Palestinians sift through rubble at Gaza camp hit in Israeli strike

  • Israeli strike killed an Islamic Jihad commander
  • Israel officer says one house hit, Palestinians say six destroyed
  • Palestinian girl says recited final prayers as rubble fell

GAZA, Aug 7 (Reuters) - When Israeli rockets slammed into her neighbourhood in a crowded refugee camp in the Gaza strip on Saturday night, 9-year-old Leen Matar said she was so scared that she began to recite Islam's final prayers.

"We were at my grandfather’s house when suddenly the rubble started to fall on us," she told Reuters from a hospital bed, her father beside her as she was treated for a broken leg. "We started to cry until the neighbours arrived and rescued us."

"I was saying the last prayers, I didn’t expect I would live until the moment they rescued me," she said. "We sat like this for 10 minutes until they broke down the door."

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Matar was wounded in an Israeli strike that killed a senior commander with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group late on Saturday evening, the second day of a major flare-up in violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The Gaza authorities said five civilians were killed in the attack in the Rafah refugee camp, along with the commander - Khaled Mansour - and two of his associates.

A senior Israeli military officer said Israel had hit Mansour and a few commanders with him. He said the army did not know exactly how many civilians were killed but he denied it was five.

On Sunday morning, residents sifted through the rubble at the camp, a warren of alleys that is home to Palestinians whose families fled or were expelled from towns and villages in 1948 during the war of Israel's creation.

Some carried away a small bike and some books. Another dragged pieces of furniture away. Others looked for family documents and photo albums.

The casualties add to the toll of the most serious escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in more than a year.

The sides have agreed to observe an Egyptian-proposed truce from Sunday evening, sources said. read more

Israel began mounting air strikes on Friday against what it described as Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza. Around 30 Palestinians have been killed, at least a third of them civilians. Israel says it does not target civilians.

Islamic Jihad has fired hundreds of missiles into Israel, where antimissile defences have prevented casualties but people have still been driven into shelters.

'A HORRIFYING SCENE'

Palestinian residents said six homes had been destroyed in Rafah. The senior Israeli officer said Israel had destroyed the house Mansour was in and not the surrounding houses, and the strike was timed to minimise "collateral damage".

Ahmed Temraz, whose house was damaged, said six missiles had hit the area and there had been no forewarning of the attack.

"It was a horrifying scene, words can’t explain; injustice, terror and the fear of children and women,” Temraz, 46, told Reuters. "It was very scary. People were dismembered."

Residents had joined emergency workers and medics in rescue operations that continued until dawn, witnesses said.

Ashraf Al-Qaissi, whose house was about 50 metres from the targeted area, described chaotic scenes as residents sought to flee while aiding casualties.

"They hit the area without forewarning, I ran with my children, and my daughter got wounded in her hand," said Qaissi, 46.

He spoke sitting atop the ruins of his home, saying he had allowed rescue workers to knock it down so they could access the targeted area with a bulldozer to help search for victims under rubble.

"The trapped people are more precious," Qaissi told Reuters.

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Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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Thomson Reuters

A senior correspondent with nearly 25 years’ experience covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict including several wars and the signing of the first historic peace accord between the two sides.