Israeli Strike Kills 18, Stirs Debate Over Targets

The target was the Gaza police chief. He survived the Israeli airstrike on a cousin's home with critical injuries, but 18 family members were killed, including five children and teens.

The weekend attack highlighted Israel's broad definition of military targets in its current offensive against the Islamic militant group Hamas. The army says those targets include senior Hamas activists and their homes, even as it insists it is doing the utmost to spare bystanders by warning them to clear out.

However, the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs said Sunday that civilians made up the majority of Palestinian casualties over the past six days — 133 of 168 killed and nearly half of more than 1,100 wounded. And a human-rights researcher said some of Israel's strikes appear to have violated rules of war.

The issue of Israel's targets cuts to the core of conflicting narratives.

Palestinians — and not just those loyal to Hamas — say Israel is punishing all of Gaza's 1.7 million people and is killing civilians with impunity. The situation in Gaza "has become unbearable," Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a longtime rival of Hamas, said Sunday.

Israel has portrayed its offensive against Hamas as self-defense, saying it is trying to halt the group's indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli communities. Gaza militants have fired more than 800 rockets over the past week, disrupting life in large parts of the country but so far causing no deaths, according to the Israeli military.

A senior army commander said Sunday that Israel is trying to cause maximum damage to Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007 and seeks Israel's destruction. The military sometimes holds back because of concern for civilians, said the officer who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, citing military regulations.

"I could kill a lot more Hamas commanders, but the way I'm operating now is consistent with my values and my conscience," he said.

Trying to highlight its attempts to warn civilians, the military released a recording of a phone call to a resident in an area about to be targeted. The caller is heard saying he is speaking on behalf of the Israeli army.

"You speak Hebrew? Excellent," he says to the Palestinian on the other line — in Hebrew. He then urges residents to clear out because a house is about to be targeted. "In five minutes, we are bombing," the Israeli says.

Members of the extended family of Taysir al-Batsh, the police chief in Gaza, said they did not receive any call before Israel flattened the two-story home of one of the chief's cousins late Saturday, just as worshippers streamed out of a nearby mosque after evening prayers.

Al-Batsh was in stable condition Sunday at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Eighteen of his relatives were killed, said Dr. Ayman Sahabani at Shifa.

Among the dead were the owners of the home, Majed and Amal al-Batsh, their seven children ranging in age from 13 to 28, and a 2-year-old granddaughter, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Also among the dead were two more children, ages 7 and 12, and a 17-year-old from other branches of the clan.

Clan member Kamel al-Batsh, 22, said he heard the strike while he was in the mosque and then rushed to the scene.

"In a second, the place became a mass of dust and destruction, mixed with blood and body parts," he told a radio station.

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