The three boys – Khaled Abu Said, 13, Abdulhamid Abu Daher, 13, and Mohammed Assatri, 14 – had been out setting up hunting nets to catch birds on Sunday, according to their families.
As thousands of Gaza residents attended the boys’ funerals, Monira Assatri mourned the loss of her only son among five daughters. She tearfully recounted how the 14-year old had taken a shower, got dressed and gone out to see his friends the evening he was killed.
“Mohammed and his neighbours used from time to time to go hunting in the lands near our home. As you can see, we are living very close to the border area, so our sons go there to play,” Assatri, 47, told Al Jazeera.
“Hours later, we heard bombing, followed by lots of noise outside, ambulance sirens and people shouting,” she paused, continuing through her tears. “I rushed to Mohammed’s room and he wasn’t there.”
Worried, Mohammed’s father went to the hospital to ask about his son, but answers were not immediately available.
Palestinian news agency Wafa said the Israeli army “reportedly opened fire towards the ambulances and prevented their access” to the scene of the bombing, northeast of Khan Younis.
It took three hours after the boys’ deaths in the air raid for Israel to grant permission to Red Crescent staff to evacuate their bodies.
“We sleep and wake up to the sound of shelling as we live near the border area. We are always ready, every night, that something may happen,” Assatri said.
“Last week, I was wondering why I suddenly lost my appetite for food. Now, I know. The moon of my heart has gone, the light of my life has gone,” she said, again bursting into tears.
“How could Israeli soldiers kill innocent children in that way. Didn’t they see them in their cameras? I call all Arab and international bodies to investigate the killing of our children.”
During 2014’s major offensive, the Israeli military demolished the Assatri’s family home along with a number of others in the area.
“Only a year ago, we had our house reconstructed. Other homes are still under construction,” she said.
A few metres from their house, Khaled Abu Said’s mother described learning of her 13-year-old son’s killing after the bombing began.
Khaled’s father had gone out to look for his son and met people along the way who informed him his boy was among the children killed.
“We have agricultural land out there. Khaled was going there every day,” the mother told Al Jazeera. “My son’s hobby was breeding sheep and hunting birds. He was always planting in the land.”
In a statement, the Israeli military said its aircraft fired on three Palestinians who approached the fence and “were apparently involved in placing an improvised explosive device (IED) adjacent” to it.
The families denounced the Israeli statement, denying the boys intended any violence.
“How would they get an explosive device? I believe that if they were to see one, they wouldn’t recognise it. No one here has any military affiliations,” said Abu Said.
“The Israeli occupation deliberately killed my son. This is a brutal killing of three children. Why not shoot in the sky or near them? They would instantly run away,” she said angrily.
Aisha Abu Daher is the mother of 13-year-old Abdulhamid.
The 53-year-old described the day of Abdulhamid’s death as a day eerily like any other up to the tragic event.
“We were sitting drinking tea when he went to hang out with his friends.
“He was my youngest child. He was so dear to my heart,” said the grieving mother.
“He was full of energy and ambition. He was dreaming of a better life for all of us,” she said.
Abu Daher spoke of her regrets and her son’s unfulfilled dreams: “My son grew up and died in poverty and destruction. He strived for a good future, but he got killed before living one good day in his life.”
She called on the international community “to intervene to protect our children from the continued Israeli crimes”.
A painful death toll
With the killing of the three children, the death toll since Gaza’s Great March of Return protest began has risen to at least 218, 19 percent of whom are children, according to the spokesperson of the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Thousands of others have been wounded.
For the past seven months, Palestinians in the Strip have been holding regular demonstrations along the fence with Israel to demand the right to return to their homes, from which they were violently expelled 70 years ago, and an end to the crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
The ongoing siege has devastated the enclave’s economy and left its more than two million inhabitants faced with worsening living conditions, including frequent power cuts, skyrocketing unemployment and prison-like movement restrictions.