Gaza civilians pay price for combat between Israel, Hamas

Escalation in violence between Israeli military and Palestinian fighters exacerbates humanitarian crisis in Gaza

As Israelis and Palestinians continue to dispute why their conflict has reached another crescendo, one thing is certain: Ordinary Palestinians caught in the asymmetric battle are paying the heaviest price.

So far there have been few Israeli casualties, largely a result of more effective missile interception technology on the Israeli side, and projectiles that sacrifice accuracy for distance on the Palestinian side.

The Palestinian death toll, however, continues to rise rapidly, with civilians bearing the brunt of the impact of Israeli strikes. With more than 120 people killed — more than two-thirds of whom are civilians — and over 700 wounded, the people of Gaza are affected in a disproportionate way.

As of Friday, Israel had launched more than 1,100 strikes on Gaza from air, land and sea. Meanwhile, Hamas and other groups of Palestinian fighters had launched 680 rockets toward Israel, with around 520 of them hitting land.

“Right now we’re in a very dangerous situation, and there’s no benefit for either side to continue with these exchanges,” said Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. “But, describing them as tit-for-tat is creating parity, in the dynamics of fire, which doesn’t exist. The Israelis have a monopoly on the ability to inflict casualties.”

Under international law, combatants should observe proportionality in their attacks, said María José Torres Macho, deputy head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territory. “The high toll for civilians is a big concern of the humanitarian community.”

While case-by-case monitoring of the bombardment would be required to make any legal determinations, Torres said, “There is a very important call to the government of Israel to do its best to…reduce the civilian casualties.”

Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman, agreed that the conflict is asymmetrical, but said Israel’s actions were justified by the expanded area that projectiles from Gaza could reach.

“There was a [25-mile radius] in Cast Lead, then Tel Aviv was [targeted] in Pillar of Defense, and now it’s growing beyond that, with an estimated 5 million people in range,” he said. But despite their ability to fly further, rockets fired by Palestinian fighters have resulted in minimal human or property damage. According to Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, 154 people have been treated due to the conflict — 36 with light injuries, and 115 for stress disorders.

Comparing data from the current conflict, Operation Protective Edge, with figures from Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, shows that Iron Dome has become more efficient — with the success rate rising from 84 percent to 90 percent.

“If anything, that [disparity] has to do with defensive measures that Israel has implemented — not a lack of desire by Hamas or Islamic Jihad to target civilians,” Raz told Al Jazeera. “The peak of rocket launches is during morning rush hour, lunch hour and evening rush hour. They hit when Israelis are most vulnerable on the way to work, in a bus, car or train.”

Meanwhile, Israel says it aims to minimize “uninvolved casualties.” One of the techniques is to shoot a warning missile at the roof of a residential building prior to dropping a more powerful bomb. In the destruction of the Kaware family home earlier this week that resulted in eight deaths, Israel said the fatalities were a mistake. A family member had apparently been called with notice of the impending attack, but family members headed back into the building before the main explosion.

“‘Knock on the roof’ is dangerous euphemism,” said Munayyer. “The only thing in life they may have is their home. To blame those who attempted to save what little they had…is inappropriate.”

Other incidents that Israeli officials say are under investigation include a strike on Palestinians watching a World Cup game in a café, and an aerial attack on journalists in a car belonging to news station Media 24.

Truce efforts

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was not yet speaking to anyone about a truce. The public words contrasted with the perception in some Israeli circles that Netanyahu has been trying to tame cabinet members to his right, and hold back domestic Israeli pressure for an even tougher military response.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama told Netanyahu that American diplomats could help negotiate a halt to the violence, amid persistent speculation that Egypt, which brokered the last cease-fire between Israel in Hamas in 2012, is reluctant to step in to bail out Hamas.

Some analysts say Turkey and Qatar, as Hamas allies, are capable of mediating.

“There’s no shortage of parties that have relations with both sides,” said Munayyer. “It’s not that the channels don’t exist, but the question is, does the will exist?”

He added: “The next step is that the Israelis have to decide that they’re not going to accomplish much more than what they’ve already done.”

Munayyer said neither side had truly wanted the present conflict. “Israelis would like to end the ability of Palestinians to send projectiles into Israel. And the Palestinians made clear they want to defend against Israeli aggression.”

“Projectile fire from Gaza has a limited effect on deterring Israeli actions,” said Munayyer. “But Israeli military assaults also have a limited ability to deter the Palestinian capability to launch these projectiles. It’s the same horror film time and time again.”

Citing Israel’s deterrent effect, Israeli military spokesman Raz said, “Our desire is not to see something cyclical. The goal is to restore quiet.”

But many Palestinians say that hope is in vain.

“Even when the rockets stop, the occupation, siege and Israeli violations in Gaza don’t stop,” Munayyer said. “And that is an environment which is just going to build up to another episode.”

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