At least 65 Palestinians have been killed and more than 200 injured in the five-day onslaught, ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in retaliation for the death of two Israeli children in a Hamas missile attack on the Israeli settler town of Sderot, east of Gaza, last week.

 

"The number of civilian victims exceeds by far the number of resistance fighters killed. As for the injured, I can say that 99% of them are innocent men, women and children who had no connection with the hostilities," Isa Dhahir, deputy mayor of Jabalya, said.

 

In an interview with Aljazeera.net on Sunday, Dhahir accused the Israeli army of "knowingly and deliberately" targeting civilians, particularly children.

 

"An army that is equipped with state-of-the art technology can easily distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. An army that can strike and assassinate a person driving in a small car through a crowded street, can easily distinguish children and women from resistance fighters."

 

Fighters blamed

 

Dhahir says the Israeli army killed as many as 35 Palestinian civilians, including 10 children, since the current campaign in northern Gaza began five days ago.

 

When asked why Israeli troops do not use their technological advantage to minimise civilian deaths, an Israeli army colonel blamed Palestinian fighters for the high civilian toll.
 
"The terrorists are using Gazans as human shields and the civilians are paying the price for this," Yoav Mordechai of the Israeli District Civil Liaison Office told Aljazeera.net earlier this week.

 

All Palestinian males in the 20-40
age bracket are potential targets

Eitan Arusi, an Israeli military spokesman acknowledged that "some civilians" were killed but said the Israeli policy was to refrain "as much as possible" from targeting civilians.

 

However, an initial investigation into the fatalities by B'Tselem - the Israeli organisation that monitors and documents human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza - found that 41% were civilians "who took no part in the fighting".

 

B'Tselem also found that 19 children under the age of 17 had been killed by Israeli forces.

 

Arusi categorically denied such a large number of civilians were
killed.

 

"I don't care that its B'Tselem who reported the numbers," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

Targeting 20-40 bracket

 

Arusi persisted that, with the exception of some 10 civilians and a 65-year-old man, all Palestinians killed in northern Gaza since Wednesday were in their 20s and 30s.

 

Arusi gave no answer, however, when asked if Israeli military policy considered every Palestinian male in the 20-40 age bracket a legitimate target for liquidation just because he happened to be within a bracket typically associated with military recruitment.

 

For his part, Arusi accused Palestinians of using UNRWA vans to transport Qassam missiles, saying the Israeli army was in possession of aerial photographs to corroborate the claim.

 

UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen denied the charge, saying the Israelis mistook a medical stretcher for a Qassam rocket and that it was not the first time such accusations had been made.

 

Civilians killed

 

Earlier, the commander of an Israeli brigade in Gaza admitted that Israeli troops fired a tank shell at a "group of people" in retaliation for an ambush of an armoured Israeli bulldozer.

 

The high-ranking officer told the Israeli radio station, Reshet Bet, that "we are sorry that these civilians were killed".

 

"An army that can
strike and assassinate a person driving in a small car through a crowded street, can easily distinguish children
and women from
resistance fighters"

Isa Dhahir,
Jabalya deputy mayor

On Friday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported the Israeli army was instructed to be a little bit "light on the trigger" in order to punish the Palestinians and consequently force them to rise up against the resistance fighters.

 

In a radio interview on Sunday, one Israeli Knesset member proposed Israel issue an ultimatum to all Gaza inhabitants to leave their homes and towns after which the Israeli army would lay waste to the entire area.

 

"Suppose a volcano erupted in Gaza. Wouldn't they flee for a few days? Let them think of us as a volcano for a while," Yehuda Yatom, who is a Likud law-maker, said.

 

Yatom was barred by an Israeli court from assuming any security post after he was convicted of murdering two Palestinian men in detention nearly 20 years ago.

 

Demolition tactic?

 

Palestinian analysts claim the Israeli army has been instructed to demolish dozens of civilian homes in Bait Hanun, Bait Lahya and the Jabalya refugee camp in the hope that this would exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

 

Israel's raids may be intended to
sow divisions in Palestinian ranks

Home demolition has been Israel's established punitive policy in dealing with the Palestinians.

 

According to UN estimates, the Israeli army has destroyed more than 4500 homes since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada four years ago. Independent sources put this figure at 8000 and cite partially-damaged homes at more than 70,000.

 

International law classifies home demolitions as a war crime.