Children ‘bear the brunt’ as Israel targets Gaza homes

Maureen Clare Murphy & Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  May 9, 2023

Israel renewed its bombing in the occupied Gaza Strip late in the day on Tuesday, killing two near Khan Younis.

Israel claims that the men slain in southern Gaza were Islamic Jihad members taking missiles to a launch site.

Their deaths bring to 15 the number of Palestinians killed in the territory since Israel launched a surprise attack on Gaza before dawn on Tuesday, killing three Islamic Jihad leaders as well as their family members and other civilians in their homes.

The airstrikes began in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, targeting a home belonging to Islamic Jihad leader Jihad Ghanam. Ghanam and his wife Wafa, both 61, were killed and Hashim Ghanam, Jihad’s 30-year-old son, was critically injured.

Tariq Izzedine, who was involved in Islamic Jihad’s activities in the West Bank, where he was born and from which he was forcibly transferred to Gaza, was killed along with his two children Ali, 8, and Mayar, 12, when Israel struck their multi-story residential building in central Gaza City.

A Palestinian news outlet published a video showing Bahia al-Diyar, Izzedine’s wife, mourning over the bodies of her children, spliced with footage of her sending her daughter off to school.

Jamal Khaswan, a Russian national who chaired the board of Al-Wafaa Hospital, was killed in the same strike as the Izzedine family, along with his wife Mervat and 19-year-old son Youssef when the ceiling of their home collapsed as they slept. The family lived above the Izzedine family, according to the human rights group Al-Mezan.

Jamal Khaswan “was a dentist known for offering free treatment to poor families,” Reuters reported. His slain son Youssef was a medical student.

Khaswan’s four other children survived with minor injuries, his brother told the news agency.

Also in Gaza City, US-sourced Israeli warplanes hit a two-story home, killing Islamic Jihad leader Khalil al-Bahtini and his wife Laila and their 4-year-old daughter Hajar. Their neighbor, 19-year-old Dania Alaa Adas, was also killed, and her 17-year-old sister Iman died from her injuries later in the day.

Dania Adas was reportedly due to wed next month.

Al-Mezan said that 18 people were injured in the Israeli strikes in addition to those killed, the majority of them women and children.

The rights group added that Israeli warplanes also targeted military sites and open areas in Khan Younis, Rafah and central Gaza.

Despite being aware of civilian fatalities, the Israeli military’s chief spokesperson said that “the operation was carried out with professionalism and precision in planning and execution.”

Another military spokesperson said that “we’re aware of some collateral and we’ll learn more as the day goes ahead.”

Calls for de-escalation

Tor Wennesland, the UN secretary-general’s Middle East envoy, condemned the deaths of civilians. He said he remained “fully engaged with all sides in an attempt to avoid a broader conflict with devastating consequences for all.”

But in a verbal sleight of hand, Wennesland did not condemn the Israeli attack itself. Indeed, he appeared to give the bombing of civilian homes at a time when families were certain to be sleeping inside a veneer of legitimacy by terming it “a military operation targeting members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement.”

The European Union did not offer even the slightest criticism of the Israeli attack, instead expressing only that it was “gravely concerned by the escalation in Gaza following today’s Israeli air raids” (emphasis added).

Brussels added that it “regrets the loss of civilian lives, including children.”

Meanwhile, as the bloodshed in Gaza continued to unfold on Tuesday evening, European diplomats went ahead with a “Europe Day” party in Tel Aviv on the site of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Jarisha.

The US embassy in Jerusalem said that it was “aware of reports that 10 civilians were tragically killed in the Israeli strikes” on Gaza and called “for all parties to de-escalate the situation to protect noncombatants and prevent any further loss of civilian life.”

The embassy added that “the US commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad.”

Hours before the Israeli bombing campaign was launched, Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister, spoke with his American counterpart Antony Blinken. During the call, the US secretary of state purportedly “noted the importance of recent meetings in Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh aimed at de-escalating tensions,” according to a spokesperson.

Others took the timing of the bombing to mean the opposite of what the State Department claims – that instead of encouraging de-escalation, it gave Israel the green light to target Palestinian resistance leaders in Gaza, despite Tel Aviv’s hallmark policy of killing entire families in their homes.

International law experts may well consider that the three Islamic Jihad leaders assassinated by Israel were also civilians protected by international humanitarian law and that their deaths may amount to extrajudicial executions.

In any case, both the principles of distinction and proportionality make Israel’s surprise and unprovoked targeting of leaders sleeping at home with their families an open-and-shut case of war crimes.

