Blast kills 5 boys in Gaza

Young Palestinians walking to school found live shell

U.S. diplomats awaited

November 23, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - For the boys who attend Abdullah Siam School in the southern Gaza Strip, going to class means crossing a battleground strewn with remnants of armed clashes that are routine in Khan Younis.

Yesterday morning, a young Palestinian, his book bag hanging from his shoulders, kicked or tripped over a shell lying in a tomato field less than 300 yards from the school's front door. It exploded, killing the boy and four of his classmates.

There have been higher casualties in single incidents in the past 14 months of fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians, but this may be the biggest death toll of innocent children or of noncombatants at one time.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about five Palestinian children killed by an explosive wrongly characterized the death toll. Bombs have on several occasions in the last 14 months killed larger numbers of Israeli civilians. The Sun regrets the error.

"God bless the martyrs," the school's principal, Yousef al-Halabi, said in a telephone interview. "But how are we going to explain to the rest of the children what has happened? There is no chance today to have school."

Arab League spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi blamed the Israeli army, saying the deaths "are showing the Israeli state terrorism. The Americans have to come to fight this."

Two U.S. mediators are expected to arrive in Israel on Monday to hammer out a cease-fire agreement and move the peace process forward. American officials have criticized both sides for escalating the conflict, including Israel's repeated incursions into Palestinian territory.

Israeli army officials said they had not fired near the school yesterday, but they described the area as a source for Palestinian gun and mortar fire into the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, which comes under attack almost daily. Three mortar shells were fired at Gush Katif on Wednesday night, but the army would not say whether its forces returned fire.

"I can't deny that we have fired tank shells there," an army spokeswoman said. "There are a lot of incidents of fire and clashes in that area." She added that officials do not know whether the device that killed the children was a shell from an Israeli tank or a Palestinian mortar.

Hebrew writing on shell

But al-Halabi said that when he went to where the children - all members of the Astal family - died, he found, along with burned books and shards of clothes, a piece of the shell, which he said had Hebrew writing on the side.

The dead were identified as Mohammed Na'im Astal, 14; Akram Na'im Astal, 7; Omar Idris Astal, 14; Mohammad Sultan Astal, 12; and Aniz Idris Astal, 11. Mohammed Na'im and Akram were brothers, as were Aniz and Omar. Mohammad Sultan was a distant cousin.

Witnesses described a horrific scene, with blood-soaked schoolbooks, clothes and shoes scattered about. A child's leg was found on a nearby rooftop; the head of another wasn't found until five hours after the blast.

Friends scoured the tomato patch and piled the youths' belongings in a heap. One 22-year-old witness, who was slightly injured, said one of the youths played with the shell, then put it down and kicked it. Then it exploded.

Dr. Mohammed Abu Dalal, a surgeon at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, said medical identification was impossible. Officials learned the identities by process of elimination and from names handwritten in schoolbooks and on homework.

Shooting around the United Nations-sponsored school, home to 813 pupils and considered one of the best in the Gaza Strip, is a nightly, and oftentimes, daily occurrence. Halabi said the frayed Palestinian flag flying atop the building hasn't been changed in more than a year.

Shooting occurs `every night'

"We're too afraid that if we go to the roof, we will be shot," he said. "Every night there is shooting."

Yesterday afternoon, more shooting was reported, and a worker at a Khan Younis elementary school was wounded. On Wednesday night, Israeli security forces shut down Palestinian Authority offices in Al-Azariya, a town just outside Jerusalem which is under Israeli military control.

Ashrawi accused Israel of escalating tensions before the U.S. mediators arrive. Israeli officials said their forces were acting only to defend their citizens.

Yesterday afternoon, three armed Palestinians in a jeep crashed through the gates of an Israeli factory near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm, opened fire and lightly wounded two Israeli workers. The shooters escaped.

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