Unexploded bombs hold more deaths

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - At first the 44 children that live in the Zani family home in Beit Hanoun were wary of the unexploded F-16 rocket whose tail has protruded menacingly from their garden since it landed in the first week of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Now, they have grown used to it — playing excitedly near it and even building fires next to it, a relative says.

“What else are we supposed to do?” asks Mohamed Zani, father of 18 of the children living at the Zani home. “This is our situation, and we have to live with it.”

Zani says he has been calling Gaza’s civil defense force, which was targeted in the invasion and is now located at a makeshift headquarters in the al-Shifa hospital, to remove the missile.

But the Gaza administration simply does not have the funds, equipment or know-how to discharge the weapons. “I don’t know who else to call,” Zani said. “It seems that nobody is able to help us.”

While the major actions of Israel’s 22-day “Operation Cast Lead,” which saw both air bombardment and a substantial ground invasion, have been halted, an unknown number of unexploded munitions threaten to set off another wave of maiming and killing in the impoverished Palestinian territory.

Bombs, tank shells, rockets and missiles were left by the departing Israeli army across Gaza, and present a “major threat” to its civilian population, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement this week.

Because Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world — hosting 1.5 million people in an area just 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide — the danger that the unexploded munitions will continue to kill is particularly great, says the ICRC.

Two children were killed Tuesday by previously unexploded ordnance in Shaaf, east of Gaza City.

The ICRC brought in two ordnance weapons experts Friday to assess how many unexploded munitions there are and where they are located.

“School is starting again and the children will be out on the streets,” said ICRC spokesperson in Gaza Iyad Nasr. “If the assessment does not start quickly and we don’t figure out where the weapons are, we will have a very tragic situation on our hands.”

The Zahwa Rosary School in Gaza City recently reported an unexploded weapon on its campus. And other schools may be threatened by bombs waiting to explode.

Children continue to be the most vulnerable to weapons attacks, Nasr says. At least one-third of the war casualties were children, according to both United Nations and Gaza health officials.

There is also still an unexploded tank shell at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, and people are reporting similar cases all over the strip.

The threat of an unidentified number of unexploded munitions has hampered much-needed aid relief, as well as the beginning of what is already a contentious reconstruction effort.

“The humanitarian action has been put on hold,” Nasr told IPS.

“We are not allowing our workers to go into areas where there was heavy combat, or allowing them to dig through wreckage. Almost all of the ICRC’s projects have been affected by the Israeli invasion.”

Many of Gaza’s roads are damaged, and entire city blocks are covered with rubble.

Nasr says there will likely be a multi-national task force of organizations including the ICRC, the Britain-based Handicap International and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to clear Gaza of the dangerous munitions.

Both Israel and Hamas “better agree to” the presence of an international ordnance weapons team, Nasr says, “if they don’t want more people to die.”

The cost of a munitions clean-up could be up to a billon dollars, Nasr says. According to the United States Department of Defense, the average cost of defusing one unexploded bomb is roughly 1,000 dollars.

A protocol to the 1980 Convention on Certain Weapons obliging warring party states to either carry out or pay for the clean-up of unexploded ordnance in the post-war period came into effect in November 2006.

The Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War came almost immediately after Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, where the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre said the Israeli army left as many as one million unexploded munitions and cluster bombs.

There is currently no evidence, Nasr says, that Israel used cluster bombs — a type of munitions that releases a group of deadly sub-munitions upon explosion — in its recent bombardment of Gaza.

But the danger and potential to seriously harm and even kill is still there, he says. “It is very worrying when heavy ammunition and heavy shelling is used on such a densely populated area in such a short period of time,” Nasr said.

“And the people are understandably worried. It just means the war is not yet over.”

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