Israel challenges Palestinian claim on Gaza dead

Israel says the three-week offensive was aimed solely at Hamas militants.

JERUSALEM (AP) âÄî The Israeli military on Thursday disputed Palestinian claims that most of the people killed in the recent Gaza Strip war were civilians, claiming the “vast majority” of the dead were Hamas militants. Israel says the three-week offensive was aimed solely at Hamas militants, while Palestinians say hundreds of people were killed by an overwhelming show of force that showed little regard for civilians. Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said Thursday that the military had completed an investigation and determined that a total of 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the operation. It found that 709 were Hamas militants, while 295 were civilians, including 89 minors and 49 women. It was unclear whether another 162 men who died were militants or civilians. The figures clashed with numbers released last week by the Palestine Center for Human Rights, which said 1,417 people were killed, including more than 900 civilians. Its toll included the names and ages of all of the dead. The Israeli military said it also had a list of names, but the army did not provide it to reporters. The Palestinian center Thursday called the Israeli report “a deliberately manipulative attempt to distort the reality of the offensive and to disguise Israel’s illegal actions.” It said, for instance, that Israel wrongly classified 255 “noncombatant” police officers killed at the outset of the war as militants. The heavy civilian death toll caused an international outcry and fueled calls from human rights groups for a war crimes investigation against Israel. An Israeli military school’s publication last week of soldiers’ accounts of wanton destruction and slack rules of engagement that may have caused unnecessary civilian deaths, has added to the uproar. The military’s report was unlikely to resolve the debate over the death toll, although Leibovich said the army’s information was “checked, crisscrossed and double-checked with the different intelligence bodies in Israel.” When asked to explain the discrepancy, she said “you have to ask your Palestinian sources” and acknowledged it was not a precise science. “We are receiving different information from different sources, the majority of which is not based on hard evidence,” she said. “I can tell you for a fact that our information is checked according to different intelligence organizations and Palestinian authorities and these are the right figures.” Israel waged the war in Gaza in an attempt to weaken Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, and halt persistent rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli border towns. Israel blames Hamas for the heavy civilian casualties, saying the group launches attacks from schools and residential areas and uses civilians as “human shields” to deter Israeli attacks. President Barack Obama’s administration has promised to become “vigorously engaged” in the search to end the Israeli-Arab conflict and has pledged $900 million to help rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed in the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who harshly criticized his predecessor’s’ peace efforts and said the Palestinians were not ready for independence said Thursday he does not expect to face pressure from Obama due to the “deep and strong” ties between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu is expected to present his center-right coalition to parliament next week . After signing a coalition pact with the centrist Labor Party Wednesday Netanyahu appeared to soften his previous stance, pledging that his government would be a “partner for peace with the Palestinians,” At a White House press conference the day before, Obama described the current deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians as unsustainable. “It is critical for us to advance a two-state solution,” he added. Asked by a reporter Thursday about Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu fielded the question by referring to the coalition agreement with Labor under which the new government would resume peace talks and commit itself to existing peace accords. It was not clear if that included the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Both sides recommitted to the road map at a 2007 peace conference hosted by the United States.