Clinton to press Israel on Gaza as children suffer

GAZA CITY | Assistance to the Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of displaced people are living in flimsy U.N. tents despite freezing winter temperatures and rain, will be “at the top of [the] agenda” when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the region next week, a U.S. official in Jerusalem said Wednesday.

A month after a cease-fire ended Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, many sleep on thin mats on the muddy ground and traumatized children burst into tears at any loud noise. Lots where they once played are littered with crushed concrete and other debris.

Mrs. Clinton, who flies to the Middle East Saturday, has privately expressed anger at Israel for steps that have interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid to help the Gaza residents, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported Wednesday.

A U.S. official in Jerusalem, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said not to read too much into the Ha’aretz article but added, “You can bet this will be an issue at the top of the secretary of state’s agenda. … We respect the Israelis’ need for security, but there are genuine humanitarian needs in Gaza.”

More than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians and a third of them children, died in Israel´s 22-day military offensive last month. Thousands more were injured, some permanently disabled.

But the enduring damage is mental as well as physical, and it is most evident among the children such as 9-year-old Amir Musbah. His family of eight initially hid in their house in the border town of Beit Lahiya as Israeli F-16s flew overhead.

“Planes came and started bombing us. The attack forced us to flee our home and head to a nearby school,” Amir said.

When Amir’s father and uncle ran to try to rescue their brother, who had been hit by artillery, they were killed by a helicopter gunship hovering overhead, said Amir’s grandfather, Khalil Musbah. He said Amir’s house collapsed after a bomb landed on it.

“Initially we thought Amir’s father had been arrested and taken away. It was later that we discovered that he had died,” Mr. Musbah said. “I buried him, after the planes and the tanks left, under the big tree.”

Mr. Musbah said the grief-stricken boy ran to the tree and dug in the dirt with his hands to find his father.

Israel said the offensive was necessary to halt rocket fire into southern Israeli towns from the militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said conflict also has traumatized Israelis.

“To be fair, you have a whole generation in southern Israel who are growing up in constant fear and trauma,” he said. “I went with my prime minister to a grade school in Sderot. There were kids who have known nothing else but sirens and running to bomb shelters because of rockets from Gaza. … I know the conflict has caused pain and suffering to children on both sides. The goal of our operation was to bring about an end to the violence.”

Meanwhile, psychologists, teachers and community workers are training caregivers and offering a variety of activities to help Gaza children cope.

At the Zahwa Rosary Catholic School in Gaza City, counselor Fadl Abu Hein said children are given balloons to vent stress while affording them a sense of control. But when a green balloon popped and then a red one, eliciting squeals from about three dozen 6-year-olds during a recent outing, one child clapped his hands over his ears.

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