GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Four young Palestinian boys were killed Wednesday when two explosions hit a jetty and beach where they were playing at the fishing port of Gaza City, and witnesses and officials here said the cause was an Israeli naval or aerial attack. The port area had been considered relatively safe from the intense Israeli bombing campaign of the past nine days.
The Israel Defense Forces, which has been hitting Gaza with bombs and missiles to counter rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups, said it was investigating what killed the boys. All were cousins in an extended family of fishermen who kept their boats at the port.
The first explosion left a small shack burning on the jetty. Several boys could be seen fleeing along the beach. About 30 seconds later came the second blast, and when the dust cleared, three figures lay motionless on the sand. One had most of a leg blown off, his body charred; a few yards away lay a smaller one with curly hair.
Men came running and scooped up the bodies. A fourth was found in the charred ruins of the shack on the jetty. A grown man, wounded, called for help from inside an outdoor beach cafe, and he too was carried away.
Israel’s military says it has taken extensive precautions to avoid killing civilians. According to a running count kept by United Nations officials, of the more than 200 Palestinians killed so far, about 75 percent have been civilians. One Israeli has been killed.
Hamas and other militants have fired more than 1,000 rockets into Israel since simmering hostilities erupted into military confrontation on July 8. Most of the Gaza rockets have fallen in open ground in Israel or been destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome interception system. Israel has struck houses, offices and farmland with airstrikes, missiles from Apache helicopters and shelling from naval boats.
The boys were part of the Bakr family, according to relatives who gathered outside the family’s apartment building, wailing and crying. One woman cursed both Israel and Hamas, and another quietly noted that Hamas had killed 10 members of the family in factional infighting.
Relatives who witnessed what happened identified the boys as Mohammad, 11 or 12, Ismail, 9, Zakariya, 10, and Ahed, 7 or 9. In the chaos of an extended family milling about in mourning, there was some confusion about the ages.
Like many Gaza children from large families, the cousins were inseparable and traveled in a pack, playing nearly every day on the beach in normal times, relatives said.
But they had been cooped up during nine days of bombardment, said Nasreen al-Bakr, an aunt of Ahed, whose father had beaten him the day before for defying parents’ orders to stay off the beach.
Israeli gunboats patrol just offshore and have periodically fired shells landward. Still, the area near the port has been generally safe, located near a row of hotels packed with foreign journalists, some of whom gave first aid to another wounded child on the terrace of the nearby Deira Hotel, where the bodies were initially brought.
“What was the fault of these children?’’ a woman wailed at the family home. “Are they terrorists?’’
Ramzi, 8, Mohammad’s brother, said he had tried to tag along when the boys went to catch crabs and check on the family’s boats. But Mohammad apparently considered that the risk of going to the beach, while acceptable for himself, was too much for his little brother.
“He made me go back to the house,’’ Ramzi said softly. “He was always worried for me.’’