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Israel's claims are difficult to justify

The crisis in Gaza is now in its 24th day; the longest conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas fighters. So far, more than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed and 58 Israelis. The vast majority of the Palestinian deaths have been civilians, while the vast majority of Israeli deaths have been soldiers (two civilians have died).

Israel defends the flagrant killing of civilians by claiming that Hamas deliberately uses civilians as human shields in order to win the international public relations battle. This claim is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

On Wednesday, two sets of strikes in Gaza hit a UN shelter and an outdoor market, killing 129 civilians and injuring 400. The strikes on the UN shelter in Shuja'iya have caused particular outrage. This was a school where 3,300 people had sought refuge, after heeding warnings from the Israeli military to flee their homes. UN officials repeatedly informed the Israeli authorities of the location of the shelter, and told them that families were sheltering there. According to one official from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), Israel was informed no less than 17 times that the school was housing the displaced. It had the details of the location, down to the coordinates. It was the sixth time a UN school has been struck since the onslaught began.

Israel is sticking to its line, saying that it was simply returning fire from the area, and that Hamas is using civilians as a human shield. ("I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel's accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields," the BBC's Jeremy Bowen recently wrote in the New Statesman). The country frequently disputes the UN version of events; after the organization said last week that Israeli mortars had hit a school in Beit Hanoun, the authorities produced a video from an aerial drone, which it said showed the school compound was empty. According to the BBC's Chris Morris, the UN pointed out that the resolution of the video is so poor that "you cannot see some of the trees in the compound, let alone the people."

Thus far, the international community has been reluctant to condemn Israel's grossly disproportionate actions in Gaza, and the illegal targeting of civilians. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme this week, the new British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, refused to describe Israel's actions as "disproportionate", instead saying that "they should behave proportionately." The strongest comments he made were about shifting public opinion: "I've explained to Israeli ministers and the prime minister that western public opinion – that was sympathetic to Israel over rocket attacks – is rapidly turning against Israel because of the scale of action going on in Gaza."

After Wednesday's harrowing attack on sleeping children, the language used by some international officials is hardening. The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Pierre Krahenbuhl, said: "I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces." Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said the attack was "outrageous and unjustifiable" and demanded "accountability and justice". The United States, Israel's main ally, was more reserved in its language, saying in a statement: "The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians, including children, and UN humanitarian workers." It reiterated calls for an immediate ceasefire.

Some media outlets have echoed Hammond's question about whether this incident will begin to undermine international support for Israel. Even the Daily Mail, a newspaper which is generally hawkish and staunchly pro-Israel, wrote an editorial condemning the violence: "With more than 20 Palestinians dying for every Israeli soldier killed, how can any civilised country describe this as a proportionate response? Indeed, Netanyahu's readiness to inflict casualties is as counter-productive as it is heart-rending to watch."

Yet for all these international condemnations, it does not seem that any international body is moving towards sanctions against Israel, nor that any major power will cease arms sales to the country. In the region, the government Egypt – the traditional go-between for Israel and Palestine – is more concerned with its own hatred of political Islam and movements affiliated with Hamas, than with pan-Arab unity or the desire to defend the Palestinians. Many other states are following Egypt's lead.

Israel has long maintained that it gives Gazans sufficient warning before attacks to evacuate their homes and reach safety. But with both the border to Egypt and the border to Israel closed, and the whole country under a blanket of shelling, there is effectively nowhere to evacuate to. Almost 22,000 of the displaced have so far sought refuge at UN shelters. The UNRWA has warned that it is "overwhelmed" and "at breaking point". If even those shelters are directly targeted, where else is there to run to?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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