Deadly strikes on a Palestinian refugee camp have fueled another wave of anger, renewed war crimes accusations and raised questions about the military strategy Israel is using as it prosecutes a war on Hamas that has racked up thousands of civilian deaths.
Israel says the strike this week in the city of Jabaliya, which killed dozens, targeted a command center against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that raided southern Israel last month, killed more than 1,400 people and took more than 200 hostages.
But the strike has met fierce criticism from human rights groups and Arab countries, because Israel is bombing densely populated areas in its campaign to defeat Hamas.
“I don’t think Israel should be bombing any civilian areas,” said Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. “I don’t see what is accomplished, honestly. I don’t think anything is going to be accomplished by bombing more civilian areas, by creating more craters in the ground.”
The refugee camp is located in the northern Gaza city of Jabaliya, which has a population of more than 170,000. Israel had told people in the north of Gaza to move southward, but that is difficult for much of the population.
Harb said the longer the war goes on with such a high civilian cost, the more likely Israel will face calls to stop the bloodshed, noting that President Biden has called for a “humanitarian pause” to get aid to battered Gazans.
“I think American politicians and the administration are seeing that — not only in the United States but across the world — this is not a popular war,” he said, assessing U.S. officials may come to the conclusion that “we cannot go on like this.”
At least one U.S. senator, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has called for a cease-fire in the war, expressing a desire to negotiate with Hamas to free the Israeli hostages and to seek a longer-term solution between Palestine and Israel.
“Let’s face it: This has gone on for decades,” Durbin said on CNN. “Whatever the rationale from the beginning, [the situation] has reached an intolerable level. We need to have a resolution in the Middle East that gives some promise for the future.”
Most member of Congress, however, have lined up strongly behind Israel so far in the fight.
Newly minted Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said he does not support calls for a cease-fire.
“There was a cease-fire before Oct. 7 — Hamas broke it, and Israelis suffered unspeakable acts of evil,” he said during a Thursday briefing. “Israel doesn’t need a cease-fire; it needs its allies to see through the politics.”
Arab nations, including U.S. allies, have expressed serious concerns about the war and have called for a cease-fire.
Jordan, a major American partner in the Middle East, recalled its ambassador from Israel this week in protest of the mounting civilian casualties.
Israeli bombings have exacted a huge toll on Gaza, obliterating buildings and killing men, women and children.
In photos of the Jabaliya strike in northern Gaza, rubble and craters marked the camp after it was struck Tuesday. Less than 24 hours later, the camp was hit again.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed it was behind the first strike. IDF officials said they had struck command operations around the camp, including rocket launch sites, tunnel networks and weapons production facilities, and that 50 militants were killed in the bombing.
In a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the IDF claimed it had killed a top Hamas commander operating in the area, whom Israel said was among those responsible for organizing the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. The IDF in the post also urged civilians to evacuate to escape the carnage.
“The IDF reiterates its call to the residents of the area to move south for their safety,” the military wrote.
But Gaza is a tiny coastal strip home to more than two million people, not all of whom have been able to evacuate to the south in the weeks before the ground invasion was launched.
The Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, said on Facebook that “hundreds of people” have been injured or killed after the Jabaliya strikes, a claim that could not be immediately verified.
The United Nations Human Rights Office, which has been critical of the Israeli bombing campaign since it began, said in a post on X that the Israeli strike was concerning.
“We have serious concerns that these are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes,” the United Nations office said.
Critics of Israel’s military campaign have already expressed concern about the weeks-long bombing campaign in Gaza and an explosion near a hospital in October that killed hundreds, though the Israeli military has provided evidence showing they were likely not at fault for the blast.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday that the Defense Department will not comment on specific incidents. But he said that broadly, the U.S. has communicated with Israel about how it is conducting its war against Hamas.
“We know that Israel has an inherent right to defend itself,” Ryder said. “We also expect Israel to take into account the laws of war as they plan and conduct this operation, and we want them to distinguish between terrorists and civilians.”
Ryder also blamed Hamas for attacks that hit the civilian population of Gaza, saying the group, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, uses them as “human shields” in dense urban environments. This also poses a serious challenge to Israeli forces.
“There’s no question of the complexity of the challenge that is confronting the Israeli forces,” he said.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby would not comment on the refugee camp strike in particular, but he said Israel has every right to defend itself against Hamas.
He also said the U.S. was committed to working with Israel to minimize civilian deaths.
“We certainly don’t want to see a single civilian hurt or killed in this conflict,” he said at a Thursday briefing. “There’s been too many deaths as it is … and we are doing everything we can to work with our Israeli counterparts to minimize the risk of civilian deaths.”
Israel is conducting a broad campaign to destroy Hamas, relying on a strategy that includes relentless airstrikes to cover forces on the ground who moved into Gaza at the end of last week and are now inching closer to capturing Gaza City from three directions.
Along with the hospital blast and refugee camp, strikes are continuing to hit places where civilians have been sheltering from the war, showing it is difficult for them to escape the crossfire between Hamas and Israeli forces battling it out in Gaza.
Late last month, a Greek Orthodox Christian church was bombed, killing at least 16 people and leading to a major condemnation from the World Council of Churches.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said the level of Israeli attacks is “shocking” and “unprecedented” during a meeting this week. He claimed that 70 percent of those reported killed in the campaign are women and children.
“The human tragedy unfolding under our watch is unbearable,” he said.
Experts say Israel faces an immense task to eradicate Hamas because the group enjoys political support, unlike traditional terrorist groups. And IDF reports say forces are striking hundreds of targets, but it’s not clear if Israel is achieving its broader aims.
Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, wrote in a blog post this week that Israel is cognizant of the political cost of the war’s casualties and likely delayed its ground invasion by three weeks because of those concerns. The ground operation is also more limited than expected, he noted.
Salem argued that ultimately, there is “no military solution” to the conflict.
“Even if it were, the human, political, and economic costs to Israel over the coming weeks and months may not continue to seem worth it to Israelis,” he wrote. “Especially as Hamas presumably has long prepared for just such a battle, and the steadily rising costs for Palestinian civilians will dramatically increase regional and international pressure on Israel to stop.”