Israeli media reports suggested that the surprise attack was planned far in advance. The Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported that a senior Israeli minister told the paper that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed a few months ago that he decided to return to the policy of targeted assassinations.”

While Israel undoubtedly always makes such contingency plans, the specific timing of Tuesday’s attack on the three Islamic Jihad figures and their families is odd even in light of Tel Aviv’s frequently irrational behavior.

As Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer notes, “no one in Israel is pretending they were ‘ticking bombs’ about to launch another imminent attack.”

In similar circumstances, Pfeffer observes, Netanyahu has generally avoided choosing this kind of extrajudicial execution even when presented with the option by his military and intelligence commanders.

A rapid ceasefire agreement brought exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and resistance fighters in Gaza to a swift end, narrowly avoiding a much-feared broader escalation, after Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan died in Israeli prison following a lengthy hunger strike.

Why Israel would try to provoke such an escalation so soon after may have to do with its domestic politics. Netanyahu’s decision-making in this case, Pfeffer asserts, “has to be seen in light of his political circumstances.”

Ultra-far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir had suspended his Jewish Power party’s participation in the government to protest what he considered its insufficiently hardline policies against Palestinians.

Following the bloodbath in Gaza early Tuesday, Ben-Gvir happily returned to the fold – avoiding another day of crisis in Netanyahu’s coalition.

The Jewish Power party announced that it would resume its participation “following the acceptance of our position and the transition from containment to attack in the targeted killings of senior Islamic Jihad figures.”

Ben-Gvir himself called the slaughter of sleeping families a “nice start,” adding, “it’s time we change our policy regarding Gaza.”

Israeli authorities opened bomb shelters on Tuesday in anticipation of retaliation from the Palestinian resistance.

That decision indicates that Israeli leaders not only disregard Palestinian lives but are prepared to gamble with those of their own citizens when it suits their narrow, political interests.

Gaza checkpoints closed

Meanwhile, Israel closed Gaza’s northern checkpoints where it controls the movement of goods and people, preventing Palestinians from accessing life-saving treatment in Israel and the West Bank.

Al-Mezan said on Tuesday that basic services such as water and electricity in Gaza are already hindered by Israel’s siege, imposed nearly 16 years ago.

Two days before Israel’s most recent bombing campaign in Gaza, the World Food Program announced that it would suspend food aid to more than 200,000 Palestinians beginning next month due to “severe funding shortages.”

Reuters reported that “the most impacted families are in Gaza, where food insecurity and poverty are the highest, and in the West Bank.”

Al-Mezan added that nearly half of all drugs in Gaza are at zero stock, including medicines for cancer patients.

The closure of Gaza’s sole commercial crossing prevents the entry of medicines and fuel needed to operate the power plant in the territory.

Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesperson for Gaza’s health ministry, stated that Israel has prevented the import of medical and diagnostic devices into the territory for 18 months.

The UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians said that it had released urgently needed drug items to hospitals “from our pre-positioned emergency stocks, that are essential for anesthesia.”

‘No safe place’

Fikr Shalltoot, the charity’s Gaza director, said that “we are devastated to hear that once again Palestinian children have borne the brunt of Israel’s attacks on residential homes here in Gaza.”

Shalltoot added that “whenever the bombs start falling, there is no safe space for children or for any of the two million people trapped here by the blockade.”

Ayed Abu Eqtaish, a program director with Defense for Children International-Palestine, said that “Israeli forces routinely use explosive weapons in densely populated civilian areas with complete disregard for the indiscriminate effects.”

“There is no safe space in the Gaza Strip for Palestinian children and their families and they increasingly bear the brunt of Israel’s repeated military offensives,” he said.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza, warned that the situation in the territory is “on the verge of explosion due to the harsh socio-economic and humanitarian conditions” resulting from Israel’s siege and indifference from the so-called international community.

The rights group called on Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, “to expedite his investigation into the situation in Palestine and take immediate action against perpetrators of war crimes.”

Khan’s predecessor Fatou Bensouda opened an investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza in 2021 after a lengthy preliminary examination. That investigation appears to have been put on the back burner by Khan, who, unlike Bensouda, has made no statements deterring Israel from committing further war crimes.

“Selectivity and double standards destroy the whole purpose of international law,” the Palestinian Center for Human Rights added, calling for immediate intervention “to provide protection for the Palestinians, including by holding Israel accountable.”

The Israeli military, police and armed civilians have killed 127 Palestinians since the beginning of the year, according to The Electronic Intifada’s tracking. That figure includes Palestinians who died from injuries sustained previously.

Twenty-four of those killed were children, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine.

Twenty Israelis and foreign nationals died as a result of Palestinian attacks during the same period.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor and Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada