The Samouni family knew they were in danger. They had been calling the Red Cross for two days, they said, begging to be taken out of Zeitoun, a poor area in eastern Gaza City that is considered a stronghold of Hamas.
No rescuers came. Instead, Israeli soldiers entered their building late Sunday night and told them to evacuate to another building. They did. But at 6 a.m. on Monday, when a missile fired by an Israeli warplane struck the relatives’ house in which they had taken shelter, there was nowhere to run.
Eleven members of the extended Samouni family were killed and 26 wounded, according to witnesses and hospital officials, with five children age 4 and under among the dead.
Hundreds of members of the clan flooded in to Shifa Hospital, all from Zeitoun, many in shock. Masouda al-Samouni, 20, lost her mother-in-law, her husband and her 10-month-old son. She said she had been preparing food for the baby when the missile struck. “He died hungry,” she said.
Ten days into Israel’s offensive against Hamas, the militant Islamic group that governs Gaza, the civilian toll was rising alongside that of the militants.
As the fighting closed in on the city, Gazans began accusing Israel of deliberately aiming at civilians, to turn them against Hamas. Israel blames Hamas, saying it focuses the battle in the densely populated areas of this narrow, crowded coastal strip and uses residents as shields.
“We have no intention of harming civilians,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman. Hamas “cynically uses” civilians by operating in their midst, she said, adding, “Sometimes there can be situations where civilians get hurt.”
Israel began its campaign on Dec. 27 with the primary intention of breaking Hamas’s military infrastructure and its ability to launch rockets at southern Israel. About 550 Palestinians have been killed so far, medical officials in Gaza said, with at least a quarter of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Hospital officials in Gaza said that at least 93 people had been killed and more than 370 wounded since Saturday, when Israeli ground forces joined the campaign.
In the crowded Shati refugee camp, near the coast, another family was wiped out early Monday when a shell fired from a navy ship hit their house while they slept.
In the Tuffah district, another poor neighborhood of Gaza City, the Israelis fired tank shells into a house, witnesses said. A neighbor drove Mumin Alawi, 13, to the hospital. When Muhammad Alawi, Mumin’s father, came looking for his son and found that the boy had died, he was beside himself and wanted to jump from a balcony, until relatives held him back.
“He died a martyr,” said Muhammad’s mother. “At least this body is whole.”
A Red Cross official in Gaza said there had been many cries for help. In the case of the Samouni family, she said, the organization was told by the Israelis that it would be too dangerous to go into the Zeitoun neighborhood.
A study about to be published in Israel by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an independent research group that has close ties to the Israeli military establishment and is supported by the American Jewish Congress, presents Hamas as having methodically built its military infrastructure in the heart of population centers.
The study presents photographs of militants manufacturing and storing weapons inside houses and of Israeli soldiers finding weapons hidden in a mosque in northern Gaza during a military incursion in March 2008.
Hamas not only hides among the population, the study contends, but has made a main component of its combat strategy “channeling” the army into the most densely populated areas to fight — a model that is now playing out.
Shireen Shihab, 30, a resident of Gaza City, said Monday that she had seen Hamas fighters firing rockets toward Israel from a site two blocks away from her home. She said she and others could not express any opposition for fear of being labeled spies.
Ms. Shihab, a former supporter of Fatah, the secularist rival of Hamas, said that the Israelis and their pro-Western Palestinian allies from Fatah were “using the people,” killing them to make Hamas pay a price.
Among the survivors of the Samouni family, opinions were divided. Some blessed the resistance. But Hamada Al-Samouni, 28, who was lightly wounded by the Israeli rocket and was clearly still in shock, said this was all happening “because of the rockets” fired by Hamas.
He said he had seen the bodies of eight Hamas fighters dressed in civilian clothing lying in the streets around Zeitoun. They had been lying there for two days and nobody had come to collect them, he said.