Gaza children ‘were playing next to rocket launcher’

The Israeli military said on Friday that three Gaza children killed this week were playing next to a rocket launcher when the army mistook them for militants and opened fire.

The three young cousins — Mahmoud Ghazal (10), Sara Ghazal (10) and Yehiya Ghazal (12) — were killed on Wednesday when Israeli troops combating Palestinian rocket squads spotted figures moving near rocket launchers in northern Gaza and ordered a strike, the army said in an official statement.

The army and Palestinian witnesses have said in the past that militants regularly use children to retrieve rocket equipment after the projectiles are launched. But on Friday, the military said this was not the case in Wednesday’s incident.

Troops spotted three figures next to launchers in an area regularly used by militants, the army said. ”They were playing right next to the launchers, including touching them,” and troops could not see that they were children when the order was given to fire, the statement said.

”At the very last second it was apparent that they were children, but it was impossible to stop the explosion,” according to the statement.

The army did not specify whether they were targeted from the air or ground. It expressed sorrow at the children’s death, but said Palestinian militants bore responsibility because they put rocket launchers in civilian areas. The army said it has warned Gazans to keep children away from the launchers.

Palestinian officials were not immediately available to comment on the army’s latest statement. After Wednesday’s killings, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned them and predicted they would ”feed the fire” of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Two other Gaza children, ages 10 and 12, were killed in a similar incident on August 21, when the army fired at figures near a rocket launcher.

Palestinian rocket fire into Israel is a nearly daily occurrence, as are Israeli attacks on Gaza militants.

Daoud Dirawi, a Palestinian attorney with the human rights group Defence for Children International, said both Israel and the militants are responsible.

”Israel certainly bears responsibility for attacking civilian areas, and killing civilians is a war crime … At the same time, the Palestinian factions bear responsibility for avoiding any harm to Palestinian civilians and children in their military operations. Having children next to the rocket launchers endangers the children,” Dirawi said. — Sapa-AP

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