Will Israel Order a Ground Invasion in Gaza?

A rise in civilian casualties brings pressure to end the operation in Gaza. By Sarah A. Topol and Dan Ephron.

Bernat Armangue / AP Photo

Israel is under pressure to bring to an end its almost week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip after a day of airstrikes that killed at least 25 Palestinian civilians.

In the worst of the violence, 11 members of the extended Dalu family were killed Sunday afternoon when their home in Gaza City was leveled by an Israeli missile. The dead included a mother and her four children, all under the age of 10.

Israel said it was targeting the children’s father, Mohammed Dalu, describing him as a senior Hamas figure who has overseen rocket attacks on the Jewish state—the kind that prompted Israel’s assault on Gaza in the first place. There were conflicting reports whether he was killed in the attack on the multistory home or managed to escape.

Two people in a neighboring home were also killed.

The attack turned the city street, across from a popular Gaza restaurant, into something resembling a disaster zone, with neighbors raking through the rubble for survivors and rescue workers stabbing at the edges with a bulldozer.

“My whole family is gone,” said Ahmad Dalu, whose brother was the intended target.

“What have the women and the men done? They were trying to keep the children in a safe place from the shelling all around us. This war is supposed to get rid of the rockets, not the innocent children,” he told The Daily Beast.

At least three other airstrikes Sunday and early Monday targeted residential homes in what seemed to be a shift in tactics compared with the first days of the offensive, when Israel went after mainly weapons depots and individual militants. Ninety-one Palestinians have been killed in the fighting so far, including 24 children, 10 women, and 12 elderly people, according to Palestinian hospital figures.

The escalation and the specter of an Israeli ground assault on Gaza prompted President Obama to call on both sides to agree to a quick ceasefire. British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he stood to lose international support if the killing continued.

“A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support—including the United Kingdom,” Hague told reporters.

The offensive, precipitated by a surge in Palestinian rocket fire on Israel in recent weeks, has kept Palestinians mostly indoors. One exception today was the parking lot outside the morgue of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where about 100 people gathered waiting for the bodies of those killed in the last two days be dressed for burial—some leaning heavily on each other for support, unable to speak, while others were more defiant.

Ahmed Atallah felt the blast Sunday afternoon that killed his friend Mohammed Bakr, 32, in the Yarmouk area in the middle of Gaza City. Atallah lives three blocks away; his house shook with the impact. “It was a loud bang. Everything was shaking,” he recalled.

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Bakr was a teacher who left behind four young children. “We are sad, but we don’t want to show the world our sadness,” Attalah said defiantly, as his friends and neighbors slapped him on the shoulder for support.

Ibrahim Mathoun, an old man in a white jalabeya, said he was waiting for the body of his cousin Sammi, a civilian security guard and father of three who was killed yesterday afternoon walking outside his home in the south of Gaza City. “We are happy because he is going to paradise and we are all defending our rights.”

The crush outside the squat single-story morgue was composed almost entirely of men. “We can’t bring our wives to the hospital. This is work for the men,” Mathoun said.

As he spoke, a body wrapped in white cloth with the green flag of Hamas was carried out of the entrance. Men flocked to the stretcher, hoisting their shoulders under the wooden frame and chanting “Allah akbar” as the body was loaded into a packed truck to be taken away from the hospital grounds.

Israel said the civilian death toll was climbing because militants were hiding themselves and their weapons in people’s homes and sometimes in mosques or hospitals. But there appeared to be no evidence that armaments were stored in the Dalu home.

“Hamas is using civilians as human shields ... in light of their difficulty in firing rockets,” said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli Army spokesman, in remarks broadcast on Israeli TV. He said the Army was still probing the circumstances of the attack on Dalu home.

“There was a wanted person there who was responsible for the firing of rockets as Israel. I don’t know what happened to him as this stage,” he said late Sunday.

Other Israeli spokesmen echoed the message in what seemed to be a coordinated talking point.

Referring to airstrikes that hit two media buildings in Gaza on Sunday, military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters in Jerusalem: “The target was not journalists ... The journalists in these buildings were serving as human shields for Hamas.”

In Cairo, Egyptian mediators continued efforts to broker a ceasefire, meeting separately with Palestinian and Israeli representatives. One Palestinian official involved in the talks said overnight that 90 percent of the terms had been settled. But by morning, the two sides appeared to be farther apart.

Israel wants Hamas to stop its rocket fire and its attacks on military vehicles patrolling the outer perimeter of Gaza. It also demands that the Islamic group, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, prevent other militant groups from launching rockets at the Jewish state.

Some reports suggested Israel was also pushing for Hamas to be fully disarmed, a demand that seemed unlikely to gain traction. Hamas has suffered significant setbacks during the past week of fighting, including the death of its military commander, Ahmed Jabari. But it has also gained diplomatic legitimacy, with visits to Gaza by Arab officials.

Its rocket attacks on Israel, including unprecedented launches at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have diminished in recent days, from about 200 on Thursday and Friday to 75 yesterday. While Israeli antimissile batteries have intercepted many of the rockets, several people were wounded yesterday in the southern part of the country, and three were killed in a rocket attack last week.

An opinion poll published in the newspaper Haaretz today showed that some 84 percent of Israelis back the offensive against Gaza. But it also suggested Netanyahu’s approval rating could drop if he orders a ground invasion, which only 30 percent of Israelis support. Netanyahu faces a national election in two months.

With additional reporting by Nuha Musleh