Palestinians told to evacuate northern Gaza as Israel steps up airstrikes

After a unilateral ceasefire failed Tuesday, Israel signaled an escalation of a bombing campaign aimed at Hamas. The legality of targeting houses of militants is hotly debated. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A girl cries as Palestinians flee their homes in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, after Israel had airdropped leaflets warning people to leave the area, Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

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Israel blanketed parts of Gaza with leaflets today that warned civilians to evacuate ahead of another round of airstrikes, reinvigorating debate on the legality of targeting locations in the crowded coastal territory.

The leaflet drop happened less than 24 hours after the unraveling of Israel's unilateral agreement to a cease-fire with Hamas. Militants have continued to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel.  

The Israeli leaflets, dropped in northern Gaza, warned residents to remain south of the town of Jabalya. They read, “The IDF does not want to harm you" and warned that those who don't evacuate “endanger their own lives," The Los Angeles Times reports. About 100,000 Palestinians live in the area.

The notification came after the Israeli security cabinet approved an escalation in Gaza and a limited ground operation, if needed. This morning Israel bombed areas in the northern Gaza Strip that it said contained underground rocket launchers, according to the Times. 

Whether such notification efforts absolve Israel of responsibility for civilian deaths that occur in airstrikes is contested. BBC Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly notes, "Israel says its warnings are to avoid civilian casualties in planned raids but they'll spread further fear, anger and uncertainty in Gaza where civilians will feel there are no real places of safety now."

The Christian Science Monitor explored the debate Tuesday:

Col. Lerner says the military takes great care to avoid harming civilians: It calls residents to warn them to evacuate targeted houses even though this gives militants a chance to escape. The calls are followed by the firing of a missile without an explosive into the roof of the home to reinforce the warning. That in turn, he says, is followed up by visual confirmation that inhabitants have left the house.

Palestinians say the warning calls are not made in some instances; in others, insufficient time is given to evacuate, they say, while not all of the targeted homes house militants, they add.

The most controversial aspect of the strikes, though, is the question of what constitutes a military target in a tiny territory like Gaza. Israel considers the homes of Hamas officials "command and control" centers. These two statements in the Monitor story highlight the two sides of the debate:

''They are using the phrase command and control as a sweeping excuse to demolish civilian homes. This contravenes international law, endangers civilians, and has led to a high death toll," says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for [Israeli human rights group] B'tselem.

[Israeli] Army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner denies B'tselem's allegations. "We are not targeting homes. They are operation centers. When you have a command and control room and rockets and one bedroom it's not a home. It's a military position with human shields."

International law is explicit, but what Israel considers a control center is not, as the Monitor explains.

Article 52 of the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 stipulates that ''attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization in the circumstances ruling at the time offer a definite military advantage.''

One central question in assessing the legality of Israel's strikes, asks international law specialist Yael Ronen, of the Sha'arei Mishpat Academic Center in Hod Hasharon, Israel is ''what does the army mean by command and control?''

''If it's where they keep their computers, if what you're destroying is the communications system inside, than it may be targetable as military infrastructure. If all you can say is this is where a person works and makes calls, without the structure of the house providing a military function, than the house doesn't qualify as a military objective because he can make his calls in the rubble or another place and Israel doesn't gain military advantage.''

Israel does not disclose the evidence it uses to determine whether a house is a "command and control" center.

The possibility of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looms, which could result in much higher casualties in the nine-day conflict. 

"The direction now is to continue air strikes and, if need be, enter with ground forces in a tactical, measured manner," an Israeli official told Reuters after the security cabinet meeting. 

Because of the imprecision of Hamas rockets and Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel has suffered only one fatality so far, while there have been at least 200 Palestinian deaths

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