QANA, Lebanon – Many of the bodies were as tiny as dolls, with limp little fingers and debris that clung to their curls. They were killed in their sleep by an Israeli airstrike before dawn here Sunday, still dressed in action-figure pajamas and thin nightgowns.

By late afternoon, at least 34 children – more than half the 56 or more people who died in the bombing of Qana – had been pulled from the rubble of a house where families had gathered each night in the mistaken hope that safety from the Israeli strikes could be found in numbers.

The attack was the deadliest so far in Israel’s 19-day war with Hezbollah militants and, like so many other villages, Qana’s civilians paid the price.

But because of the children and because of history, this one resonated. It was here that Israeli artillery killed more than 100 civilians during an offensive in 1996, forever linking the words “Qana” and “massacre” in the minds of Arabs. And it was here, again, that a community counted its dead and listened to Israeli officials apologize for “a mistake.”

“It’s the second time, God help us,” said Dawoud Kahwaji, a local Red Cross worker who leaned against his ambulance at the scene, waiting for another batch of bodies. “1996 and today. I have a dead father and son in the back right now. Go look.”

Nestled among the olive groves and tobacco farms of south Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim heartland, Qana’s support for Hezbollah is no secret. As throughout southern Lebanon, the group’s yellow flags and memorials to dead fighters are interspersed with signs of ordinary life: beauty salons, electronics shops, music stores. To townsfolk, the guerrillas on the front lines are the same neighborhood youths who plow snow in winter and help with harvests in summer.

“I will tell you the truth. Yes, we have resistance fighters in Qana, but, no, they weren’t in that area that Israel hit,” said Sanaa Faraj, a 32-year-old mother of three. “Don’t they know that the more they bomb us, the more connected we become to the resistance?”

Sunday’s barrage partially collapsed the house and flattened nearby buildings – though Israel has hit Qana so hard in recent days that it’s difficult to distinguish old rubble from the new. The stench of death wafted from previous targets even as workers feverishly tore through the wreckage of the latest one.

Villagers, firefighters and Red Cross workers used their hands and crude instruments to pry bodies from the rubble, which appeared dangerously close to caving in on them. As if on an assembly line, volunteers passed corpses from worker to worker until an ambulance had been filled. Then another arrived, and the chain began again.

Just a few feet from the scene, a bewildered-looking man named Mahdi Shalhoub paced absently in a garage where tobacco leaves dried and newborn kittens mewled at his feet. His 18-year-old sister, Lina, was dead, and her husband was still missing. Israeli aircraft could be heard in the distance, but Shalhoub said he wouldn’t flee. His eyes were vacant, and he seemed more stricken than defiant.

“I don’t want to go. Where should I go? I am from here,” he said. “I’ll just die here. Die at home.”

There are two main clans in Qana: the Shalhoubs and the Hashems. The Shalhoubs who were too poor, scared or stubborn to flee their village had begun spending their nights together in the house, which was owned by a Hashem. It was clearly a residence, they figured, so they thought it would be safe.

The airstrike Sunday wiped out dozens of Shalhoubs, and probably a generation of the clan’s children.

“All the Shalhoubs are dead,” Hosniya Shalhoub, 40, bluntly told a caller as she answered her cell phone at a hospital in Tyre, where the bodies were unloaded in the courtyard.

When the hospital staff ran out of black body bags, they began rolling out clear plastic sheets. Babies, toddlers, women and the elderly were placed one to a square, with flies buzzing around their eyelashes. A villager accompanied doctors, identifying the neighborhood children by sight. One little boy wore pajamas emblazoned with the words “Strike Zone.”

Then the corpses were wrapped up like gifts and sealed with duct tape. They were loaded into the large refrigerated truck that’s been the de facto morgue since the conflict began.

“Here you go, Israel, take your terrorists,” women from Qana shouted, as a second wave of dead children was unloaded from stench-filled ambulances.

Inside the hospital, doctors treated Rabab Yusuf, 40, and her husband, Mohamed Ali Shalhoub, 41, who survived the attack. Their 4-year-old son, Hassan, was alive, too, but there was no sign of his sister, Zeinab, 6. Both children had been cradled next to their mother as they slept, Yusuf said.

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The family had been separated after arriving at the hospital, where doctors tugged off Yusuf’s veil to inspect a bleeding head wound. Her legs had been crushed, so they gingerly lifted her into a wheelchair and set off down a corridor. Nurses pushed a gurney in the opposite direction – on it lay Hassan, weak and bloody.

“I’m coming, my darling, I promise I’m coming soon,” Yusuf called to him.

Yusuf was placed in a hospital bed next to her husband’s. She shouted at nurses, demanding news of her daughter. A doctor brushed visitors aside and whispered two words to Yusuf: “She’s gone.” The father bowed his head and the mother sat silent for a moment.

“God gave her to me as a gift, and God took her away,” Yusuf said quietly. “Oh, my darling Zeinab, God is greatest.”



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