JERUSALEM, Israel — At about 5:30 a.m., just before dawn on Wednesday, three or four artillery shells crashed into a UN-run school in the Jebaliya refugee camp in Gaza.
Some 3,500 Palestinians had taken refuge there, after receiving warnings from the Israeli army that their own neighborhoods were targets in the conflict now in its fourth week and counting more than 1,300 deaths.
Entire families lay together asleep.
At least twenty people were killed before even waking.
Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the organization running the schools, immediately tweeted, "UNRWA condemns in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces," and, "Precise location of Jabalia Elementary Girls School #Gaza & that it housed 3,000 displaced was communicated to Israeli army 17 times.”
Representatives for the Israel Defense Forces said they were operating in the vicinity of the school, responding to fire against IDF soldiers.
Hours later, 16 Gazans were killed in the bombing of a market.
The school bombing came only six days after a similar incident, in which another UN-run Gazan school being operated as a shelter was hit by heavy fire, killing at least fifteen people and causing outrage around the world.
In this most recent iteration of the decades-old conflict, Israel’s image is taking a beating like never before. Even longtime supporters are taking to the op-ed pages to condemn the asymmetrical death counts.
Yet to the mystification of the world, a vast majority of Israelis, including those on the left, still support this war, feeling Israel is in an impossible position. "The settlements surrounding Gaza are all kibbutzim [settlers living communally] — kibbutzim who have traditionally been supporters of the Israeli left," says Marc Schulman in the "Tel Aviv Diary" he is writing for Newsweek, " … in this war when kibbutz residents make up only 2 percent of the population, 13 percent of the casualties have been from kibbutzim. "
Stand at kibbutz Nahal Oz, across the divide from Shujaiyah, where some of the worst battles have taken place, and you'll hear the constant background noise of open combat. Rat-tat-tat-boom! Like many other communities on the Israeli side of the border, Nahal Oz has become a ghost town, with only a few families left on-site and a coterie of older men guarding the fences. All families with children have been dispatched to the center of Israel.
Those remaining insist Israel can’t be blamed for defending itself.
Missiles have been raining on their communities for 14 years, mostly far away from the eye of the media. Yesterday, Hamas, the militant Islamic group ruling Gaza, released a video proudly showing its fighters emerging from a tunnel just outside the kibbutz carrying heavy weaponry, and rushing to a military watchtower.
Five Israeli soldiers died in the raid, one of Hamas's most audacious and successful of this round of fighting.
The fears felt by Nahal Oz residents when faced with the reality of tunnels burrowed deep under their community, intentded to be used for kidnapping them and sowing terror, are not theoretical. This community has been the target of lethal cross-border raids since 1956.
"The problem is that there are two sides to every coin, and it is very difficult to be objective and show both sides,” says Dov Hartuv, a 76-year-old retiree and one of a hundred people out of 400 remaining at the kibbutz. “We are not the only ones who are good and just. It’s the same on the Gazans' side."
"When Israelis see those awful pictures on TV, of a Gazan child dying in his father's arms, something unbearable, we feel terrible pain,” says Danny Rachamim, 60, the kibbutz manager for the irrigation of field crops. But he rejects placing the blame on the IDF: “Together with that, we know that the people bringing this upon these people is Hamas."
Rachamim was referring to Hamas's use of civilian buildings and installations to launch rockets and missiles at Israel — to which the IDF then responds, the result being high civilian casualties. The UNRWA has criticized this practice along with the Israeli strikes. On Tuesday, UNRWA announced that Gazan militants’ missiles have been found at a third of its sites.
"We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school," Gunness, the spokesman, said. "This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises."
Rachamim is a long-time peace activist, and says he "still believes we will some day live together in peace."
But he also defends Israel from criticisms regarding the difference in death counts. "I don't feel the need to apologize that we as country have invested so much in Iron Dome [Israel’s missile defense system] that protects our own population. If we hadn't, there would be many, many more deaths."
"It is hard to see this, with all the terrible pictures," he says, "but we are fighting for our lives. We are not attacking them on purpose. We never aim at civilian populations. We aim to kill terrorists who are using innocent citizens as shields. In wars, mistakes happen."
Many Israelis feel that their case is misunderstood by a world public appalled by civilian deaths in Gaza.
Hartuv says he is "afraid that neither Israel nor the West understands Hamas: it is a fundamentalist, radical, extremist, religious organization. You can't play by the same rules you would with France of the UK."
"It is almost impossible to transmit this message to the world," says Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul in New York. "When there is an asymmetry of force and power, and a missile defense shield on one side but not on the other, the images create an indelible impression that cannot be changed by virtue of spokespeople or PR. There's just no way around that."
As a nation, he says, Israel has to decide on its priorities.
"You can't massively bomb Gaza and look good in the eyes of the world. You just can't."
"You have to chose which of those two goals is the more important for you, and you just have to live with it."
As of Wednesday afternoon, the death tolls in the conflict stood at 1,328 Palestinian deaths, 59 Israeli.