koran and hoped to one day visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. “He was an innocent and sweet boy,” his father, Mazen Khalifa, said. He went out to run a quick errand, promising to pick up yoghurt and ice cream for the family, his father said, and was killed in an Israeli air strike.

The identities of the children killed, their photographs and the circumstances of their deaths came from their parents and other relatives, teachers and schools in Gaza and Israel, international rights organizations, Palestinian officials, social media, and news organisations in Gaza and Israel. Most of the details were corroborated by multiple sources.

The Israeli military says that it takes rigorous precautions to prevent civilian deaths. It says a major part of its bombing campaign was aimed at Hamas’s underground tunnel network, a military facility that runs underneath civilian neighbourhoods.

Many people in Gaza, however, say that the number of civilians killed proves that whatever precautions Israel may be taking are tragically insufficient. “People think there has to be some rationale,” said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, “but the bottom line is, they want to inflict pain and suffering.”

The low toll on the Israeli side also reflected an imbalance in defensive capabilities. Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli towns and cities, also indiscriminately. But most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, which Israeli officials said stopped about 90 per cent of the rockets. And many Israelis have safe rooms in their homes.

In Gaza, most people have no access to safe rooms or shelters. Many people seek refuge in the United Nations schools, but they too have been bombed, reinforcing a feeling that anyone could be killed anywhere. Even in Israel, Arab citizens don’t always have equal access to bomb shelters. Awad, who was killed by a rocket from Gaza, lived in an Arab village with no bomb shelter.

Buried dreams

Fawziya Abu Faris (17) woke up early every morning in Umm al-Nasr, a Bedouin community in northern Gaza, to milk her family’s sheep and make fresh cheese and yoghurt, said her father, Nasser Abu Faris. It was shortly after midnight in Beit Lahia, Gaza, and the three terrified children were huddled in their mother’s arms. Muhammad-Zain al-Attar (9 months), sat in the middle; his sister, Amira al-Attar (6) and brother, Islam al-Attar (8) on either side.

The first strike hit the entrance of their ground floor apartment, trapping the family and making it impossible to flee, their father, Muhammad al-Attar, said. The second, moments later, brought the three-story building down.

Al-Attar dug himself out of the rubble and survived. His wife and children were crushed under a concrete pillar, their bodies found still together.

During 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, at least 66 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel. Photograph: New York Times
During 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, at least 66 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel. Photograph: New York Times

Mental health experts and independent organisations who work with children in Gaza say they commonly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fear and anxiety. Those feelings can produce debilitating nightmares and self-destructive or aggressive behaviour.

“Gaza is already a very violent and terrorising experience for children because they are under constant military rule,” said Karl Schembri, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs a psychotherapy and education programme for children in Gaza. Eleven of the children the group works with were killed this month, all of them in their homes.

“They were getting assistance and care to try and put behind them their nightmares and their trauma,” Schembri said. “Now they are buried with their dreams and their nightmares.”

Extended families

Suheib al-Hadidi (12) lived with his parents and four brothers in the crowded Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. He was fascinated by birds, which had a freedom he could only imagine. He owned a cockatiel, trained it to sit on his shoulder and envisioned a future as a breeder, his cousin, Abdullah al-Hadidi, said.

His brother, Yahya al-Hadidi (10) was a shy boy who liked riding his bike and playing with cats, Abdullah al-Hadidi said.

Osama al-Hadidi (5) was considered one of the most stylish members of his family. He changed clothes frequently and took pains to perfect his looks, Abdullah al-Hadidi said. “He would shower and change his clothes every two hours.”

Abdurrahman al-Hadidi (7), studied English, dreamed of travelling to Turkey and liked playing with remote-control cars, his father, Muhammad al-Hadidi, said.The four brothers were asleep at their uncle and aunt’s home, Muhammad al-Hadidi said, when an Israeli bomb ripped through the ceiling, killing them, their mother, their aunt and four cousins.

