[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Gaza's tragic classroom casualties
By Alan Johnston
BBC, Gaza

Classmates of slain nine-year-old Raghda al-Assar
Some of Raghda's classmates were too distraught to attend classes

Nine-year-old Raghda al-Assar died last week after being hit by Israeli fire while sitting at her school desk in the Gaza Strip - the fourth child hit in similar circumstances in 18 months. The BBC's Alan Johnston visits the scene of the incident:

I step into a classroom full of little girls at an elementary school in the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Today, they are getting on with their work as normal, but there was nothing normal about the scene in this room one Tuesday morning three weeks ago.

During an English lesson these girls heard firing outside. They dived for cover, but when the shooting was over, they found their classmate Raghda al-Assar slumped over a desk up at the front, covered in blood.

I have bad dreams and I get up and I start thinking about Raghda and what happened to her
Schoolmate Alaa Assad
She had been shot through the head.

"We didn't hear the sound of the bullet when it came," says Alaa Assad, who was sitting a few places away from Raghda.

Alaa says Raghda was one of the brightest pupils in the class.

"We are very very sad. I am thinking about it all. I have bad dreams and I get up and I start thinking about Raghda and what happened to her... I don't sleep... I keep thinking about her," she says.

Stray bullet

The United Nations runs this school. Its investigators believe that Raghda was hit by a bullet fired by Israeli soldiers.

The shooting began when Palestinian militants who oppose the Israeli occupation of Gaza launched a series of missiles at a nearby Jewish settlement.

Sderot schoolchildren practise drill for rocket attacks
In the Israeli town of Sderot, the threat is from crude Hamas rockets
The UN says that the soldiers shot indiscriminately into the crowded refugee camp for more than half an hour.

The Israeli army says that it never directed fire at the school.

A spokesman said that it was impossible to say whether the stray bullet came from the army or from fire by the militants.

Headmistress Um Khalid says the incident has caused a lot of fear among her pupils, with some crying uncontrollably and others too afraid to come to school.

"The teachers tried to make them calmer, but they were also frightened," she says.

A group of psychological counsellors have since been working at the school, helping the children work out their stress through play and drawing, as well as talking to the teachers.

'Where's the light?'

The UN believes that altogether, over the past 18 months, four Palestinian children in Gaza have been hit by Israeli bullets while sitting at their school desks.

I told my mum I couldn't see. She said that the lights had gone out in the whole world
Huda Darwish, 13, blinded by gunfire
It has been particularly bad in Khan Yunis in the last few days: a 62-year-old man was shot dead visiting an elementary school on Monday; an 11-year-old girl survived after being struck in the head as she sat in a classroom two days earlier.

One victim, 13-year-old Huda Darwish, remembers being told to shelter from the gunfire, but there being no time before she was struck in the head by a bullet.

"The teacher took me to the hospital and they said that this is a very serious case... that I might die," she says.

"After 12 days I got up and I felt lots of pain in my head. I asked about the light, I said 'Where's the light?'

Gaza map
"I told my mum I couldn't see. She said that the lights had gone out... That they had gone out in the whole world - that it wasn't just me in the dark.

"But later, they had to tell me that I wouldn't see again. That was very difficult," she says.

It is not just young Palestinians who are in the firing line.

Israeli children living in the settler communities of the Gaza Strip are under constant threat.

Four little girls and their pregnant mother were shot dead when militants ambushed their car in May.

Densely crowded

Groups like the Hamas organisation often fire crudely made missiles into the settlements or nearby towns in Israel where they can fall on family homes, or on schools or nurseries.

Palestinian schoolgirl passes an Israeli tank in Nablus
Israel occupation means fear for many Palestinian children
And the militants say that as long as the Israeli occupation of Gaza continues they will strike at these targets.

They attack from the edges of the refugee camps and the Israeli army tries to hit them there.

The soldiers fire into some of the most densely crowded places in the world.

This has gone on here almost every day for four years.

And this is why so many children and teenagers in the occupied territories have died - 34 Israelis, and more than 550 Palestinians.


Israel and the Palestinians



Palestinian women sit on a roof top of the home of a Palestinian family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on 20 November 2006. Human shields
Palestinians adopt a new tactic to deter Israeli attacks, but this is a high-risk strategy





News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific