Criticism by international watchdog groups over
the increasing death toll in Gaza mounted this week as the first legal actions
inside Israel were launched accusing the army of intentionally harming the
enclave's civilian population.
The petitions – over attacks on medical personnel and the shelling of United
Nations schools in Gaza – follow statements by senior Israeli commanders that
they have been using heavy firepower to protect soldiers during their advance
on built-up areas. "We are very violent," one told Israeli media.
There is also growing evidence that Israeli forces have been firing phosphorus
shells over densely populated areas in a move that risks violating international
law by inflicting burns on civilians.
The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, meanwhile, called the events
in Gaza a "new Nakba," referring to the catastrophe that dispossessed
the Palestinians in 1948. The Palestinian Authority revealed that it was planning
to seek the prosecution of Israel's leaders for war crimes in the international
The legal challenges follow a wave of Israeli attacks on schools, universities,
mosques, hospitals, and ambulances in the past few days. The army claims the
attacks are justified because the sites are being used by Hamas fighters.
A petition to the Israeli courts was announced on Wednesday by Taleb al-Sanaa,
an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, over the shelling on Tuesday of a
UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp that killed at least 40 Palestinians
UN officials, noting that they had passed on the school's GPS coordinates
to Israel and that it was clearly marked with a UN flag, insisted that only
civilians had sought refuge at the school. The UN has demanded an investigation.
Al-Sanaa said the petition would name the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the
foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and the defense minister, Ehud Barak, as the
responsible parties. "Israel needs to decide whether it wants to be a
terrorist organization like Hamas or respect international law," he said.
A further petition has been launched by eight Israeli human rights groups,
demanding that Israel's Supreme Court ban the army from targeting ambulances
and medical personnel.
The petition cites a large number of cases in which Israel has fired on ambulances,
arguing that as a result medics have been unable to treat the wounded or transport
them to hospitals.
Palestinian medics said 21 of their staff have been killed by Israeli fire
and many more wounded, according to reports on al-Jazeera TV. The al-Durra
hospital in Gaza City was hit on Tuesday, and a day later three mobile clinics
run by a Danish charity, DanChurchAid, were destroyed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross dropped its usual diplomatic
language this week in denouncing Israel's refusal to allow medical teams to
tend the wounded.
During a three-hour pause in the fighting on Wednesday rescuers managed to
reach the Zaytoun neighborhood, southeast of Gaza City, which was extensively
bombed at the start of the week.
Four children were found close to starvation alongside 15 bodies, including
those of their mothers. Many other civilians were found dead in the area, and
others are believed still to be in hiding. Israeli tanks were stationed nearby
the destroyed buildings during the whole period.
Pierre Wettach, a Red Cross spokesman, called Israel's delay in allowing a
medical evacuation "shocking" and "unacceptable." He added,
"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not
assist the wounded."
Physicians for Human Rights in Israel added its voice, criticizing the Israeli
authorities for repeatedly ignoring requests to move seriously wounded civilians.
The UN suspended its aid operations on Thursday after two of its drivers were
killed and others wounded by Israeli fire directed at one of its relief convoys
during another three-hour cease-fire.
John Ging, head of the UN relief agency in Gaza, said, "They were coordinating
their movements with the Israelis, as they always do, only to find themselves
being fired at from the ground troops."
Palestinian sources and international observers warned that the death toll
among civilians is rising rapidly as Israel's ground invasion pushes deeper
Al-Haq, a Palestinian legal rights group, warned that 80 percent of the more
than 750 Palestinians killed in the fighting so far have been civilians. According
to figures cited by the World Health Organization, at least 40 percent have
been children. Another 3,000 Gazans have been wounded.
Israeli commanders were reported in the Israeli media to be unsurprised by
the heavy toll on civilians of their latest actions, saying their priority
was to protect soldiers.
"For us, being cautious means being aggressive," one told the Ha'aretz
newspaper. "From the minute we entered, we've acted like we're at war.
That creates enormous damage on the ground."
The newspaper said the government had taken into account the likely high number
of Palestinian civilian casualties when it approved the ground operation a
Another soldier, identified as Lt. Col. Amir, told Israeli TV on Wednesday,
"We are very violent. We are not shying away from any method of preventing
casualties among our troops."
Among the dubious tactics the army appears to be resorting to is use of white
phosphorus shells, which burn intensely on exposure to air, creating the firework-type
explosions characteristic of Israel's shelling of Gaza.
Although the shells produce dense clouds of smoke to cover military operations,
they also cause severe burns on contact with skin.
Photographs of pale blue artillery shells lined up by tanks stationed on the
edge of Gaza have been identified as American-made phosphorus munitions. Neil
Gibson, a missiles expert for Jane's, told the London Times that
the shells were an "improved model" that burned for up to 10 minutes.
Although such shells are allowed when used solely as a smoke screen, they
are banned as a chemical weapon if used as an anti-personnel munition. Palestinian
and international medics in Gaza have reported large numbers of burn victims
with injuries difficult to treat.
Yesterday, Amnesty International also accused Israeli soldiers of using Palestinian
civilians as human shields – a charge Israel has repeatedly leveled against
Malcolm Smart, a spokesman, said, "Israeli soldiers have entered and
taken up positions in a number of Palestinian homes, forcing families to stay
in a ground-floor room while they use the rest of their house as a military
base and sniper position."
A version of this article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.