Rescue workers search for victims from the al-Qawlaq family after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on May 16th. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/New York Times
Rescue workers search for victims from the al-Qawlaq family after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on May 16th. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/New York Times

The al-Qawlaq family owned two adjacent apartment buildings on Al Wahda Street, a main thoroughfare in Gaza City. At around 1am on May 16th, Israeli strikes reduced both buildings to rubble, killing more than 20 members of the extended family, including eight children: Yara al-Qawlaq (9), Hala al-Qawlaq (12), Rula al-Qawlaq (5); Zaid al-Qawlaq (8), Qusai al-Qawlaq (6 months); Adam al-Qawlaq (3); Ahmad al-Qawlaq (15) and Hana al-Qawlaq (14).

”It’s unimaginable,” said Waseem al-Qawlaq, who survived. “It’s beyond torture.”

Vibrant smile

Dima al-Ifranji (15) was the oldest child and the apple of her father’s eye. She was one of the top students in her class, spoke English and French and dreamed of studying medicine, her father, Rami al-Ifranji, said. “She was brilliant,” he said. “She was a master of foreign languages.”

Her brother, Yazan al-Ifranji (13), was a bright child, often the first to answer questions in class, Rami al-Ifranji said. Yazan al-Ifranji liked playing soccer and listening to music and hoped to become a computer engineer. Mira al-Ifranji (11), imagined a future as a dentist. And Amir al-Ifranji (9), was a polite child with a vibrant smile who loved playing soccer and video games on his phone.

An Israeli air strike on May 16th killed all four children and their mother.

Raed Ishkontana, who survived an Israeli air strike, mourns the loss of five family members including four children in Gaza City on May 16th. Photograph: Hosam Salem/New York Times
Raed Ishkontana, who survived an Israeli air strike, mourns the loss of five family members including four children in Gaza City on May 16th. Photograph: Hosam Salem/New York Times

It was late at night, and even though the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan was over, Dana Ishkontana (9) and Lana Ishkontana (5) wanted to dress up in their new holiday outfits. Their uncle, Raed Ishkontana, snapped pictures on his phone while their two brothers, Yahya Ishkontana (4) and Zain Ishkontana (2), watched, Raed Ishkontana recalled.

Then he stepped out to get snacks for the family: chocolate candy bars and potato chips.The four children and their mother were killed in an Israeli air strike, he said. “I wish I never left.”

Quick with a joke

Her father called her “Galaxy”. Tala Abu Elouf (13), he thought, had skin the colour of a Galaxy chocolate bar. She was quick with a joke, and her father, Dr Ayman Abu Elouf, adored her, said Alaa Abu Elouf, her cousin.

Her brother, Tawfiq Abu Elouf (17), was a serious student, intensely prepping for the standardised tests Palestinians take in their senior year of high school, Alaa Abu Elouf said. Brother, sister, mother and father were killed in Israeli air strikes on Al Wahda Street in Gaza City on May 16th, Alaa Abu Elouf said.

Rafeef Abu Dayer (10), liked to draw. She had sketched one of the high-rise buildings that an Israeli air strike destroyed in Gaza City two days earlier and had started to colour in her drawing when her mother called her for lunch. “You can go back to drawing after you eat,” her mother said.

The girl sat down for lunch with 13 relatives in a private residential garden. Minutes later, Israel attacked a building nearby, an uncle said. Shrapnel and rubble struck Rafeef. She and another uncle were killed.

‘Worthy of our grief’

On May 19th, the day before Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, Dima Asaliyah (10), was walking home from her older sister’s house carrying an electric pizza oven. It was a small one, her father, Saad Asaliyah, said, the size of a soccer ball, that the family used to bake bread.

An Israeli surveillance drone had been hovering overhead, and Saad Asaliyah now wonders if Israeli soldiers mistook it for a weapon. “Maybe their alarms went off because of the stove,” he said. “But did they not see how small she was?” There was an explosion, and his youngest child was gone. “Do you see her picture?” he asked. “She’s worthy of our grief.” – New York Times

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