TEL AVIV, Israel — Close to one-third of the Palestinians who died in the latest outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza militants may have been killed by errant rockets fired by the Palestinian side, according to an Israeli military assessment that appears consistent with independent reporting by The Associated Press.
The Israeli military said 47 Palestinians were killed in the weekend of fighting – at least 14 of them by Islamic Jihad-fired rockets that fell short.
No one in Gaza with direct knowledge of the explosions in question was willing to speak about them publicly. But live TV footage showed militant rockets falling short in densely packed residential neighborhoods. And AP visits to the sites of two explosions that killed a total of 12 people lent support to suspicions they were caused by rockets that went off course.
Israel is claiming victory in the weekend clash, in part because it killed two senior Islamic Jihad commanders and because no Israelis were killed or seriously wounded. If it turns out that Islamic Jihad harmed some of those it claims to protect, it would make for an even more humiliating outcome for the militant group and its main sponsor, Iran.
In Gaza, the ruling Hamas militant group heavily polices dissent, and many Palestinians view armed groups as freedom fighters defending their homeland in the face of Israeli aggression.
Israel said it targeted only militants and made every effort to spare civilians. But at least one strike, which killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the southern city of Rafah late Saturday, also killed five civilians as Israel flattened one home and heavily damaged others.
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The violence began Friday, when Israel launched a wave of airstrikes against Islamic Jihad because of what the military described as an imminent threat to Israelis living near the Gaza frontier. By the time a cease-fire took effect late Sunday, Islamic Jihad had fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, and Israeli aircraft had struck dozens of suspected militant targets.
The Israeli army said militants fired about 1,100 rockets, with about 200 landing inside the Palestinian enclave.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 46 Palestinians were killed in the three days of fighting, including 16 children and four women. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants.
Islamic Jihad said 12 of its fighters were killed, a smaller armed group said it lost a fighter, and Hamas said two Hamas-affiliated policemen who did not take part in the fighting were killed. Israel said it killed at least 20 militants and seven civilians.
Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad responded to Israel’s claims that civilians were killed by misfired rockets. Instead, they have held Israel responsible for all the deaths.
Gaza-based human rights groups investigating the strikes also declined to address the claims. But their initial findings indicate that at least some of the explosions were questionable.
The Al-Mezan human rights group said some civilians were killed by “projectiles” rather than Israeli airstrikes. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it has so far confirmed that 27 people were killed by Israeli strikes – far below the overall toll.
PCHR director Raji Sourani said that the group has issued statements on only those incidents in which there was no ambiguity, and that the others will take more time to investigate because of “contradicting allegations.” He did not elaborate.
“We need eyewitnesses, shrapnel, videos and evidence,” he said. “There must be an investigation.”
The suspicions are focused on three explosions in which at least 15 civilians were killed.
On Saturday night, seven Palestinians were killed in a blast in the crowded Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. The Israeli military said it carried out no operations in the area at the time. It released video footage purportedly showing a barrage of militant rockets, with one falling short.
Islamic Jihad had announced a rocket attack on the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, just north of Jebaliya, at around the same time as the explosion.
Video footage of the aftermath circulated online, showing what appeared to be a rocket casing sticking out of the ground on a narrow, busy street. When the AP visited the site on Monday, the casing was gone and the hole had been filled in with dirt. Palestinians are usually keen to display evidence of Israeli airstrikes to international media.
Al-Mezan attributed the blast to a “projectile,” and the PCHR said it was still investigating.
On Sunday night, an explosion killed five Palestinians ages 4 to 17 at a cemetery in Jebaliya, also around the same time Islamic Jihad announced a barrage of rockets. The Israeli military said it was investigating.
Visiting both sites in Jebaliya, the AP saw none of the telltale signs of an Israeli strike – the wide craters left by F-16s or the narrow holes caused by drone strikes.
In a third suspicious explosion, one of the Hamas-affiliated policemen, who was off-duty, was killed Sunday along with three of his young children in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. Hamas, a far more powerful militant group that has fought four wars with Israel, stayed out of the latest fighting, and Israel appears to have been careful not to target it.
Al-Mezan and the PCHR said they are still investigating that episode.
Krauss reported from Ottawa, Ontario. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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