Relatives and friends of al-Hajj family gather in a mosque to pray over the bodies of the eight family members
Relatives and friends of al-Hajj family gather in a mosque to pray over the bodies of the eight family members

Israeli-Palestine crisis: Netanyahu unmoved by toll

A FAMILY of eight, as well as nine football fans watching the World Cup, were among the victims of yesterday's Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, as Benjamin Netanyahu vowed there would be no ceasefire.

The Israeli PM said that, in spite of the mounting death toll, air strikes would continue. "I am not speaking with anyone about a ceasefire. That is not under consideration," he said.

The deadliest Israeli strike yesterday killed eight members of the al-Haj family in Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern part of the Strip.

Mahmoud al-Haj, 57, died along with his wife Basma and three sons and three daughters, including Fatma, 12. There were 23 people injured.

Late on Wednesday night, the Israeli air force struck a beach café in Khan Yunis, where dozens of Palestinians were gathered to watch the World Cup. Nine people died.

According to the al-Mezan human rights group, more than 76 Palestinians, including 20 children and 10 women have died since Israel's Operation Protective Edge was launched on Tuesday with the stated objectives of halting Hamas-led rocket fire from Gaza to Israel and dealing a severe blow to the Islamist group.

Hamas kept up its rocket barrages yesterday, targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in addition to southern Israel. A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said it was ready to "fight to the end".

There have been no Israeli fatalities or serious injuries in the violence.

Israeli army spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said his preliminary information showed the attack on the beach café "was not an instance of targetting premises of Hamas command and control but that... terrorists... were the target".

Palestinian reports from Beit Lahiya, in the northern part of the Strip, said that a five-year-old boy, Abdallah Abu Ghazal, was killed yesterday in an Israeli air strike.

About four hundred people have been injured in Israeli attacks, including 123 children, according to al-Mezan.

Bill Van Esveld, the local representative of Human Rights Watch, attributed the high civilian casualty rate partly to Israel's targetting of houses belonging to militant commanders and their families. Israel says the civilian casualties are because Hamas uses non-combatants as human shields.

Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, said: "The gains of the Israel Defence Forces until now are very substantial and we are continuing in systematic fashion with the attack on the terror groups and harming them greatly.

"We will continue this until they understand that escalation is not worth it and that we don't tolerate fire on our communities and citizens."

As Hamas continues to fire, Mr Netanyahu will have to decide whether to expand the Israeli campaign into a ground invasion of the Strip, which many of his political allies want.

The army stresses that it warns inhabitants - by phone and by firing to the roof a missile without any explosives - to vacate before striking the houses. But Palestinians say in some cases no warning has been issued and some of the destroyed houses do not belong to militants.

"If there is a policy of targeting the houses rather than targeting the militants themselves, it is very likely we will see more civilian casualties," said Mr Van Esveld." If there is a policy of punitively destroying people's houses it's got to be ended immediately. That is collective punishment: its unlawful and it causes civilian casualties."

Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City

Lt Col Lerner said the houses are "command and control positions situated in residential areas where they make decisions and send people to make attacks.

When the houses are used for military purposes they become legitimate military targets. Hamas exploits the civilian sphere to put civilians in between them and the Israel Defence Forces. They place rocket launchers next to a car park for ambulances. They have no regard for human life, Israeli or Palestinian."

Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City (Getty Images)
Last night a further 20 rockets were fired at the city of Beer Sheeva, damaging one house.

Gaza residents, however, say it is Israel that has no regard for human life.

"The Jews say they are fighting Hamas and fighting gunmen, while all the bodies we have seen on television are women and children," Khaled Ali, a taxi driver, told Reuters.

Hamas and other groups have fired 442 projectiles at Israel since Tuesday, according to the army, in what Mr Van Esveld says is a "war crime".  Security officials are satisfied with the performance of the Iron Dome aerial defence system, but it does not provide hermetic coverage and the sense is that Israel's luck will run out.

One rocket landed at a petrol station in the Florentine area of south Tel Aviv early yesterday, causing very slight damage and no casualties. Michael Savlov, who works at the station, said: "It made a sound like a traffic accident and landed three metres away from the office, where I was. I'm lucky today. It's as if I've won the lottery."

Nearby, the City Café was full a few hours later. "We heard the crash. People went to see it and then came back to the tables,'' said worker Adi Kalifa. Haya Zommer, 63, said she was reminded of previous conflicts. "I've seeen this over and over and it's almost boring. I'm just sorry people get hurt on both sides," she said.

Regarding the prospect of an invasion of Gaza, Yaacov Amidror, the former national security adviser, told Israel Radio it is possible to completely halt the rocket fire through a ground operation and by restoring Israeli rule over Gaza. But, he said, this would have a price in soldiers's lives. "Otherwise, every two or three years we will need to do another operation," he said.

Haaretz's military correspondent, Amos Harel, said: "The government and command staff will need to verify that this will be a limited operation, with the goal of putting precise pressure on Hamas to achieve calm and not an ambitious effort to vitiate the rule of Hamas in Gaza, something that is doomed to failure," he wrote.

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