Four out of every five Palestinians killed during Israel’s ongoing military offensive in Gaza have been civilians, including dozens of women and children, the United Nations said on Monday.
The statistic was disclosed by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) amid mounting international concern over non-combatant casualties during an operation Israeli officials have said is aimed solely at rooting out militants and stopping rockets being fired into Israel.
It came as pressure intensified for a ceasefire to a conflict that entered a seventh day on Monday, with the latest death toll climbing to 172, as Israel continued its bombardment and Hamas resumed its rocket fire after a brief pause.
The White House said it did not want to see an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip “because that would put even more civilians at risk”.
Of 160 deaths that had occurred by Sunday, 133 – 80 per cent – had been among Gaza’s civilian population, OCHA said, including 35 children and 27 women. Only 26 were established to have belonged to “armed groups” while the status of another nine men was unverified.
Some 296 children and 233 women have been among the 1,140 wounded, according to Gaza health ministry figures.
OCHA said its statistics had been checked and verified through a variety of sources.
The figures appeared to show a higher non-combatant casualty rate than that recorded in Israel’s eight-day offensive against Gaza in November 2012, when 108 civilians were said to be among the 167 Palestinians killed.
The trend drew a rebuke from Maria Jose Torres, deputy head of OCHA’s office for the Palestinian territories, who said: “The high toll for civilians is a big concern for the humanitarian community. As humanitarians we are appealing to the parties to refrain from killing and injuring civilians as well a from putting civilians at risk.”
Human rights groups have partly attributed the Palestinian death toll to Israel’s targeting of houses and buildings it says are being used by Hamas and other groups but that are also dwelling places for relatives with no known militant links.
Some 940 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged in missile or bomb strikes that have sometimes caused devastation to neighbouring areas and houses.
In some cases, militants targeted in strikes on domestic dwellings have not been at home at the time of the assaults which have instead killed multiple members of their families.
In one particularly graphic case, two severely handicapped women were killed on Saturday when a missile struck their disabled care home. Two suspected militants who lived in flats upstairs were away at the time.
The women’s disabilities prevented them from responding to advance warning rockets.
Israel says it is responding to missile attacks launched by Hamas and other groups that it accuses of firing indiscriminately at its civilian population. No Israelis have been killed so far by Hamas’ rocket attacks, although nearly 1,000 have been launched in the past week, according to the Israeli military.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has also accused Hamas of using Gaza’s civilian population as human shields by living and stationing missile sites in built-up areas of the densely populated territory.
However, Israel’s tactic of hitting domestic residences came under further scrutiny after three missiles destroyed the home of the director general of Gaza City’s main medical facility, Shiffa Hospital.
Dr Nasser al-Tater, a specialist cardiologist, said he had spent seven days working and sleeping at the hospital to oversee its emergency response to the conflict before returning home on Sunday evening.
Within minutes, his son received a phone call from an Israeli military officer telling the family to evacuate within 10 minutes. Three rockets subsequently destroyed the house – along with Dr al-Tatar’s private practice clinic – in Gaza City’s Beach Refugee camp.
“I have no idea why they did this,” said Dr al-Tatar, 59, standing inside the wreckage of his clinic, where an examination bed stood covered in dust. “I am all the time busy with my work as a doctor and as a director of the hospital. I have spent all my life working in the medical field, so I have no time to do other jobs or have other associations.”
Minutes before he spoke, The Daily Telegraph witnessed an Israeli missile destroying a house in a nearby street shortly after a warning rocket was fired. The strike produced a huge plum of smoke, flying shrapnel and a blaze which raged out of control as several large petrol cans stored in the house exploded. The occupants were not at home.
Egypt on Monday night proposed a temporary cease-fire as a first step in ending the latest conflict.
The Foreign Ministry announced a three-step plan starting with a 12-hour cease-fire, followed by the opening of border crossings and talks in Cairo between the sides. Israel convened a security cabinet meeting for Tuesday to discuss the proposal, while there was no immediate reaction from Hamas.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Middle East envoy Tony Blair was reported by Egyptian media to be due in Cairo tomorrow to help broker a possible truce.