Saeed al Hadad was at home in Gaza City, watching television coverage of the war going on outside, when he heard two loud explosions.
“The whole area shook,” he recalled 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.”
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,” 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 suspected Hamas operatives, including the Gaza police chief, Tayseer al Batsh, 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 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 or to launch attacks from such areas.” But she reserved most of her criticism for 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 has raised the question of whether it is a disproportionate response to militant rocket fire at Israel. Critics note that for all the hundreds of rockets Hamas has fired at Israel, the Israeli civilian death toll remains low: Two Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker have been killed by militant rocket strikes. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have died in ground fighting in Gaza, the army said.
Nearly every day provides reports of Palestinian civilians caught up in the Israeli targeting of a relative or neighbor tied to Hamas or some other militant organization.
In the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, Muhammad Hamad, 75, sat one night with his family outside their home until it was time to put three of his grandchildren to bed. He went inside with them, and a few minutes later he heard an explosion.
Rushing back to the yard to check on his family, he told B’Tselem, “I found bodies lying on the ground covered in blood, with their clothes torn. Everything was full of shrapnel and blood.”
Dead were his three grown sons, his wife, a teenage granddaughter and a daughter-in-law. “The missile fell on my family with no warning,” he said.
The target of the July 8 strike was one of the sons, Abdel Hafez Hamad, who the army described as an operative of the militant Islamic Jihad group who was involved in firing rockets at Israel.
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.
The Israeli military says it is taking measures to limit civilian casualties but that many are unavoidable because Hamas has positioned weapons, rocket launchers and command centers in civilian neighborhoods, sometimes in or near mosques, hospitals and schools.
“You don’t expect us not to defend our civilians because Hamas is hiding behind civilians in Gaza,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.
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.
Residents of outlying areas of Gaza City were told to move to the city center, but on Monday a multistory apartment building downtown was hit by an Israeli airstrike, killing 10 people, including a couple and their children who had fled there from Shuja’iya, a Gaza City neighborhood that had been devastated by Israeli artillery fire.
The army has offered no explanations for such strikes, saying that it was conducting its own review of the incidents.
The military has justified the bombing of family homes of suspected militants, saying they were being used as “command and control” and “communications” centers, and were therefore legitimate targets. One army announcement of a strike on a house referred to it as “operational infrastructure” used by an Islamic Jihad militant.
A lengthy military statement defending the house bombings said that great efforts were being made to minimize harm to civilians, including reconnaissance to detect civilians in the area, use of munitions that minimize collateral damage, and in some cases advance warnings, delivered by phone or by firing a small warning missile before the strike.
“When terrorist organizations such as Hamas deliberately use civilian homes for terrorist purposes, it is unavoidable that some civilians will be harmed when the IDF acts against these targets,” the statement said, referring to the Israeli army by the acronym for Israel Defense Forces.
The army has distributed video footage with snippets of radio communications that the military said showed cases in which airstrikes were aborted when civilians were spotted in the target area.
On Wednesday, the army said it struck the vacated al Wafa hospital in Shuj’aiya from the air after it had been used by militants to fire at its forces. An army statement charged that the hospital grounds and surrounding areas had been used by militants as a rocket-launching site and command center, assertions denied by the hospital director. The hospital was evacuated under fire last week following repeated warnings by the military.
“The way Hamas operates is to draw as much fire as possible to civilians, on purpose,” said Pnina Sharvit Baruch, who headed the army’s international law department during a previous Israeli offensive in Gaza in late 2008 and 2009. “They understand that this is one of their assets.”