In recent weeks, Israeli Apache helicopters have fired a number of Hellfire missiles at the homes of Palestinian resistance activists, killing and maiming several civilians.

In one incident, the brother of an Islamic Jihad activist was killed when a helicopter fired missiles at his family home. Nine other family members, including six children and two women, were badly burned in the attack.

On 21 October, another helicopter fired missiles at the home of a local Popular Resistance Committees member, destroying the building in Bait Lahya in the Gaza Strip. His family narrowly escaped.

"It is a war crime. Targeting innocent people is a war crime"

Yehezkel Lien, international law expert at Israeli rights organisation Btselem

Israel has on many occasions targeted the homes of Palestinian political leaders, killing civilians, including children.

However, until recently, the army refrained from targeting the families of Palestinian activists, ostensibly fearing undesirable international reaction.

No holds barred

Since the beginning of October, as many as 150 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, have died and 100 homes in the northern Gaza Strip have been destroyed, leaving dozens of Palestinians homeless.

According to Gaza journalist Salih Naami, who writes for the London-based pan-Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Israel is adopting the "Russian style" in its war on virtually defenceless Palestinians.

The international community
has failed to check Sharon

Naami was referring to the "scorched-earth tactic" reportedly used by Russian forces in Chechnya.

Naami says the virtual absence of any meaningful international reaction to recent atrocities in Gaza has emboldened Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, assuring him that he can carry out disproportionately aggressive reprisals against Palestinians without fearing Western, especially US, reaction.

"I think Sharon feels he has obtained a green light from the US administration to murder Palestinian civilians in a more brazen and less subtle manner," says Naami.

"This is evident from the rampant death and destruction inflicted during the latest Israeli blitz in northern Gaza."

War crimes

Naami also accuses both US presidential candidates, President George Bush and Democrat John Kerry, for placating Israel.

Numerous homes have been
destroyed by Israeli forces

"With the Arab world in a state of complete paralysis, the US in the fray of a contentious election where Bush and Kerry are vying to appease Israel irrespective of its crimes, and with the EU content with issuing polite calls for restraint, Sharon feels he is above the world and above international law and that he can do anything he wants with the Palestinians."

The targeting of non-combatants, including the families of resistance fighters, is considered a war crime under international law.

This is the view of Yehezkel Lien, an international law and human rights expert at the Israeli human-rights organisation Btselem.

He told Aljazeera.net that going after Palestinian fighters does not justify killing their families and children.

"It is a war crime. Targeting innocent people is a war crime," he said.

Israeli denial

The Israeli army refuses to say whether or not its forces target the families of resistance fighters.

"We have to kill the terrorists. If we don't eat them for lunch, they will eat us for dinner"
 
Eitan Arusi, 
Israeli army  spokesperson

A spokesman denied the army was deliberately targeting the families in order to kill them.

"We target the terrorists who happen to be inside these homes and in the process innocent people may get killed or injured," said Eitan Arusi, the Israeli army's Arabic-speaking spokesperson.

When asked why such attacks were carried out, Arusi said the army was sorry for causing injury to civilians.

"We have to kill the terrorists. If we don't eat them for lunch, they will eat us for dinner," he said.