On the Way to School

Five children get up in the morning and leave home for school. Suddenly there is a huge explosion. All five are killed. At first the circumstances are not clear. Then the picture becomes clearer - the five were apparently killed by a bomb left at the site by the IDF.

Five children get up in the morning and leave home for school. Dressed in their school uniforms, carrying a school bag in which is a pencil-case, they cross an open field at the end of their neighborhood, not far from their house. Suddenly there is a huge explosion. All five are killed.

At first the circumstances are not clear. Maybe the Israelis were shelling the area - the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) unit in the area fired from tanks a few days earlier, wounding a mother and her two children. Maybe some ammunition fell, maybe it was a land mine.

Israel isn't claiming it was a so-called "work accident" - a terrorist blowing himself up while arming a bomb - because the dead are children. Nor can Israel claim that the victims were on their way to perpetrate a terrorist attack, as the IDF usually does without anyone being able to check it out.

Then the picture becomes clearer - the five children were apparently killed by a bomb left at the site by the IDF. At first the IDF spokesman declines to comment, even though it's pretty obvious the IDF knows very well what caused the death of the children. The horrific pictures are screened around the world.

The five children were all from the Al Astel family - Mohammed, 14, Omar, 13, Anis, 11, Mohammed-Suleiman, 11, and Akram, 6, left their home in the al-Star al-Arabi neighborhood of Khan Yunis refugee camp, to go to school. There is no need to dwell at length in the tragedy of their death. Their blood-drenched school bags and books tell the whole story.

Five children killed is an intolerable price, the fruit of the policy according to which Israel sets itself very loose limits in its war against Palestinian violence. But not everything is permitted, not even in the war against terrorism, or against the mortars that are trained on IDF camps and on the settlements at the extremity of the Gaza Strip.

One thing that's not permitted, for example, is to plant explosive devices on a path used by children on the way to school. That has to be beyond the pale, utterly forbidden, without ifs or buts, because of the danger posed to civilians by the bombs. Whereas in the West Bank Israel seems to have set itself a few red lines, the impression is that in the war to defend the vacuous settlements in the Gaza Strip it has abandoned all restraint. In Gaza, far from the eyes of the Israeli media, the game has different rules. The explosive devices Israel has planted there is proof of that. After the liquidations, the arrests without trial, the shelling of homes and the wholesale kidnappings, now come the bombs, which don't distinguish between children and terrorists.

On the slippery slope that Israel's moral character is sliding irreparably, this is a new nadir. A state places explosive charges where children are likely to pass and then claims that only the other side practices terrorism? We have to admit that an act of this kind can be considered an act of terrorism, because it strikes at the innocent and doesn't discriminate between the victims, even if the intention was not to kill children and even if the goal was the war on terrorism.

No one set out to kill five children, but that can no longer change very much. It's difficult to go on and believe you're right when 160 children and youngsters below the age of 18 - 72 of them below the age of 15 - have been killed in the past year alone. The fact that the IDF didn't do enough to prevent their being killed is almost as grave as the intention to kill them.

Udai Draj, 8, was shot in his children's room in Ramallah; Majed Jalad, 5, was shot while traveling in his grandfather's car, near Ramallah; Aiman Haju, 3 months old, was killed in her grandmother's house in Khan Yunis by an IDF tank shell shortly after her mother had finished breast feeding her, not far from the place where the five school children were killed on Thursday. Amani Genaim, one year and nine months old, was shot in the head at El Khader, near Bethlehem.

Israel did not intend to shoot these children and infants, but it cannot shake off its heavy responsibility for what happened to them. The killing of the five children in Khan Yunis must now become the Kafr Kana of the war in the Gaza Strip - in 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, IDF gunners accidentally killed about 100 civilians in the village of Kafr Kana.

Israel must immediately accept responsibility for the killing, if it was indeed caused by an explosive device planted by our soldiers, apologize and not only express its regret, as the defense minister rightly did, but offer to compensate the bereaved family - and above all, to stop using unacceptable, pernicious methods like this.

The way to protect the settlers of Ganei Tal and Netzer Hazani is to evacuate them immediately. The war on terrorism has to be fought within red lines that must on no account be crossed. And Israel must direct the demand for a cease-fire and for a cessation of terrorism not only at the Palestinians but, to a certain degree, to itself, too.