The owners of the largest factories in Gaza, whose operations were destroyed by artillery shells and airstrikes, say Israel intentionally targeted the industrial sector to bring Gaza's economy to its knees.
Their charge could be difficult to prove, but hundreds of factories — including the producers of ice cream, paver tiles, soda pop and cardboard cartons — appear heavily damaged in a wave of destruction greater than the past two wars in Gaza combined.
Israeli military officials say they only targeted factories that were sources of hostile fire, but they have yet to produce detailed evidence to bolster the claim.
Private sector leaders on Wednesday braced themselves for further losses as Hamas and Israel vowed to continue to fight.
At his food cannery, Ayman Hamada walked last week through the charred remains of his life's work. He employed 150 workers and produced the most popular tomato paste in Gaza. The 4 million-euro factory was still smouldering.
"I'm 45 years old. To be honest, I always thought of the Israelis as having morals and good sense. This time, I am positive, they hit our factories with intent, with a clear eye," Hamada said. "The Israelis don't make these kinds of mistakes."
During the war, Hamada's house was damaged by an errant Israeli round. He said he got a phone call from one of his contacts in the Israeli military economic division apologising. His sister was killed in Gaza City in another airstrike. "They didn't call about her," he said.
At his offices in downtown Gaza City, he fast-forwarded through hours of time-stamped video taken by his five security cameras.
"You see it is completely quiet. No fighters are inside my factory. No rockets are being launched. I make tomato sauce, not rockets. Now, wait for it, here," he said as he slowed the recording down, to show bright explosions and then raging fire.
Hamada was mourning for his sister — and his business. He said, "I am a rich guy. Believe me, I have money, a nice house, a fancy car. Everything you could want. But I don't care anymore. Kill me. Drop a bomb on my head."
Leaders of the private sector in Gaza say they are squeezed between a hostile Egypt, militants in Hamas, and Israel, which enforces trade and travel restrictions and prohibits Gaza from operating an airport or seaport. Gaza has so few exports it is not worth counting.
The Gaza economy already was choking before the Islamist militant group Hamas began firing rockets. The top U.N. envoy in the Middle East, Robert Serry, said destruction here was three times greater than the 2009 war between Hamas and Gaza. The Gaza Chamber of Commerce warns that unemployment could soar to 50 percent.
Israeli military officials insist that factories were legitimate "military targets" because the facilities produced munitions, served as firebases or harboured weapons or combatants. Gaza industries are massed alongside the border with Israel, which became the front lines.
"We did not have a policy of hitting factories," said Lt. Col. Eran Shamir-Borer, head of the strategic affairs branch in the international law department at the Military Advocate General's Corps. "You can't just hit the economy of the enemy."
Shamir-Borer said such targeting could be a violation of international law and a war crime. The Israeli military organised fact-finding assessment teams now reviewing "dozens of cases" with high numbers of civilian deaths, for example, or a strike at a "sensitive site," such as a school, hospital or factory.
International law requires belligerents to take into account the principle of "proportionality," meaning an army must weigh a military objective against possible collateral losses.
Israel has not offered proof that the large factories it hit produced munitions. Maps released by the Israeli Defenses Forces show multiple "combat posts" and "hideouts" allegedly used by Hamas but do not include enough detail to show whether the targets were inside or abutting factories.
Israeli surveillance drones were overhead throughout the conflict, and such evidence may be forthcoming. Israel is also preparing to defend itself before international investigations that already have begun. It is not a war crime to make a mistake.
Israeli military officials blame the high number of civilian deaths on Hamas, which operates its militia in a dense urban environment, and according to the Israelis, employs "human shields."
In its latest count, the United Nations reports 1,975 people were killed by Israeli fire, most of them civilians. UNICEF says that 457 of the dead were children. Israeli military officials say they killed approximately 900 "terrorists."
On the Israeli side, there were 64 soldiers killed, and three civilians, including one foreign worker.
Much of the world's attention has focused on civilian deaths, but factory owners say without work, Gaza will slip further into despair, which will bolster extremists.
"The economy was a target," said Ali El Haik, chair of the Palestinian Businessmen Association. "In the third week of the war the Israelis shifted fire to the industrial sector."
Haik waved a list of 202 factories hit but said it was incomplete. He estimated the final number could double. He declined to share his list with a reporter.
"This was not an accident. This was a plan," said Hatem Hassouna, manager for his family's contracting and trade company.
"You could argue damage to a few factories is normal in a time of war. But look at the numbers. The strategic assets," Hassouna said.
His family's $6.5 million factory employed 230 workers and produced road pavers and ready mix cement. Hassouna said none of their cement was diverted to Hamas tunnels, which were constructed with materials smuggled into Gaza from Egypt, he said.
"We do not produce military items. Our owners do not support any political party. Our customers are UN organisations and projects approved by the Israelis," Hassouna said.
The Hassouna factory was occupied by Israeli forces on the first day of the ground offensive. "We felt the factory was safe because they felt safe inside it," he said.
When the cease-fire was announced, they went to their facility. "We in shock," he said. "The destruction was complete. Not only tanks. They brought bulldozers to finish the job."
Avi Segal, an authority in security studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, expressed surprise that a large number of factories were hit.
"The goal of the Israeli bombs is to cause pain, to bleed, so to speak. But the question is who. In my opinion it is possible this was meant to harm those people so that they would pressure Hamas," Segal said.
Mohammed Al Telbani, owner of the largest industrial plant in Gaza, said his factory was hit by 40 shells over several days, until it was consumed by fire, when tons of butter, plastic and fuel ignited.
The Al Awda factory employed 450 workers and made ice cream, cookies and chips. He walked to the third floor and pointed to where Israeli shells entered one side and exited the other. The smell was enough to make him gag.
He denied that hostile fire came from his shop. "I never allow anyone near us. Not within a kilometer. My life is the factory. I live inside. I go to sleep at night listening to my production lines," Telbani said. "There is no one like me in Gaza."
"I was a symbolic target," he said.
Like prominent business people in Gaza, Telbani is a "trusted traveler" with permits to come and go through Israel and maintain close trading relations with Israeli counterparts.
Telbani denounced the recklessness of the war. He said Israel is wrong to believe that business owners could sway Hamas to change course, when the Arab League and Palestinian Authority cannot.
"Ask the Israelis what Mohammed Al Telbani ever did to them," he said. "You say there were rockets fired from my cookie factory?" He was shaking with anger. "Prove it."
William Booth – The Washington Post
Riham Abdul Karim in Gaza and Orly Halpern in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Washington Post photo by William Booth