Critics blast Israel for strikes on Gaza houses that claim civilian lives

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 10, 2014 

— The civilian death toll in the Gaza Strip continued to climb Thursday as Israel pressed its aerial campaign there against Islamist militants, targeting the homes of suspected operatives in intensifying bombardments across the coastal territory.

The Gaza Health Ministry said that 89 people had been killed, many of them civilians, and more than 600 had been in injured since the start Tuesday of the Israeli offensive against the Islamist militant group Hamas and allied factions.

Volleys of rockets from Gaza continued to hit Israel, with at least one intercepted over Tel Aviv. Air-raid sirens sounded at Dimona in southern Israel, the site of the country’s main nuclear reactor. Two Israeli soldiers were reported wounded by mortar shell fragments.

As the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the crisis, hostilities continued unabated with no evidence of a serious diplomatic effort to arrange a cease-fire.

The Israeli army reported strikes on militants it blamed for rocket attacks and said it had hit more than 900 targets from the air, sea and land, and dropped more than 400 tons of explosives.

An airstrike on a car killed three militants from the Islamic Jihad group who were involved in the manufacture of rockets, and a Hamas militant involved in firing rockets was killed in a separate strike, the army said.

But reports of civilian casualties mounted.

Seven members of a single family, including children, were reported killed in a bombardment of their house in the city of Khan Younis. An Israeli missile hit a coffee shop on the Khan Younis beach late Wednesday, killing nine people watching a World Cup game, and a 5-year-old boy was killed in another strike on Thursday in Beit Lahiya, according to local reports.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said she had no information on the reported incidents. Israeli military officials say they often issue warnings to evacuate before such strikes, but a spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry said that no such warning was given.

In daily statements, the army has referred to bombed houses variously as “activity sites utilized by Hamas operatives,” a “terror command center embedded within civilian infrastructure,” or “a house used as a command and control site.”

“When houses are used for military purposes, they may become legitimate military targets under international law,” the army said in a statement on Thursday, adding that it “makes great efforts to minimize potential harm to the surrounding civilian population.”

That assertion was disputed by human rights advocates.

“These houses are not legitimate military targets, and attacking them is a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” said the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “The gravity of the violation is compounded when uninvolved civilians are injured.”

According to army figures, Gaza militants have launched more than 500 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel since the start of the offensive, which followed a flareup of hostilities after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month.

Longer-range rockets have reached Tel Aviv, near Jerusalem and south of the northern port city of Haifa, setting off air-raid sirens in major population centers.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has picked off more than 80 incoming rockets, and residents have taken shelter in safe rooms, preventing casualties.

But in Gaza there are no shelters or early warning systems, and the Israeli bombing campaign, which has struck dozens of homes of suspected militant leaders, also has claimed the lives of their relatives and neighbors.

The impact of the strikes on homes in crowded residential neighborhoods was evident in a video posted online showing pandemonium erupting after the bombing of a house Tuesday in the town of Khan Younis.

Screaming men and women, some shouting “God is Great!” fled down an alley through clouds of dust, and a woman clutching two small children hurried them to safety.

A young man caught in the collapse of the concrete roof was pulled out, and people gathered around several bodies, one of them the corpse of a child, as others worked frantically in the rubble to find survivors.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the blame for the casualties squarely on Hamas, which he accused of “maliciously hiding behind Palestinian civilians.”

“It embeds its terrorists in hospitals, schools, mosques and apartment buildings throughout the Gaza Strip,” he said in a “Statement to the International Community” issued by his office on Wednesday. “Hamas is thus committing a double war crime: It targets Israeli civilians, while hiding behind Palestinian civilians.”

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said that five weapons manufacturing facilities targeted during the offensive were hidden in mosques. “Hamas’s modus operandi of operating within the civilian population and employing civilians as human shields may bear tragic consequences,” he said.

Palestinians in Gaza say they have used the tactic of gathering on roofs of homes as a means to protect them from bombardment.

A drone video released this week by the army showed Palestinians gathered on the roof a house after it had been hit with a warning missile. The army said the home was not attacked.

The outcome was different on Tuesday at the home of the Kawara family in Khan Yunis, shown in the Internet video. According to investigations by human rights groups, the occupants left the house after receiving a call from the Israeli military warning them that the structure was about to be targeted. A member of the family is known to be active in the armed wing of Hamas.

Residents gathered outside the house with dozens of neighbors, according to a report compiled by B’Tselem. A small warning missile was then fired at a water tank on the roof of the building, and several minutes later family members and neighbors began to go up to the roof. The house was then bombed and the roof collapsed, killing eight people, six of them children.

An Israeli military official, speaking anonymously under army rules, said that the attack was set in motion after the house was vacated, and that it was “too late” to divert the missile after residents went back to the house.

“The system does not always work 100 percent,” the official said. “Mistakes occur.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: jgreenberg@mcclatchydc.com .

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