Nine-year-old Mariam, a victim of Israeli air strike on Gaza, lies in intensive care at a hospital in Palestine. Photo: Independent.co.uk
“She was the centre of our life, she was the most precious thing in the world to us, we had waited so long for her. Now we don't know whether she will wake up again; we don't know what has happened to her.” Alla al-Masri buried his head in his hands – no longer could he bear to watch his nine-year-old daughter lying on the hospital bed, suffering.
He and his wife, Hanan, had craved a baby and Mariam came after years of IVF treatment. An only child, she was the apple of her grandparents' eyes and they had been constantly cautioning her that she should not stray far from home in these dangerous times.
“Our little girl was playing in our garden when it happened. The Israelis bombed a house across the street: the blast came straight through our house – then I saw my daughter lying in blood,” said Masri. “She was injured badly in the head, so we fear very much.”
Mariam is one among the extraordinarily large number of children who have been victims since Benjamin Netanyahu's government launched Operation Protective Edge: 22 are among the 103 dead, and no less than 70 per cent of the 700 injured comprise boys and girls, or women, according to Palestinian medical authorities.
Ashraf al-Qadri, information director at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City warned of a “catastrophic effect” on young lives if the spiral of violence continues. There is no obvious explanation for this trend in child casualties.
Many residents, however, maintain that missiles and bombs aimed at the homes of militants considered legitimate targets by the Israelis have also hit neighbouring family homes. This claim would run counter to repeated insistence by the Israeli authorities that the air strikes are being carried out with surgical precision to avoid collateral damage.
Dr Nabil Sharqawi had been treating many of the child patients at al-Shifa Hospital. “They are difficult to cope with emotionally. We are medics, but we are also only human, and to see severe trauma on children is very distressing. Mariam has suffered brain damage. We first have to hope that she lives, then we will see whether she can speak again, walk again, or see again. Unfortunately, we'll have more cases like this coming in.”
As he spoke, there were loud explosions of ordnance landing not far away and, a little later, the whooshing noise of rockets being launched into Israel.
Dr Sharqawi showed the photograph of a young boy with terrible wounds. “I keep thinking about him. He was brought in yesterday, 10 years old. He had lost both his arms and a leg. But he was fully conscious, he said to me: 'Please doctor stop this pain.' But there was very little we could do: he died soon afterwards.”
Gaza City is a relatively small place and the ripples from the human damage had spread through the community. Yasmeen Dawass, a 22-year-old medical student working as The Independent's translator had been worried about a fellow student who was travelling on his motorbike on Thursday when he was hit in an air strike.
Ms Dawass did not know what had happened to Musab Dahir; she came across him on the bed next to Mariam, both his legs had been amputated and part of his right arm had gone.
“He was just an ordinary guy, not involved in firing rockets or anything like that. He was just riding along the street; why did they do this? He was going to be a doctor, he was going to help people”, she said.
In a nearby ward lay two young victims, cousins, both aged five. Nuraddin had suffered head injuries. He lost his parents when missiles slammed into his home. Kinan had been hit on the chest and leg by shrapnel; his father and sister died in the same attack.
The house, in Beit Hanoun district, was deliberately targeted from the air, by a drone. It had belonged to Hafez Hamad, who was accused by Israel of belonging to the group Islamic Jihad. Killed with him were six other members of his family including his wife, mother, two brothers and a niece aged 21.
Sitting beside the cousins, their 55-year-old aunt Amal said: “Nuraddin has been unconscious. Kinan knows about his father and sister – he asks about them, but he does not say anything at all about the attack.
“I don't know what effect it will have on them when they grow up. Will they hate the Israelis and want revenge, or will they keep it away from their minds and forget about it? I personally wish they would forget about it. So many of us want this cycle to stop; we want peace, we are all very tired of war.”
But there was little taste for reconciliation in the family home where shattered glass and debris from the blast lay on the floor with family and friends gathered. With her arm around Adem, her four-year-old grandson, Hafeth Hamad exclaimed: “Of course we need to fight back. The Israelis are threatening to send in troops – let them do so, then they will see how our men, and, yes, our women will fight. Why should we let them just carry on making orphans over here.
"They come every two years and kill more, they want to exterminate the Palestinians and the world just lets them do that. No one is helping us.”
The feeling of abandonment is a pervasive one in Gaza. Dr Qadri at al-Shifa Hospital acknowledged that medical supplies available at Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative capital in the West Bank, have failed to arrive. Hamas and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, are supposed to be in a government of national unity, but there have been signs of cracks in the recently formed alliance.
“We are looking beyond Ramallah for help; we have asked lots of international organisations urgently for aid, but all we have got so far have been promises,” he said. “We are running short of medicine, of equipment. Half the ambulances can't run because of lack of fuel.”