Gaza War Generates Debate on Civilians

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 15, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 14 -- A war that began almost three weeks ago as an effort by Israel to stop Hamas rocket fire from killing Israeli civilians has been consumed by a bitter debate over who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

As the Palestinian death toll topped 1,000 on Wednesday, medical officials and aid organizations said civilians accounted for at least half of the total. An additional 4,700 Palestinians have been injured.

The Israeli military blames Hamas for using Gazans as human shields and for retreating to densely populated areas to fight the war. But Palestinians and human rights groups say that Israel has been reckless and that in pursuing Hamas, it has employed tactics that unnecessarily drive up the civilian toll.

A group of Israeli human rights organizations on Wednesday said Israel's behavior in Gaza represents "blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes." Israel said it was doing everything it could to prevent civilian casualties. "We are taking many precautions, including dropping leaflets," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman. "Our pilots do U-turns when they see civilians near their targets."

The debate underscores the asymmetry of the conflict. On one side, Israel possesses a modern military, the strongest in the Middle East, with overwhelming firepower and the stated aim of sparing innocent Palestinian lives when it can, but above all protecting Israelis by crushing Hamas. On the other side, Hamas is an Islamist movement with a militia that has been badly damaged by the Israeli assault but that continues to fire rockets indiscriminately into Israeli civilian areas, as it has for eight years. It operates from within the civilian population in Gaza's densely packed cities and refugee camps.

Caught in between are the bulk of Gaza's 1.5 million residents, who are trapped in the narrow coastal strip with limited access to food, electricity and water as the war rages around them.

Since Israel launched a surprise aerial assault on Gaza on Dec. 27, under-resourced hospitals have struggled to keep up with the constant influx of severely injured patients, who arrive cradled in the arms of relatives or lying on makeshift stretchers.

Jawad Harb said that in the case of his 14-year-old cousin, there was no need to take him to the hospital. "He was standing on his balcony, watching the bombs. Then a big fragment penetrated his head," said Harb, who manages a project for the aid group CARE International that focuses on improving the lives of women in Gaza. "He died on the spot."

Later in the week, Harb stood in the street of the southern town of Rafah with his wife and six children and looked on as his neighborhood was systematically turned to rubble. His family had been warned to leave, he said, but in Gaza there is nowhere to go. The street seemed the safest place to ride out the airstrikes that landed like an earthquake every five minutes, each one sending a thick black plume into the sky from the spot of ground where a house once stood.

Some of the houses, Harb acknowledged, had concealed tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle weapons from Egypt. But most, he said, did not.

"They were destroying all the houses," said Harb, 44. "And if you stayed in your house, you died in your house."

Martha Myers, CARE's country director for the Palestinian territories, said Israel knows that deaths are inevitable when it unleashes massive amounts of firepower in a place as packed as Gaza, where about half the population is 16 or younger. "Gaza is a room crowded with children," she said.

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