GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — 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 700 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.