A 10-YEAR-OLD Palestinian girl, Rana Abu Tiyur, went out to buy milk during a brief respite in a curfew last month. Yards from her home in a refugee camp in the Israeli occupied Gaza Strip, she was hit and killed by an Israeli Army bullet.
Three-year-old Nirmin Elian was playing outside her home in Gaza's Beach Camp last week when an Army jeep sped by with soldiers firing their weapons, apparently in pursuit of stone-throwers. Elian was hit by plastic bullets, but survived thanks to an onlooker who took her immediately for emergency treatment.
At least 13 Palestinian children under age 16 have died from soldiers' gunfire in the last two months and an uncounted number of others have been injured in a period that has seen a sharp increase in child casualties.
Palestinian and human rights activists say the large number of children killed or injured in Gaza shows the Israeli Army is losing its grip on its soldiers and over a new wave of Palestinian street protests.
Army sources say the killings are the "unfortunate result" of a rise in Palestinian violence that also has led to more casualties among soldiers. December killings rise
The clashes, concentrated in Gaza, have followed Israel's Dec. 17 expulsion of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon. The Israeli Human Rights group Btselem says eight West Bank and Gaza children under age 16 were killed in December. Palestinian sources say five children from age 11 to age 14 have been killed this month, all of them from Gaza.
On Tuesday, 13-year-old Lowa Bakroun became the most recent casualty. Palestinian and Army sources say the boy was shot and killed by an unidentified Israeli civilian firing from his car after school boys stoned the vehicle on a Gaza street.
All other shootings, however, have been by uniformed soldiers. And Palestinians say these reflect rising levels of panic, fear, frustration and anger among Israeli soldiers on patrol.
While older teens take up the "armed struggle," children have become the dominant element in stone-throwing street protests. Their ranks are plentiful. Nearly half Gaza's 827,000 residents are age 14 or younger.
"Stone-throwing is a job for the children now," observes one Gaza resident. "Meanwhile, the soldiers are angry. They come to show their muscles against armed wanted men and achieve nothing. They have lost their dignity. So they take revenge by shooting."
"The soldiers consider Gaza a jungle, and consider every moving body a real danger, so their reaction is not controlled," he adds. "Even children three to 14 years old, they consider dangerous."
Although the Army says each child-shooting incident is investigated, it keeps no separate tally of such casualties. And it has released very few details about killings.
In Rana Abu Tiyur's case, for instance, Palestinian eyewitness Aiman al-Fara said in a report to B'Tselem, that the girl was near her home carrying a milk pitcher when a soldier warned her to go home. He then shot her in the back from 20 yards away after she turned to go.
The Army announcement released a day later shed no further light on the episode, saying only that "all of the cases in which shooting of any sort of rioters was carried out, occurred following identification of young persons bearing firearms, or youths throwing stones, cinderblocks, or iron bars at the forces."
Soldiers on the scene later admitted that they "had no idea" how the young girl was killed.
"I tell you I am going crazy from this, simply crazy," said one soldier in a Dec. 24 interview with the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper concerning the incident. "We shot 50 bullets.... We shot an enormous amount. I estimate that it was a soldier's hysteria." Complicated task
Soldiers also say they must cope with an increasingly complex street situation in Gaza, where armed "wanted men" may emerge unexpectedly out of a crowd of child stone-throwers or innocent bystanders.
"When you speak with soldiers, each gives a different version. They are confused and they are frustrated," one soldier told Ha'aretz in the Dec. 24 interview.
"We are having a hard time emotionally. We are carrying all that killing around with us. I don't know how the girl [Rana] was killed. But we cannot shake the feeling that she and others were killed because of us."