Feb 13, 2015 2:52 PM
AP Exclusive: Israeli house strikes killed mostly civilians
The Associated Press
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) The youngest to die was a 4-day-old girl, the oldest a 92-year-old man.
They were among at least 844 Palestinians killed as a result of airstrikes on Gaza homes during Israel's summer war with the Islamic militant group, Hamas.
Under the rules of war, homes are protected civilian sites unless used for military purposes. Israel says it attacked only legitimate targets, alleging militants used the houses to hide weapons, fighters and command centers. Palestinians say Israel's warplanes often struck without regard for civilians.
The Associated Press examined 247 airstrikes, 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, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which tracks militants among the war dead, said it has no evidence women participated in combat.
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 militants just over 11 percent of the total though the actual number could be higher since armed groups have not released detailed casualty lists.
The remaining 240 dead were males between the ages of 16 and 59 whose names did not appear in AP searches of militant websites or on street posters honoring fighters.
The review was the most painstaking attempt to date to try to determine who was killed in strikes on homes; Israel's army and Gaza militants have refused to release information about targets and casualties. The count tracked all known airstrikes on homes, though not all strikes had witnesses and damage inspected by the AP wasn't always conclusive.
The number of civilian deaths has been a key issue in the highly charged battle over the dominant narrative of the 50-day war.
Fighting erupted in July, after a month of escalating tensions triggered by Hamas' abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, and an Israeli arrest sweep of Hamas supporters that led to renewed Gaza rocket fire on Israel.
Israel says it tried to avoid harming civilians, even as Hamas embedded weapons and fighters in residential areas.
"Our position is very clear. Israel did not commit war crimes," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Palestinians say Israel attacked with disproportionate force and callous disregard for civilians.
If most of those killed are civilians, "you cannot call them collateral damage," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the war, a move that could pave the way for possible prosecution of both Israel and Hamas.
International law experts note that a high civilian death toll alone does not constitute conclusive evidence of war crimes. But it "raises a red flag and suggests that further investigation is warranted," said Alex Whiting, a former top official at the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands.
Israel would not say how many of its 5,000 air attacks were directed at homes. However, it insists it only aimed at legitimate military targets.
Asked for comment on the AP's findings, an Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Peter Lerner, said that "one cannot draw broad conclusions" by examining only a small percentage of Israel's airstrikes.
Reuven Erlich, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, questioned the reliability of Gaza witnesses and said only military experts could determine what happened in each strike.
According to preliminary U.N. figures, at least 1,483 Palestinian civilians were killed in the war 66 percent of the overall death toll of 2,205.
Gaza militants fired about 4,300 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel, according to the Israeli military. The barrages drove tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes to seek cover. Five civilians were killed, among them a 4-year-old boy, along with 67 soldiers.
Advocacy groups and U.N. investigators have said that Hamas' battle tactics over the years, including indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel, amount to war crimes.
The AP examined cases in which people were killed in homes or adjacent yards, including those hit by shrapnel or debris from attacks on neighboring buildings. The count excluded 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 pregnant mother's body was pulled from the rubble of their home in the Deir el-Balah refugee camp.
The infant was delivered by emergency cesarean section, her relatives said. She died July 29, according to her death certificate.
The oldest victim, 92-year-old Abdel Karim Abu Nijem, was killed along with a son, three grandsons and three other relatives, in an airstrike on his home in the Jebaliya refugee camp. Islamic Jihad later confirmed that two fighters were also killed in that strike.
A nephew said the family received no warning. "Otherwise we would have fled," said Mohammed Abu Nijem, whose 29-year-old wife, Soha, and 3-year-old daughter, Ragheb, were killed.
The military said it warned civilians when possible, including through phone calls or "knocks on the roof" with non-explosive missiles, and it aborted some strikes due to civilians in the vicinity.
In January, the Palestinians 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 it is conducting a transparent investigation of any wrongdoing by its forces in the Gaza war. However, rights groups in Israel and abroad demand an independent investigation, arguing that house strikes were part of a policy approved at the highest levels and the Israeli military cannot investigate itself.