The Israel Defense Forces often call the militants in Gaza whose homes it intends to strike minutes before doing so, a way of minimizing the deaths of any women and children who might be inside.
For Israel, the warnings have a logic that is both moral and strategic. Even a successful operation against a senior militant can be overshadowed by the outrage — among Palestinians and around the world — that can ensue over civilian deaths.
But the phone calls are no guarantee that innocents will be spared. No single event galvanizes support for Gaza’s armed groups like mass civilian killings by Israel’s military, and despite what Israel describes as exceptional caution, the recent conflict featured several of them.
On the night of the 19th, Azzam did not answer his phone, according to several family members who recounted the incident this week. Moments later, when the buzz of an Israeli drone sounded above his family home in the Zeitun neighborhood, Azzam gathered the dozen people who were inside and fled into the street.
Within minutes, a drone strike, followed by an Israeli military jet’s bombing run, demolished the Azzam home and at least four others around it. Among them were two that belonged to the Abu Zor family, whose members say they had no affiliation with Gaza’s armed groups, chief among them Hamas. Two young mothers, Sahar and Nisma Abu Zor, and a 3-year-old named Mohammed perished in a blast meant to kill someone else.
“We were blown into the streets,” said Hana Abu Zor, Mohammed’s grandmother. “The house just came down around us.”
The details and aftermath of the airstrikes in Zeitun show how Israel, even while attempting to avoid civilian casualties, plays into the hands of its enemies in the cramped conflict here. Although there is lingering anger toward the Azzams, who say they did not have enough time to warn their neighbors before the attack, the survivors ultimately blame Israel.
Meanwhile, Hamas, which faced rising public discontent before the eight-day confrontation with Israel, has reaped benefits from such attacks and has emerged in perhaps its strongest political position since taking full control of the Mediterranean enclave five years ago.
Embedded among civilians
Of the 174 Palestinians killed in the conflict, 43 percent were women, children and seniors, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. More than half of the 1,400 people wounded fall into the same categories.
Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza use their arsenals to kill as many Israelis, and sow as much terror, as possible. During the conflict, Gazan militants fired more than 1,500 rockets into Israel’s towns and cities, killing four Israeli civilians and two soldiers. Their ordnance is far less powerful than Israel’s. But as the range of Hamas’s rockets has increased since the last outbreak of violence nearly four years ago, so has the arc of fear, which now stretches nearly to Jerusalem.