Israel, Hamas and the battle for public opinion in the latest Gaza war

As the number of civilian casualties continues to climb, both Israel and Hamas are being forced to justify their military actions in the Gaza war

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 6:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 9:44am

Shopkeepers say they were sitting outside their closed businesses earlier in the week, catching a break from being cooped up during wartime, when an Israeli missile struck a nearby mosque. It killed a truck driver and wounded 45 people. One of those wounded by shrapnel said from his hospital stretcher that the strike came without warning.

Israel has defended such strikes on civilian sites - nearly 500 homes, 16 mosques and at least two hospitals by the middle of last week, says a Palestinian count - by saying that Hamas hides weapons and fighters there or that tunnels into Israel originate in such places.

Israel says it is defending its civilians against rocket fire and other attacks from Gaza and doing its utmost to minimise harm to Palestinian civilians.

However, three-quarters of the Palestinians killed in almost three weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting have been civilians, the UN said. One in four was a child, with children being killed at an average rate of 10 a day, it said.

Civilian casualties rose sharply after Israel sent tanks and troops into Gaza on July 17, its first ground operation in five years.

Israel has not offered its own count, but a military spokesman, said on Friday that 240 Gaza militants had been killed since the ground operation began.

The heavy civilian death toll leaves Israel increasingly vulnerable to accusations that it is using excessive force and possibly committing war crimes.

In Israel, most of the discussion has focused on the rocket attacks. While most rockets have been intercepted and the damage caused has not been great, the furore over them has been powerful among Israelis. Only in recent days has public opinion started to focus more closely on the devastation in Gaza and the question of disproportionality in Israel's actions.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said some Israeli attacks, including those on homes and on a care centre for the disabled, raised "a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes".

She also condemned indiscriminate Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians - including some 3,000 rockets since July 8 that have killed three Israeli civilians - and said storing military equipment in civilian areas or launching attacks from there was unacceptable.

But, she said, "the actions of one party do not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law".

The UN Human Rights Council voted last Wednesday to establish an independent commission to investigate possible violations of international law during the fighting.

Israel has said the goal of its Gaza operation is to hit Hamas targets, weaken the Islamic militant group's ability to fire rockets, and destroy Hamas tunnels leading into Israel. The military said by Wednesday it had carried out about 3,250 strikes against "terrorist locations", including what it described as Hamas command centres, tunnels and rocket sites.

However, in most cases, the army does not explain why a certain location is hit, particularly when asked about strikes on homes in which several family members are killed, an increasingly common occurrence.

The Palestinian human rights group Mezan said last week that 477 homes had been destroyed in targeted hits since July 8, and that 332 people died in their homes from military operations.

On Wednesday, Palestinian officials reported an air strike on Gaza City's Shamea Mosque and said Red Crescent cars and a Red Cross convoy came under heavy fire when they entered a small border town to evacuate the dead and wounded.

In another incident, witnessed by Associated Press journalists, Red Cross staff and members of the Palestinian civil defence came under fire as they approached the Israeli front line in an attempt to remove casualties from the Gaza City neighbourhood of Shijaiyah.

The air strike on the Shamea Mosque came just before noon. One man was killed, identified by police as 25-year-old truck driver Nidal al-Ijla. Forty-five people were wounded, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

Hussam Odeh, a clothing shop owner who was hit in the face by shrapnel, said he and other merchants were sitting outside when a large explosion went off. No warning was given, said Odeh, 27, and a cousin, as they were patched up in a hospital emergency room.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a senior Israeli military spokesman, would not say why the mosque was hit.

As the battle for international public opinion intensifies, the military has published more material it said shows the militants use civilian sites for cover - including videos purporting to show missiles launched from urban areas and secondary explosions in neighbouring buildings that suggest there were explosives stored there. It also released drone footage showing two black-clad figures, presumably fighters, getting into an ambulance and issued maps of purported rocket launching sites close to homes and a hospital.

Israel says militants had stored rockets near the Al Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza where four people were killed and about 30 wounded by Israeli tank fire.

The army also portrayed the Al Wafa Hospital in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood, hard-hit in several days of fighting, as a Hamas military compound. Several access shafts led from the hospital to the Hamas tunnel network, the Israeli army said. The hospital was repeatedly hit by Israeli tank shells, and after initially refusing, the director agreed to evacuate 17 patients.

Israeli officials have also alleged that Hamas prevents Gaza civilians from fleeing their homes when they receive warnings to clear an area ahead of Israeli strikes. In the early days of the fighting, before Israel's ground offensive, Hamas authorities issued statements urging residents to stay and dismissing Israeli warnings as "psychological warfare".

However, displaced Gaza residents describing their ordeal have said consistently that they fled in haste, with few belongings, and made no mention of attempts by Hamas to keep them in their homes.

Nahed Sirsawi, 30, a displaced resident of Shijaiyah, said her husband had received a call from the Israeli army, telling him the family had five minutes to leave the house before bombing would begin.

The call set in motion a terrifying odyssey, with the family of seven seeking refuge in a series of homes of relatives, only to be exposed to more tank shelling or told again by the Israeli army to evacuate.

Eventually, the Sirsawis found refuge in the St Porphyrios Church in Gaza City along with dozens of others from their area. Yet even the church was not safe, she said. Last week, several missiles hit a nearby cemetery, sending debris flying into the church courtyard.

"I don't feel safe anywhere," she said, pointing to where shrapnel hit inside the church library where her family was sleeping.