Thursday, November 09, 2006

"I Cannot See A Day When We Live In Peace With Them"
Rory McCarthy in Beit Hanoun
Thursday November 9, 2006
The Guardian

Sanaa Athamna lies dead with the bodies of her relatives Maysa and Maram. Eighteen members of the same family died in an Israeli artillery attack. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Sanaa Athamna lay as if she slept, dead on a steel tray in the morgue of Beit Hanoun hospital. Across her forehead was a single, hairline fracture and beneath her eye a smudge of blood, the only visible marks of the destruction brought by the wave of Israeli artillery shells that struck her street in Beit Hanoun before dawn yesterday.
In her arms, hospital staff laid the bodies of her relatives: two sisters, Maysa, one, and Maram, three. Their mother Manal was also killed in yesterday's attack, but lay in a morgue at another hospital awaiting burial.

In all, 18 members of the extended Athamna family died when Israeli artillery struck their houses on Hamad Street. At least 14 of the dead were women and children. It was the biggest single Israeli strike in the Palestinian territories for four years and came only a day after the military had ended a six-day incursion in Beit Hanoun, a heavy battle which claimed more than 50 lives.

The first shell struck the side of the Athamna family house, a poor, four-storey, breeze-block structure divided into apartments shared between the grandparents and their several children. Sanaa's brother, Ayman, was one of the first to arrive. At least one of his neighbours was already dead. He tried calling the ambulance services on his mobile phone but the line was already engaged. "The house was full of smoke. Everyone was coming outside," he said.

The family, most of whom had been asleep, poured out of their apartments in their nightclothes bringing the dead and injured down into the broad alley at the side of the house. They started to tend to the wounded. "My mother came out and I told her to go back and to take care of the children," said Ayman. He stayed in the alley, trying to calm the injured. "Then they shouted that another shell was coming and I ran for shelter." A wave of six or seven shells followed in quick succession striking the alley and houses on either side of the street.

By the time the shelling had stopped his mother, Nama, his sister Sanaa, and his brother's wife, Nihad, were lying dead. Broad pools of blood and torn pieces of clothing lined the alley. Gaping holes in nearby houses and walls showed where the shells had struck.

Feriyal Hamadeen heard the first shell strike and ran from her house down the street towards the Athamna home. The first person she found was her cousin Manal, who was carrying her daughters Maysa and Maram in her arms. "I was going to take her back to my house, then the second shell came," she said. "We fell and I landed on top of her. I said to her: 'Get up, get up' but she didn't answer. She was lying face down, so I turned her over. There was blood on her face and down her side. Her daughters weren't moving."

She turned to look around her and saw her husband Saqqaa lying in the street. She called to him and he was still alive at that point but barely able to speak. She ran to ask her son Mohammad for help but he had a shrapnel wound in his back. "Then we heard the sound of another shell coming. My son pushed me: 'Take cover' he said and then the shell landed near the street," she said.

Her husband Saqqaa, her cousin Manal and Manal's two young daughters were dead. Feriyal and her son Mohammad, 21, suffered shrapnel injuries and were taken to the Kamal Adwan hospital.

As Feriyal spoke, a young boy aged eight, Abdullah Athamna, lay on the hospital bed next to her screaming from his wounds as doctors cut the clothes off his body. He had suffered a serious shrapnel injury to his side and to his right foot. His mother died in the strike and his father was badly injured and was being operated on in another hospital. "Call my father to come," the boy shouted at the three nurses who were standing over him. "Call my father."

Only a few days earlier, in the middle of the Israeli operation in Beit Hanoun, soldiers had come to the Athamna house, as they had many others. They searched the apartments, questioned the men in the family and eventually moved on. "They were speaking Arabic saying they were our friends, they wanted peace and that they only wanted to stop the rockets being fired into Israel," said Hanine Athamna, 20, who lay injured by shrapnel in the al-Ouda hospital. She lost her uncle, her sister-in-law and her brother-in-law in yesterday's attack. "They want to stop the rockets, but how can we stop them when they are shelling and destroying our houses?" she said. "I cannot see a day when we will live in peace with them."

Yesterday the Israeli military halted all artillery shelling into Gaza while it investigated the incident. It said the army had fired "preventative artillery at launch sites" from which militants had fired rockets the day before towards the Israeli town of Ashkelon. "Initial information shows the artillery fire was directed at a location distant from the one reportedly hit," it said in a statement.


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