After three botched military strikes in Gaza in just over a week, in which 13 Palestinian civilians were killed, the Israeli army is facing an internal investigation into why guided missile strikes that in the past have been called "targeted," "efficient," and even "surgical" have gone so badly, fueling the fires of resentment and sparking international calls for restraint.
Among the reasons the attacks are growing more deadly is that the tactics and technology of the conflict on both sides have been evolving in ways that may be increasing the risk of civilian casualties.
Since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip last August, Palestinian militants have moved closer to the border with Israel. But also, the Israeli army says, Palestinian groups are now gaining access to longer-range rockets, allowing militants to fire from crowded urban areas.
In addition, in the past 10 days, Israel has placed a military balloon over the northern end of Gaza, providing pictures of ground activity that is being used to call in military strikes, according to witnesses and Israeli media reports.
"The change is this," says Capt. Noa Meir, in explaining one Israel Defense Forces (IDF) theory as to why more civilians are being injured and killed in the course of what had been a relatively quiet weapons volley until a few months ago. Palestinian militants have usually launched Kassam rockets, which have a range of about five miles and are not terribly accurate.
But recently, Palestinian cells have begun to lob Katyusha rockets – the first one was launched in late March – which have a range of about 14 miles, and are much more likely to hit their target. Katyusha rockets were commonly used by the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon in its war of attrition with Israel.
"For the terrorists, they prefer to go farther away, so they can hide among the civilians," says Captain Meir. "The areas that we evacuated last August are now being used for launching grounds for Kassams."
When Israel launched a missile strike one week ago Tuesday, she says, the target was a car that was carrying a Katyusha rocket about to be launched, which Israel sees as a more serious threat than the Kassam rockets.
"Katyusha rockets not only have a longer range, they're more accurate and more deadly," Meir says. Fifteen Israelis have been killed in rocket attacks from Gaza in the past five years, according to army figures, and more than 175 rockets of different kinds have been launched by Palestinians into Israel in the past month.
"The question is can we pinpoint it, and we use the best resources and technology you can in order to do so," she says. "Lately, this has been a bad sequence of events. The IDF really does everything in its power to avoid these results. But if you look at these events over the past year, we are usually able to surgically remove, if you will, the militants."
But relative "accuracy" of some missile strikes does not mitigate the bitterness in Gaza over the errant ones. Thursday, thousands marched in the funeral of two Palestinian siblings – a pregnant woman and her brother – killed in a missile strike a day earlier.
The two were struck while the Israeli air force was trying to target members of the Popular Resistance Committee, a militant group made up of members from different factions. On Tuesday night, three Palestinian children, aged 5, 7, and 16, were killed during an Israeli missile strike that missed its target. Israel was aiming for three militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who emerged unscathed. The Israeli air force had aimed its missile at their car, driving through the densely populated Jabalya refugee camp. On Tuesday a week earlier, eight Palestinian civilians were killed alongside three militants from Islamic Jihad.
The bloodshed has brought international criticism and calls for a cease-fire. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Israel to stop the missile strikes, and for Palestinians to stop firing rockets at Israel. After the missile strike Tuesday that killed the three children, the secretary-general's spokesman said Israel should "respect international law to ensure that its actions are proportionate and do not put civilians at grave risk."
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jordan Thursday, has also called on Palestinian factions to halt rocket fire against Israel and prevent Israel from having "an excuse" to launch further attacks or send ground forces back into Gaza, a possibility that has been floated in the press several times in recent weeks.
In a statement earlier this week, Mr. Abbas also criticized Israel's strikes, raising questions about their accuracy. "The increased frequency of women and children falling victim to Israeli missiles," he said, "in an age of very precise electronic warfare, indicates a deliberate action on the Israeli side to target every Palestinian and to cause maximum human, physical, and psychological damage."
A cabinet minister for the Hamas-led government Thursday condemned the US and the international community for not speaking more forcefully about the missile strikes. "We feel the absence of international conscience, especially the United States, which didn't say a single word in condemnation to the Israeli massacres in Gaza Strip," Yousef Rezqa, the Palestinian Authority's Information Minister, told reporters in Gaza.
Even inside Israel, there has been increased criticism of the policy. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that in the wake of recent botched assassination attempts, the IDF should prefer cancelling a mission over taking innocent lives, if and when it becomes clear that civilians will likely die in the process of an assassination. Amos Harel, a writer for the leading progressive newspaper, Haaretz, wrote a pointed article Thursday under the headline, "Nothing surgical about IAF [Israeli air force] Attacks."
He posed: "If the air attacks are considered to be the cutting edge of technology, why are there so many civilian casualties?"
Israel's policy of using targeted assassinations has come under fire in the past, particularly when innocent bystanders have been killed. In 2004, Israel assassinated two of the top figures in Hamas, which is listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was a senior political figure.
In 2002, the Israeli air force dropped a one-ton bomb on an entire building in Gaza City, completely destroying it and killing 14 civilians, according to the Jerusalem Post. They also got the target they were after – Hamas leader Salah Shehada.
Israeli military has moved away from artillery shelling and focused on missile strikes in recent weeks in particular because of the theory that the military can be much more "precise" about getting at particular militants or the source of fire. The technology that allows Israeli forces in the air to track Palestinians militants on the ground is one that the IDF will not comment on extensively. IDF officials say, however, that when they see civilians getting in the way of a missile intended for militants, they are able to divert the rocket before it lands. Sometimes, however, it is diverted into a place where it does even more damage.
"There have been a number of instances where there has been info and we were in the air, and we have information that civilians would be hurt, so we refrain from striking," says Meir. "There have been times when we launched the missile, and the civilians enter the area, and we try to divert the missile, but sometimes if we divert it, it will do even more damage. Unfortunately, we don't see anything like this on the other side. They are trying to kill civilians."
In a related issue, seven members of the same family were killed in a blast on a Gaza beach on June 9. Israeli shelling initially was believed to have caused the deaths. But Israeli officials and newspaper reports have suggested that there was either a bomb on the beach, planted by militants to prevent an Israeli invasion by sea and accidentally triggered by the family, or the family happened open old, unexploded ammunition.