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Israel Criticized for Gaza Casualties

Jerusalem — Saeed al-Hadad was at home in Gaza City, watching TV coverage of the war going on outside, when he heard two loud explosions.

“The whole area shook,” he recounted in testimony collected by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “There was no warning fire beforehand like there was in other cases. Glass in my house shattered, and the whole area was covered in black smoke.”

Al-Hadad joined the stream of people rushing toward the house of Majdi al-Batsh, which had been reduced to rubble. “We started searching for survivors,” al-Hadad said. “It didn’t take long to realize that everyone in Majdi’s house was dead — men, women and children. We didn’t find a single body in one piece.”

Seventeen people from the al-Batsh family died in the July 12 bombing, including a pregnant woman and four children. The Israeli army said several Hamas operatives, including the Gaza police chief, were at the house when it was attacked.

The targeting of homes of suspected militants has been the signature tactic of Israel’s 16-day-old offensive in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of dwellings have been hit, according to local reports. It’s one of the reasons the civilian death toll from the Israeli campaign has been so high, surpassing 650 on Wednesday, according to Gaza health officials; three-quarters of those have been civilians, including 168 children, according to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council voted to launch an inquiry into whether Israel has violated international law in its Gaza offensive. In remarks to the council, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, warned both Israel and Hamas that their actions during the conflict “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Pillay criticized Hamas, saying it was “unacceptable to locate military assets in densely populated areas.” But she also criticized Israel, saying “the high number of civilian deaths belies the claim that all necessary precautions are being taken to protect civilian lives.”

“The actions of one party do not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law,” Pillay added.

The fierce bombardment of crowded neighborhoods in Gaza also has raised the question of whether Israel’s response is disproportionate to the impact of militant rocket fire at Israel.

Critics note that for all the hundreds of rockets fired at Israel, the death toll inside Israel remains low: Two Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker have been killed by militant rocket fire. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have died in ground fighting in Gaza, the army said.

This past Sunday, members of the extended Abu Jamea family gathered in their four-story home in the city of Khan Yunis for the traditional evening meal breaking the daylong Ramadan fast.

Without warning, the building was bombed, killing 25 family members, including three pregnant women and 19 children, a B’Tselem investigation found. Among the dead was Ahmad Sahmoud, a member of Hamas’ armed wing, who was visiting. An army spokesman said he had no information on why the home was targeted.

Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who helped draft the Israeli army’s ethical code, said that under international law Israel is required to make a genuine effort to avoid civilian casualties while attacking military targets, and to ensure that such casualties were proportionate to the military advantage gained by such an attack.

The Israeli army has used leaflets and phone calls to warn people in Gaza to leave areas targeted for bombardment, and while tens of thousands have left, others have stayed behind, saying that nowhere in Gaza was safe.