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Casualty numbers raise questions about Gaza war

Thursday - 7/24/2014, 4:30am  ET

A International Red Cross employee runs for cover after an Israeli strike during a two-hour temporary ceasefire in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in a war that has so far killed more than 650 Palestinians and at least 30 Israelis. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Shopkeepers say they were sitting outside their shuttered businesses Wednesday, catching a break from being cooped up during wartime, when an Israeli missile struck a nearby mosque, killing a truck driver and wounding 45 people.

One of those wounded by shrapnel said from his hospital gurney 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 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 minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.

However, three-fourths of the Palestinians killed in more than two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting were civilians, according to U.N. figures. One in four was a minor, it said.

A Palestinian health official put the death toll at 695 and said more than 4,100 were wounded, with civilian casualties rising sharply since Israel sent tanks and troops into Gaza last week in its first ground operation in five years.

Israel has not offered its own count, but Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said Wednesday that 210 Gaza militants were 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 -- though in Israel, most of the discourse has focused on the rocket attacks.

While most of the rockets have been intercepted and the damage caused has not been great, the furor 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 U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Wednesday that some of the recent Israeli attacks, including those on homes and on a care center for the disabled, raise "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 fired since July 8 that have killed three Israeli civilians -- and said storing military equipment in civilian areas or launching attacks from there is 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 U.N. Human Rights Council voted later 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 Wednesday it has carried out about 3,250 strikes against "terrorist locations," including what it described as Hamas command centers, tunnels and rocket launching sites.

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

The Palestinian human rights group Mezan said that 477 homes have been destroyed in targeted hits since July 8, and that 332 people died in their homes as a result of military operations.

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

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

The airstrike 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.

Lerner, the military spokesman, would not say why the mosque was hit.

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