TIME Israel

Civilian Casualties Rise as Israel Hammers Gaza From the Air

Palestinian relatives of eight members of the Al Haj family, who were killed in a strike early morning, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on Thursday, July 10, 2014.
Palestinian relatives of eight members of the Al Haj family, who were killed in a strike early morning, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, July 10, 2014. Khalil Hamra—AP

Raising questions of how long air campaign can go on

Updated 7:06 a.m. E.T. on July 11

The death toll among Palestinians scrambling under a relentless Israeli air assault in the Gaza Strip passed 80 Thursday and edged close to 100 Friday, including at least 14 children.

Meanwhile, the barrage of rockets Gaza militants launched toward Israeli cities failed to produce a significant casualty on the third day of Israel’s offensive Thursday. A media report that a missile had critically injured someone in a car in Ashdod, a coastal city near Gaza, was withdrawn by smartphone alert 28 minutes later. An rocket fired from Gaza struck a gas station in southern Israel on Friday, seriously wounding one, as rocket fire also came from Lebanon for the first time in the latest fighting.

Everything about the latest offensive is moving fast, especially relative to the last round of fighting. That November 2012 air campaign — dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense by Israel — lasted eight days. Israel’s current offensive, Operation Protective Edge, has bombed more than half as many targets in Gaza in less than half the time — 860 in three days compared with 1,500 in eight days last time. The Israeli military said it destroyed more buildings in the first 36 hours of the current campaign than in all of Pillar of Defense. More people are dying too: the 80 fatalities reported so far is, once again, more than half the reported death toll from the longer bombing two years earlier.

All of it raised the question of how long the Israeli bombardment can go on.

Israel’s wars have a half-life, a variable that slides with circumstances and unscheduled events, but which is decided, to a significant degree, by how the world views the fight. So long as it sees a democracy defending its people against terrorism, Israel enjoys considerable leeway. And that’s how most of the Gaza wars start out: Gaza, a coastal enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians patrolled on three sides by Israeli forces, which also parcels out its electricity, water and food, is a hotbox for militants. Those militants want to hit Israel any way they can, and the way that works best is missiles. More than 500 rockets have roared out of Gaza since Tuesday. Each triggers a siren somewhere in Israel, and often sympathy from some parts of the world moved by photographs of panicked mothers scrambling to shelter their children.

That is the imperative Israeli officials cite at the start of the campaign. “This operation started because in spite of our efforts to get Hamas to give up launching rockets against innocent civilians in the lower half of Israel, Hamas ignored our message and decided to escalate the situation,” Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said in a conference call Thursday. “We have to make sure that we end this confrontation with a clear result, that Hamas stops the launching of rockets and terrorist attacks on Israel, and that it has no appetite to resume this kind of activities in the future. That is the goal of this operation.”

But the operation is a brutal one — 1,000 targets means 1,000 deafening explosions, bowel-shattering concussions in one of the most crowded urban centers on the globe — and there comes a point when the world’s perspective shifts. Israel tries to delay this shift as long as possible. Compared with any other military, its armed forces take exceptional care to avoid civilian casualties. If a house is going to be bombed, a call is placed to it announcing this fact, and explicitly warning civilians to get out. A pilot might also drop a “door-knocker” on the roof — a nonlethal sound bomb also intended to announce an impending attack. The real bomb that’s then loosed on the target is often a munition, sometimes quite small, specifically selected to contain damage to the target and spare the neighbors.

But even surgical strikes involve a great deal of blood, and mistakes are inevitable. Israeli officials chose to declare an end to the 2012 offensive two days after eight members of the Dalou family, including four children, were killed by an Israeli bomb. The day’s total civilian death toll of 31 was more than the four previous days’ combined. Israeli officials insisted they won that war, but the World Press Photo of the Year was of Palestinians carrying dead children.

So it was that the U.N. Security Council convened in an emergency session on Thursday, at the request of the Palestine Liberation Organization. PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads the Palestinian Authority that nominally governs Gaza, had labeled Israel’s campaign “genocide.” The hope is to activate international public opinion on the side of the dead. “Absolutely,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a PLO spokesman. “If [Israelis] don’t stop, we have an experience [in] 2012, we have an experience [in] 2009, in 2006, of what kind of things can happen.”

But in his remarks Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put equal emphasis on the missiles coming out of Gaza, and Israeli officials said they expected to prevent an admonitory resolution from the full council.

“This is not a classic Arab-Israeli conflict, where it goes on for a couple of weeks and then the great powers intervene,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli U.N. ambassador who now heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Hamas, he noted, is not only listed by Europe and Washington as a terrorist organization, it also lacks backing in the Arab world, which is preoccupied with sectarian divisions and leery of its Muslim Brotherhood roots. Its political weakness moved the militant group to make the concessions required to complete a long-promised unity government with the secular Fatah faction led by Abbas, but the deal has failed to produce any evidence at all that “bringing Hamas in to the tent” would moderate its behavior. “They’re not acting like a terror group on its way to governing,” Gold said. “They’re behaving in the worst possible way.”

The U.S., which has been urging restraint in the conflict and brokered a cease-fire in 2012, has not called on Israel to halt air strikes in Gaza and refrained from doing so again during a phone call Thursday between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The President reiterated the United States’ strong condemnation of continuing rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks,” the White House said in a statement describing the call. “The President expressed concern about the risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm. The United States remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement.”

Indeed, Israel’s military says Hamas is promoting civilian deaths in Gaza, not only by operating from private homes but through posters and slogans actually urging people to cluster around targets as human shields. In one instance Tuesday, by numerous accounts local residents ran toward a building that had just received a phoned warning it was about to be bombed, apparently counting on their presence to protect. And it might have worked: an Israeli military spokesman said an effort was made to divert the incoming missile, but it was too late.

“It is a tragedy indeed,” Lieut. Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters Thursday, “and not what we intended.”

— Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

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