Gazan civilians increasingly at risk in assault on Hamas
Israel may consider a 48-hour cease-fire with Hamas, but threatened a ground invasion if militant rockets didn't stop during a temporary truce.
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Hamas says that it has fired more than 250 rockets and mortars on Israel since the offensive began and Israel reports that 40 were fired Tuesday. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed so far in rocket fire from Gaza militants.Skip to next paragraph
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Minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza requires "a combination of excellent intelligence, very accurate weapons systems, and very good planning that takes into account collateral damage," says Shlomo Brom, a former brigadier general who headed the Israeli army's strategic planning division.
Military planners rely on systems that integrate electro-optical, laser-guided, and global positioning technology, he says. So far, "the air operations are brilliant," but, he added, "mistakes are bound to happen and they will happen in this war."
Just such a mistake occurred in the third week of Israel's 2006 battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon, when the Israeli air force bombed a three-story building in the village of Qana and killed dozens of people, mostly children.
Described as an Israeli "massacre" by the Lebanese, the attack ratcheted up pressure for a cease-fire and became part of the well-orchestrated Hezbollah propaganda campaign that accompanied its fight with Israel. Israel was also accused of targeting civilians by using cluster bombs in the final days of the war even though Israel says it used them in accordance with international law.
Human Rights Watch, however, charges that Israel breached prohibitions by dropping cluster bombs in a civilian area.
In Gaza six years ago, the air force was accused of knowingly targeting civilians when it dropped a one-ton bomb on the hideout of Salah Shahade, a Hamas commander. The blast killed 15 civilians, including Mr. Shahde's wife and nine children.
"They are not intending to kill civilians, I believe that," says Iyad Sarraj, a Gazan human rights activist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. "But at the same time, if they have a target, and some civilians are in the vicinity, it doesn't matter. They have to hit the target anyway. Add to this that they are not 100 percent accurate."
Mr. Sarraj says that a friend and his family were almost left for dead after their house was buried in the rubble from an the Israeli air force attack on a neighboring multistory building.
To be sure, the debate over civilian casualties is littered with political, moral, and emotional land mines. Israelis claim the high ground by arguing that even though they fight terrorists who deliberately target civilians, they try to uphold a spirit of "purity of arms" by avoiding civilian casualties as much as possible.
Critics counter that by putting Palestinian towns under blockade and going after militants in civilian areas, Israel makes noncombantants targets.
"More than 17 missiles were directed at an empty government compound, without regard for civilians who lived nearby," Mr. Koraz said. "If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation."