Israeli war machines grind deep in reeling Gaza

GAZA (Reuters/ Nidal al-Mughrabi) – The bodies stank because they lay too long where they died. Children were starving because they were left helpless by dead mothers. And the war in Gaza reeled to the end of a second week.

Inexorably, the civilian death toll mounted on Thursday as the Israeli army‘s fearsome array of high explosive weapons blew more of its Gaza targets to bits — and sometimes missed.

One air strike targeted a group of Islamic Jihad fighters in the southern Gaza Strip but slammed into a street instead, killing two children, local medics reported.

A woman was sliced in two by a tank shell and her infant son obliterated.

Two fork-lift truck drivers in an aid convoy were killed by tank fire, the U.N. relief agency said. Two women were fatally struck by a missile in the courtyard of their house. Palestinian medics think it was fired from an unmanned drone.

In the midst of this thoroughly modern, push-button war were grim scenes familiar down through the history of human conflict.

"We have evacuated 90 people alive, but they had been trapped inside their houses, including many children," said Gaza ambulance driver Khaled, who went with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) into the Zeitoun neighborhood.

"They looked terrible. They have been living without water and without food for many long days," he said.

The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access the area since Saturday but got in only on Wednesday. Its team found four small children next to their dead mothers, too weak to stand. At least 12 corpses were lying on mattresses.

The ambulances could not get over earth walls piled up by Israeli army bulldozers to block enemy fighters, so donkey carts were brought in to evacuate the survivors.

Israel insists it is doing its utmost to avoid civilian casualties and ensure sufficient food and other humanitarian aid reaches Gaza. More than 700 Palestinians have died since its assault began 13 days ago.

Palestinian fighters have killed seven Israelis.

TERRIFIED OF TANKS

Throughout the night, people in eastern Khan Younis listened to the growl of advancing Israeli tanks, the crack of big guns, explosions, airstrikes, mortars and heavy machinegun fire.

Warplanes destroyed at least 25 houses on the border with Egypt, all evacuated in anticipation of strikes to collapse the smuggling tunnels of Gaza‘s Islamist Hamas rulers.

They bombed the house of a local Islamic Jihad leader in Rafah and the houses of three other Islamic Jihad people. They destroyed two houses in Maghazi and Nusseirat refugee camp and a mosque in Gaza city which caused the collapse of a kindergarten.

They killed three Islamic Jihad militants in north Gaza.

Desperate callers to local radio asked how to get out of death-trap homes, to escape, to obtain food or to find medicine.

Doctor Awni Al-Jaru said the tank was about 150 m (yards) away when it blasted his house in the Tuffah neighborhood of north Gaza.

"I was sitting inside the room when there was a boom and I ran out to the hall and saw my son Abdel-Rahim. I asked him where was his mother and brother Youssef."

"I found my wife Albina cut in two parts and my son Youssef completely blown apart. I could only recognize him from his teeth," the physician said.

His Ukrainian-born wife, 37, had refused to leave Gaza. His son was 18 months old.

AFTERNOON PAUSE

Since Wednesday, the war has been punctuated by an afternoon pause Israel offers, so civilians can venture out into the dirty and shattered streets for hurried errands and visits.

"The Israeli Defence Force will cease fire for three hours, between 13:00 and 16:00, in order to allow residents to get their basic needs," a telephone message says. "Residents will be allowed to go around the city and to reach the centers of food distribution."

For a while streets were bustling, but as the recess ticked away, people slipped away and, promptly, just after 4 p.m., the offensive resumed with a helicopter missile strike.

A three-hour lull was not enough "to address the basic needs of the exhausted and terrified population," a U.N. spokesman said. The death of the two drivers showed Israel "can‘t ensure the safe passage" of desperately-needed aid.

But Hamas militants said they were not afraid of death.

"Israel is wrong to think they are hurting us," a young policeman said.

"Fighting them and dying for the sake of God was the reason we had joined Hamas, so they are getting us closer to our wish — martyrdom."

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Michael Roddy)

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