Human rights or human shields in Gaza war?

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by Oren Dorell,

from USAToday,

The death of at least 15 Gazans taking shelter Thursday in a United Nations-run school contributed to a Palestinian death toll that has surpassed 700 — and a debate about whether Israel is violating human rights or contending with an enemy that is using human shields.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it warned the U.N. to evacuate the building but that the militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, prevented the evacuation, fired more rockets from the site and also hit the site with its own rockets.

The deaths, on the 17th day of fighting in Gaza, come a day after two different U.N. agencies issued condemnations — one of Palestinian militants and one of Israel — for taking actions that endanger civilians.

The mounting fatalities are prompting sharp criticism of both Hamas and Israel.

The Jewish state is bearing the brunt of the international outrage because of lopsided fatalities — 20 Palestinians for every Israeli — and graphic images such as four Palestinian children on a beach killed by Israeli strikes.

Hamas openly targets Israeli civilians, but has been stymied by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. Israel say it takes precautions to limit civilian casualties, even as it executes a military operation in a densely-populated urban environment to stop militants from attacking Israeli communities with rockets and terrorist assault teams.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday decided to launch an investigation of what it called “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” during Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip.The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which runs the school hit Thursday, blasted unnamed militant groups the day before for hiding rockets in an abandoned school situated between two other schools used as shelters by 1,500 people. The discovery was the second time UNRWA discovered rockets in one of its schools. Its workers found 20 rockets hidden in a school July 16, according to a UNRWA statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called the probe “a travesty of justice” and of common sense. “It will not prevent us from continuing to defend our people, to protect them against rocket attacks and to dismantle the vast terror tunnel network that we have seen that is geared to penetrate our territory,” he said.

Hamas’ armed wing has been launching rockets indiscriminately into domestic areas, and “those are violations of the laws of war and potentially war crimes,” Whitson said. But she noted that Hamas’ attacks have caused relatively few casualties in Israel, amounting to three civilian dead to date.

Israel says it tries to minimize civilian casualties, with precautions such as dropping leaflets, phone calls to urge people to evacuate homes and buildings and warning shots fired before buildings are hit by heavy munitions.

But Whitson says Israel is still culpable. Israeli warnings do not provide enough time for residents to flee, and “in most of the sites we investigated so far (in this conflict) we found no valid military targets,” she said.

Netanyahu says Hamas is using civilians as human shields. The Israel Defense Forces issued photographs on its blog Tuesday showing a crowd of people, including children, on a building’s roof after Israel urged that it be evacuated.

The blog also shows a July 15 video clip of Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri commending people for ignoring Israeli warnings.

Israel this week destroyed the Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza City after days of urging Palestinians to leave it.

The fight is close quarters urban combat in an area the size of Washington, D.C., with almost 2 million inhabitants, he said. “It’s hard not to have casualties in one of the most crowded places on earth.”

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