GAZA CITY — Residents say the airstrike came this week without warning: With fighting raging between Israel and Islamic Jihad militants throughout Gaza, two loud blasts destroyed a home in central Gaza, killing eight members of the family in a split second.
Abdelhaj Musleh, a neighbor, said many children lived in the house in the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah that was struck on Thursday. “If there had been a warning, no one would have waited for this death and destruction,” he added.
Israel has claimed victory in its latest battle against Gaza militants, a clash set off by the Israeli military’s killing of an Islamic Jihad commander. But its tactics of carrying out airstrikes on private homes thought to be of harboring militants could once again come under scrutiny over the civilian death toll.
On Friday, the Israeli army said it would investigate the “unexpected” harm to civilians in the Gaza strike.
Palestinian militants also have come under international criticism for firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas.
A truce announced early Thursday appeared to be breaking down less than 24 hours later, as Israel resumed airstrikes on Gaza overnight Friday after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks. Among the 34 people killed in the two-day conflict, 16 were civilians, including two 7-year-old boys and two toddlers, according to human rights investigators.
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has fought three wars and dozens of skirmishes against Islamic militant groups. While the wars have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group, hundreds of civilians have also died in Israeli airstrikes.
The high civilian death toll has drawn heavy international criticism, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened a preliminary investigation into Israel’s battlefield tactics. Israel has rejected the criticism, saying it takes numerous precautions to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties.
It says its targets are based on sophisticated intelligence and cleared by legal advisers and other experts, and that it often warns inhabitants to evacuate before their homes are struck. It says it has fine-tuned its guided missiles, delivering small payloads that minimize damage beyond the precise target.
“Our operations against the Islamic Jihad were very accurate, very deliberate, based on the highest level of intelligence that we have,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters on Thursday after the cease-fire was declared.
“One of the key considerations was and remains to limit to the greatest extent possible collateral damage and the effect on noncombatants,” he added.
The latest round of fighting began early Tuesday, when an Israeli airstrike killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander who Israel said was responsible for numerous rocket attacks and was planning a deadly infiltration operation into Israel. The 4 a.m. missile strike hit the top-floor apartment in Gaza City where he was sleeping, also killing his wife, Asmaa Abu al-Ata.
Colonel Conricus said Israel had been following Mr. Abu al-Ata for 10 days but had held off attacking him sooner because he routinely surrounded himself with crowds of civilians for protection.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited a group of Israeli soldiers to congratulate them on what he called a successful mission. “Our enemies got the message,” he said. “We can reach anyone, even in their beds.”
Such airstrikes can be permissible under international law, depending on the threat posed by the target and whether the damage to civilians is “proportional” to the military gain, said Omar Shakir, the country director of Human Rights Watch.
“Too often civilians pay the price for political brinkmanship by states and armed group,” Mr. Shakir said. “We’ve seen several rounds of fighting now in Gaza where civilians have lost their lives or had their property damaged and faced harrowing circumstances as the result of unlawful attacks by both parties.”
Palestinian militants also have been denounced for firing rockets at Israeli civilian areas. The Israeli military said dozens of the rockets this week had been misfired and landed in Gaza, with one believed to have damaged the offices of the International Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian watchdog group.
The group stopped short of criticizing the militants and called for an investigation of the incident.
In the case of the airstrike in Deir el-Balah, neighbors said an Islamic Jihad commander lived in the home that was destroyed. The commander, however, was not home and had apparently gone into hiding.
Instead, his brother Rasmi Abu Malhous, 45, was killed, along with both of their wives and five children under the age of 13. They included his 7-year-old son and two nephews, ages 2 and 3.
The neighbors, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to anger the family, said Rasmi Abu Malhous had not involved in any militant activity. The home virtually disintegrated in the blast, leaving a large crater with kitchenware, pillows and mattresses strewn about. Neighbors dug out eight bodies and tried to salvage school backpacks and clothes.
“When we came, we did not recognize where the house was standing,” said Mr. Musleh, the neighbor. “The airstrike intentionally targeted civilians.”
Israel argues that civilian casualties are inevitable in Gaza’s densely populated urban environment. Militants often fire rockets from crowded residential areas, drawing Israeli retaliatory strikes, and Israel accuses the militants of using civilians as human shields.
Colonel Conricus, the military spokesman, said he had no information about the particular airstrike. But he defended the attacks on private homes, saying that Islamic Jihad commanders used their residences to store weapons or as command and control centers, making them legitimate military targets.