At least 844 Palestinians were killed as a result of airstrikes on homes during Israel's summer war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The youngest to die was a 4-day-old girl, the oldest a 92-year-old man.
The Associated Press examined 247 Israeli airstrikes on homes, interviewing witnesses, visiting attack sites and compiling a detailed casualty count.
The review found that 508 of the dead – just over 60 percent – were children, women and older men, all presumed to be civilians. Hamas says it did not use women as fighters in the war, and an Israel-based research group tracking fighters among the dead said it has no evidence women participated in combat.
Under international rules of war, homes are considered protected civilian sites unless used for military purposes. Israel says it attacked only legitimate targets, alleging Hamas used the houses to hide weapons, fighters and command centers. Palestinians say Israel's warplanes often struck without regard for civilians.
The AP count also showed that:
- Children younger than 16 made up one-third of the total: 280 killed, including 19 babies and 108 preschoolers between the ages of 1 and 5.
- In 83 strikes, three or more members of one family died.
- Among those killed were 96 confirmed or suspected fighters – or just over 11 percent of the total – though the actual number could be higher since armed groups have not released detailed casualty lists.
The review was the most painstaking attempt to date to determine who was killed in strikes on homes in the Gaza war even as Israel's army and Gaza fighters have refused to release information about targets and casualties. The count tracked all known airstrikes, but not all strikes had witnesses and damage at sites inspected by the AP wasn't always conclusive.
War crimes allegations
The number of civilian deaths has been a key issue in the highly charged battle over the dominant narrative of the 50-day war, the third and most destructive confrontation between Israel and Hamas since 2008.
The war erupted in July after a month of escalating tensions. Palestinians say Israel attacked Gaza with disproportionate force and callous disregard for civilians.
"Either they have the worst army in the world that constantly misses targets and hits civilians, or they are deliberately killing civilians," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). If most of those killed are civilians, "you cannot call them collateral damage," she said.
Israel says it tried to avoid harming civilians and alleges that Hamas embedded weapons and fighters in residential areas to drive up the civilian death toll for propaganda purposes.
"Our position is very clear. Israel did not commit war crimes," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though a political rival of Hamas, has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the war, a move that could pave the way for a possible prosecution of both Israel and Hamas.
International law experts note that on its own, a high civilian death toll does not constitute evidence of war crimes, and that each strike has to be investigated separately.
But a high civilian toll "certainly raises a red flag and suggests that further investigation is warranted," said Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor and former top official at the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands.
In the initial stages, the AP's reporting was guided by Al Mezan, a Gaza human rights group, and the Israeli rights group, B'Tselem, which published partial findings on house strikes or provided names of families.
The AP looked only at cases where homes were hit from the air, excluding artillery strikes, which are inherently inaccurate.
Starting in November, three reporters visited the vast majority of attack sites, interviewed survivors and collected hundreds of death certificates — documents recognized by Israel as proof of mortality.
The youngest victim, Shayma Sheik Ali, died four days after her mother was killed in an airstrike on July 25.
The infant was delivered by emergency cesarean section after the body of her mother, who was nine months pregnant, was pulled from the rubble of their home in the Deir el-Balah refugee camp.
The Palestinians in January joined the International Criminal Court, opening the way for possible investigations of both Israel and Hamas. In response, the ICC prosecutor launched a preliminary review of whether a full probe is warranted.
Israel's military says that it is conducting its own investigation of any wrongdoing by its forces. But rights groups in Israel and abroad demand an independent investigation, including of the strikes on houses, arguing these were a policy approved at the highest levels and the Israeli military cannot investigate itself in this case.
In the Gaza strikes, a key piece of information has been missing: What exactly was targeted? Both Israel and Gaza fighters have withheld such information.
Israel says revealing targets could harm intelligence gathering, and legal experts say armies are not required to give such information.
Human rights groups said Israel must be more transparent.
"In these specific attacks, the onus is on the Israeli authorities to come clean and say what it was they were targeting, and how it was they could justify targeting a house full of children and other civilians," said Philip Luther of Amnesty International, which has looked into eight house attacks and alleged some amounted to war crimes.
Whiting, the former ICC official, noted that the court would only open a formal war crimes probe if it determines that the relevant authorities – in this case Israel and Hamas – did not conduct proper investigations.
The rules of war are often vague and open to interpretation.
They allow for attacking a home if it is used for military purposes, such as storing weapons. If a home is deemed a legitimate target, harm to civilians must be proportionate to the military advantage created by an attack. Proportionality is judged by anticipated, not actual civilian deaths, and there is no formula for what is deemed excessive harm to civilians, international law experts said.
The Associated Press