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Civilians shot at in Gaza buffer zone

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By Harriet Sherwood

(source: Mail & Guardian Online – 15/10/2010)

At least 10 Palestinian children have been shot and wounded by Israeli troops in the past three months while collecting rubble in or near the “buffer zone” created by Israel along the Gaza border, in a low-intensity offensive on the fringes of the blockaded Palestinian territory. Israeli soldiers routinely shoot at Gazans well beyond the unmarked boundary of the official 300m-wide no-go area, rights groups say.

According to Bassam Masri, head of orthopaedics at the Kamal Odwan hospital in Beit Lahiya in the north of Gaza, about 50 people have been treated for gunshot wounds suffered in or near the buffer zone while collecting rubble in the past three months; about five have been killed. He estimates that 30% of the injured are boys under 18.

Defence for Children International (DCI) has documented 10 cases of children aged 13 to 17 being shot in a three-month period between 50m and 800m from the border. Nine were shot in a leg or arm; one in the stomach. The creation of the no-go area has forced farmers to abandon land and residents to leave homes for fear of coming under fire. Last month a 91-year-old man and two teenage boys were killed while harvesting olives outside the official zone when Israeli troops fired shells. Forty-three goats also died in the attack.

In another case a mother of five was killed by a shell outside her home near the zone in July. Israel declared the buffer zone inside Gaza after the three-week war in 2008 to 2009, saying it was intended to prevent militants firing rockets. It has dropped leaflets from planes several times warning local people not to venture within 300m of the fence that marks the border or risk being shot.

However, the United Nations, aid agencies and rights groups say that Israel has unofficially and without warning extended the zone to up to 1km from the fence, leaving residents and farmers uncertain whether it is safe to access their land or property.

“The army knows the kids are there to collect. They watch them every day and they know they have no weapons,” said Mohammed Abu Rukbi, a fieldworker with DCI.”They usually fire warning shots but the kids don’t take much notice.”

Mohammed Sobboh (17) said he was shot above the knee on August 25 when he was 800m from the border. The 12 people in his family have no other income than rubble collection and are not entitled to aid from the UN because they are not refugees. Israeli soldiers shot dead a horse and a donkey used by Mohammed and his brothers to carry the rubble, he said.

His brother, Adham (22), said children as young as eight collect debris from former settlements and demolished buildings for 30 to 40 shekels (about R20) a day. “The price has gone down because a lot of people are collecting,” said Adham.

According to Masri, the shootings have increased as more impoverished Gazans turn to collecting rubble to sell as construction material, which is still under Israeli embargo. “Every day we have one or two cases. “Some kids are facing permanent disability. Most injuries are to the legs and feet, suggesting the soldiers did not aim to kill. That means they know that the people aren’t militants.”