Intifada 'game' deadly for many Gaza children

February 03, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- Shiren was named after an Egyptian actress, a beautiful woman popular a dozen years ago.

Shiren was 11. Tall. Bright eyes. Curly hair. An average student. She played "intifada" with her brothers, sometimes playing a soldier and sometimes a Palestinian youth. She went to school in her blue-and-white uniform two weeks ago and was killed by an army bullet.

"The military governor came that night and said they were sorry. He said they didn't mean to kill her," said Shiren's father, a 31-year-old taxi driver. "We got an apology, and we lost our daughter."

Such scenes are becoming common in the wretched and crowded warrens of the Gaza Strip. In December and January, 11 children under the age of 16 were killed by Israeli security forces there. In the last six months, 19 have been killed.

World attention is focused on the Palestinians deported to southern Lebanon and the rash of ambush killings of Israeli soldiers that led to the mass expulsions. Less noticed is the grind of everyday confrontations between soldiers and demonstrators in which soldiers increasingly are shooting to kill.

The toll on children in those incidents is raising some voices of protest in Israel.

"There's been a dramatic increase in the numbers," said Knesset member Dedi Zucker. "It looks like it's more permissive firing."

Israeli Cabinet members' suggestions that troops be withdrawn from Gaza or that they not be issued live ammunition have been rejected by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a former army general. The Cabinet has ordered a weekly explanation detailing each death that week.

The Israeli army said the killings were not intentional, that the children were killed by stray bullets or were shot when they were in a crowd of demonstrators.

Shiren Hussein Odeh was accidentally struck as she walked behind youths who were throwing stones, an Army spokesman said.

Critics say the deaths prove that soldiers are shooting too fast, too often and too randomly. The Army uses tear gas and "non-lethal" ammunition covered with plastic or rubber, but critics say soldiers frequently fire live ammunition into crowds.

"After five years of the intifada, the military should have learned how to deal with stone-throwing in a way other than killing children," said Shirly Eran of the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem.

The military says it has no explanation for the recent rise in deaths of children in the Gaza Strip.

"We have the same rules of engagement, the same command, the same head of southern command," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the army.

"I don't think we are necessarily doing anything in violation of our procedures. Our policies are clear. Our orders are clear. It's a tragedy when a child is killed."

Confrontations in the Gaza Strip have increased recently in a circular frenzy: Clashes produce Palestinian casualties, which lead to more demonstrations and more clashes. Twenty-seven Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli security forces in the last three months, one fewer than the total of the previous year.

In December, six Israeli soldiers were shot or stabbed to death. Two more were killed Saturday in Gaza. These are casualties in a grim war increasingly fought with guns. It is a bloody contest carried on by armed gangs of Palestinians waiting in ambush for soldiers and undercover Israeli agents who hunt them down.

That deadly hunt rarely involves children, however. The children who have been killed are more often at or near the scene of demonstrations in which Palestinians throw stones and soldiers fire back.

Critics of the army have questioned the use of firearms against demonstrators, even those throwing rocks.

"A lot of these shootings are unjustified," Ms. Eran said. "The only justification for shooting to kill is if at that very moment there is a danger to the soldiers' lives."

Bricks heaved from a rooftop might threaten soldiers' lives, she said, but not rocks thrown from dozens of yards away at helmeted soldiers in armored jeeps.

"I know [the soldiers] are scared. I know it's not easy to be in that situation, and I sympathize with them," she said. "But if they are frightened and can't cope, they shouldn't be there."

In the five years of the uprising, two Israeli soldiers have been killed by rocks, according to B'tselem.

Colonel Fogel argues that soldiers fire in confrontations with rock-throwing crowds because they are in danger. "If there's a spontaneous demonstration, when two soldiers are pinned down and the crowd is closing in and there are children in the crowd, there are cases when the children get killed," he said. "It's a tragedy the child was there. But soldiers have a right to defend themselves. They are human beings, too."

Khalid Betrawi, who supervises investigations of the incidents for Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, said soldiers sometimes shoot in a frenzy, despite the army's rules on when to open fire.

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