* Residents around rocket sites reluctant to move
* Locals put little blame on Hamas for their losses
* Israel says it strives to avoid civilian deaths
By Noah Browning
GAZA, Nov 19 (Reuters) - From the sandy expanses of the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian families are fleeing their homes destroyed by airstrikes, but refuse to blame the Hamas rocket crews who draw Israeli fire.
In six days of fighting, militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, killing three civilians, while Israel has struck over 1,350 targets in the coastal enclave, killing more than 100 Palestinian civilians and fighters.
Israel says the attackers in Gaza are its only targets and it takes pains to avoid innocent deaths. Gazans question the Israelis’ distinction of civilians and militants.
Faraj al-Sawafir, 55, and his extended family of 40 were forced from their home next to the Israeli border after it was hit in a strike targetted at rocket launchpads all around the building.
But al-Sawafir rejected any criticism of fighters from Hamas, the Islamist organisation that rules Gaza, and other groups for firing off rockets from residential districts.
“We, the people of Gaza, we are the resistance. Hamas and the others, they’re our sons and our brothers, we’re fingers on the same hand. They fight for us and are martyred, they take losses and we sacrifice too,” al-Sawafir said, sitting on the steps of a relative’s apartment building in central Gaza city.
“It’s not their fault, it’s Israel’s fault. It’s no crime to fight for our rights, and from where are they supposed to fire from anyway? This is Gaza, there’s no place that isn’t full of people,” he said, children and relatives crowding around him.
Leaflets and recorded phone calls warning local people to stay away from Hamas infrastructure, and dummy bombs which crash down but don’t explode, are meant to warn non-combatants away from the scene of planned strikes, Israel’s military says.
“I don’t know of any country in the world that would go through the efforts we have to spare civilian casualties,” Avital Leibovitch, Israeli army spokeswoman, told Reuters.
Some Gazans are reluctant to abandon homes in known rocket launch areas, like al-Sawafir, who says he received no Israeli warning before the attacks on his neighbourhood.
“If they support the fact that there are launch sites next to their home, they have to accept the fact that there will be an attack. Israel is not responsible for the lives of people in Gaza. Hamas is the one putting them in this position,” said Leibovitch.
“WE‘D BETTER LEAVE”
The warnings never came to the Dalu family, its surviving members said, as they tip-toed over twisted metal and chunks of concrete to salvage pillows and bedding on Monday. Children’s schoolbooks littered the floor and a Spider-Man poster dangled from the wall.
An Israeli airstrike flattened the building next door the day before, killing 11, including four small children.
“There’s nothing left for us here anymore. We lost everything, so we’ll go to our uncle’s house. But what are we supposed to do? Nowhere in Gaza is safe,” said Ismail Dalu.
Israel says it is has launched an investigation into the conduct of the strike.
But tragedy didn’t stop one local boy from wanting revenge. “I hope it has a rocket inside,” he said, pointing to a flatbed truck used to collect the rubble. “I wish it would pop up and fire right now!”
Some warnings have been heard and heeded, however. As much as Hamas and its officials are part of Gaza society, local people tend to know when a party member or VIP lives in the area, and the wary among them move out.
“We knew one of our neighbours was a Hamas member, so we were obviously worried when the fighting started,” said a driver in Gaza city who called himself Abu Mohammed, but declined to give his full name in case residents identified him.
“My wife picked up the phone a couple days ago and a (Israeli) recording told us to stay away from Hamas members for our own safety. That’s when I said we’d better leave,” he said.
Waiting for the warning calls has become something of an obsession for Gaza residents, fearful of missing a tip that could save their lives. Mothers warn children never to ignore a phone call, residents say.
The destruction caused by the strikes is humbling even for a people familiar with hardship.
With their beach-view apartment destroyed on Thursday, Fadi Naqeeb, 20, and his family have moved with relatives into a crowded hovel. “The family is shocked. We always knew this could happen but never believed it actually would,” he said.
“Most of our things are destroyed, all our memories were there. We don’t even have any decent clothes left for Friday prayers,” Naqeeb said.