JERUSALEM—When an Israeli missile strike killed eight Palestinian civilians on Tuesday, Israeli leaders said they were doing all they could to keep innocents out of the crosshairs.
But the deadly attack underscored a stark reality in the bloody conflict: The number of Palestinian civilians killed since Israel began pulling out of the Gaza Strip last year surpasses the number of Israelis killed in suicide bombings, ambushes and drive-by shootings.
To be sure, there's a significant distinction between the two sides: Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket teams target Israeli civilians, whereas Israel is aiming at Palestinian militants.
But that distinction doesn't matter much to Palestinian victims, especially when Israel offers qualified condolences, and some critics worry that Israel's aggressive attempts to fight Palestinian militants could backfire by feeding anti-Israeli sentiments.
"Palestinian civilians don't matter as much as they should," said Jessica Montell, the executive director B'Tselem, one of Israel's leading human rights groups. "There is a certain cycle of violence—and attacks on civilians on either side increases calls for revenge."
The often-muted international response to the Palestinian deaths also reinforces perceptions across the Middle East that Israel and the West are insensitive to Arab deaths.
"It's hypocritical," Hamdi Shaqqura, a demographics expert at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, said of U.S. and European reaction to Palestinian deaths. "They don't want to act. They don't have the political will to act."
Since Israel began pulling out of the Gaza Strip last summer, 44 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks, according to figures from the Israeli government and human rights groups. Twenty-eight victims died in four suicide bombings that received widespread attention in the Western media. Sixteen more were killed in attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Over the same period, a conservative review of statistics shows, at least 47 innocent Palestinians have been killed by Israeli artillery shells, missiles and bullets. B'Tselem, which compiled the data, gives a higher number, 156, but that figure includes demonstrators throwing stones, militants trying to evade capture and Palestinians whom Israel targeted for assassination.
Unlike the widely reported suicide bombings, most of the deaths of the Palestinians received little media attention because they were spread out over more than two dozen attacks.
The deaths include a Gaza Strip shepherd who was shot while tending to his sheep, an 8-year-old girl walking to her aunt's house near the Israeli border, a 15-year-old boy playing soccer near his house, and a 7-year-old girl whose house was destroyed by an Israeli artillery shell.
Last month, an Israeli missile strike aimed at a Palestinian militant also hit a Gaza Strip family taking their new car out for a spin, killing three. In that instance, Israel took the unusual step of paying the medical bills of the survivors.
Israeli leaders chafe at suggestions that they have any disregard for innocent Palestinian lives.
After the attack on Tuesday that killed eight civilians, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said Palestinians should blame the militants who use Gaza Strip neighborhoods as cover to fire rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.
"We are saddened by the deaths of these innocent Palestinians but hold absolutely no responsibility for them," Halutz said. "The responsibility lies entirely on the shoulders of the Palestinians."
The disparity between Israeli and Palestinian deaths has been rising since the Islamic party Hamas won last January's elections. Since then, at least 28 innocent Palestinians have been killed, compared with 17 Israeli and international victims. The latter figure includes the death of 16-year-old Florida tourist Daniel Wultz, who was among 11 victims killed in the most recent Palestinian suicide bombing in April.
The deaths of innocents always has been one of the most politically charged elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's difficult to find people on either side who haven't been directly affected by a Palestinian suicide bombing or Israeli military action. Over the last six years, according to B'Tselem, Israelis have killed more than 3,500 Palestinians, while Palestinians have killed about 1,000 Israelis.
Funerals on both sides often carry overt political messages, and survivors emerge as icons.
The latest Palestinian icon is Huda Ghaliya, who looked on in horror last week as seven members of her family were killed by an explosion while they were picnicking on a Gaza Strip beach.
Although Israel was firing artillery into Gaza at that time, the military has cleared itself of responsibility, saying that whatever exploded wasn't an Israeli shell. That conclusion is being challenged by human rights groups calling for an independent investigation.
The blast also ignited a caustic debate in Israel.
Dana Olmert, the daughter of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, created a stir when she joined 200 demonstrators outside the Tel Aviv home of Halutz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. One writer suggested that Dana had "stuck a knife in her father's back."
Prominent Israeli author David Grossman criticized the Israeli army for "pounding the Palestinians time and time again, and ultimately only pummeling them deeper into their humiliation and rage and desire for revenge."
After printing Grossman's piece, Amnon Danker, editor in chief of the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, fired back by suggesting that the writer was "stupid."
"If we agonize excessively because of shocking footage on television" or criticism from foreign media and governments, Danker wrote, "we will abdicate both our will and our ability to defend ourselves."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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