Casualty numbers raise questions about Gaza war

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A Palestinian youth carries blankets donated to the United Nations school where hundreds of families sought refuge after fleeing their homes due to heavy Israeli missile strikes in Gaza City, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes and are staying in 77 UN shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians. The number of people who have been forced to seek shelter has increased nearly six-fold since the start of Israel’s ground operation. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A Palestinian youth carries blankets donated to the United Nations school where hundreds of families sought refuge after fleeing their homes due to heavy Israeli missile strikes in Gaza City, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes and are staying in 77 UN shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians. The number of people who have been forced to seek shelter has increased nearly six-fold since the start of Israel’s ground operation. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A Palestinian man carries his father as he and others run to take cover during an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday in the southern Gaza Strip as the U.S. secretary of state reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in the conflict that has so far killed hundreds of Palestinians and tens of Israelis. Trapped by an escalation of fighting in Khan Younis, a town on the edge of the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinian families scrambled to flee the area. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

A International Red Cross employee runs for cover after an Israeli strike during a two-hour temporary ceasefire in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in a war that has so far killed more than 650 Palestinians and at least 30 Israelis. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Palestinian families who fled their homes from east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip ride on a car in their way to the city of Khan Younis on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as the top U.S. diplomat reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in a war that has so far killed hundreds of Palestinians and tens of Israelis. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Palestinians walk through the rubble of damaged houses minutes after they were hit in an Israeli strike, in Gaza City, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Offering the first glimmer of hope for a Gaza cease-fire, the United States on Wednesday said negotiations to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas militants made some progress even if an end to more than two weeks of bloodshed is nowhere near. More than 630 Palestinians and about 30 Israelis have been killed in the violence. (AP Photo/Khalilby Hamra)

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Shopkeepers say they were sitting outside their shuttered businesses Wednesday, catching a break from being cooped up during wartime, when an Israeli missile struck a nearby mosque, killing a truck driver and wounding 45 people.

One of those wounded by shrapnel said from his hospital gurney that the strike came without warning.

Israel has defended such strikes on civilian sites — nearly 500 homes, 16 mosques and at least two hospitals, by Palestinian count — by saying that Hamas hides weapons and fighters there or that tunnels into Israel originate in such places.

Israel says it is defending its civilians against rocket fire and other attacks from Gaza and doing its utmost to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.

However, three-fourths of the Palestinians killed in more than two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting were civilians, according to U.N. figures. One in four was a minor, it said.

A Palestinian health official put the death toll at 695 and said more than 4,100 were wounded, with civilian casualties rising sharply since Israel sent tanks and troops into Gaza last week in its first ground operation in five years.

Israel has not offered its own count, but Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said Wednesday that 210 Gaza militants were killed since the ground operation began.

The heavy civilian death toll leaves Israel increasingly vulnerable to accusations that it is using excessive force and possibly committing war crimes — though in Israel, most of the discourse has focused on the rocket attacks.

While most of the rockets have been intercepted and the damage caused has not been great, the furor over them has been powerful among Israelis. Only in recent days has public opinion started to focus more closely on the devastation in Gaza and the question of disproportionality in Israel’s actions.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Wednesday that some of the recent Israeli attacks, including those on homes and on a care center for the disabled, raise “a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

She also condemned indiscriminate Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians — including some 3,000 rockets fired since July 8 that have killed three Israeli civilians — and said storing military equipment in civilian areas or launching attacks from there is unacceptable.

But, she said, “the actions of one party do not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted later Wednesday to establish an independent commission to investigate possible violations of international law during the fighting.

Israel has said the goal of its Gaza operation is to hit Hamas targets, weaken the Islamic militant group’s ability to fire rockets, and destroy Hamas tunnels leading into Israel. The military said Wednesday it has carried out about 3,250

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