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Israeli official says 14 Hamas operatives spared in bid to minimize civilian casualties

Israeli military officials insist they are going out of their way to minimize civilian casualties in the intensifying ground invasion of Gaza, telling FoxNews.com that some 14 Hamas terror operatives have been let off the hook after determinations that targeting them could put others at risk.

“We weigh up the potential civilian damage if we carry out a strike, against taking out or not taking out the terrorist," Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told FoxNews.com in an exclusive interview. "As a policy we do not target civilians intentionally and do everything in our power to [minimize casualties]. I can tell you that on at least 14 occasions – [during the current hostilities] - we have let 14 senior terrorists fly because we did not want extensive collateral damage.”

Lerner spoke as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military Friday to prepare for a "significant expansion" of its ground operation against Gaza militants. Netanyahu said the military's primary goal would be to destroy underground tunnels used by Hamas to attack the Jewish State. The announcement came hours after Israeli ground troops and tanks struck more than 100 terror targets in Israel's first major ground offensive in Gaza in just over five years.

The lopsided casualty figures from the current Israel-Gaza war - approaching 300 Palestinians have died as opposed to two Israelis – have caused outrage in some quarters, but IDF officials blame the tactic of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad of embedding themselves among the civilian population to maximize civilian casualties. There have even been reports of Hamas refusing to let civilian residents leave areas under fire, seemingly insisting on them being used as human shields, against the Geneva Convention.

Hamas’ human shields policy has been a longstanding ploy which the leaders of the terror organization attempt to sell to its population as being noble; a chance to be martyred should circumstances dictate.

As far back as 2008 Fathi Hammad, a representative of Hamas, justified his organization’s cynical use of human shields, explaining on Al Aqsa TV, “For the Palestinian people death has become an industry at which women excel, and so do all people on this land: the elderly excel, the Jihad fighters excel, and the children excel. Accordingly [Palestinians] created a human shield of women, children, the elderly, and the Jihad fighters, against the Zionist bombing machine, as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: 'We desire death as you desire life.”

But Lerner said Israeli forces try whenever possible to limit collateral damage, whether in bombing rocket launching sites or in the current ground invasion.

“Primarily, in order to limit civilian casualties, we inform the civilians of expected IDF activities,” Lerner said. “We send them messages, phone calls, and leaflets are dropped from the sky advising them to move from areas that could be potential places of combat. We actually call up the terrorists and tell them that we plan on striking these premises within the next 5 or 10 minutes, (depending on the situation), and you are to vacate because we are going to strike this location.

“I don’t think there is any military in the world that calls up their enemy and says ‘We’re going to attack your command and control position. Please clear out the premises.’ I do think it is a huge effort on behalf of Israel, but it is part of modern warfare in the context of Israel versus terrorist organizations like Hamas.”

“After we call them up we then send a non-explosive munition against the premises so there is a loud bang – we call it ‘roof knocking.’ Only after a third step, a visual verification that indeed people have left the premises, do we actually carry out the strike. So there are multiple checks and balances in order to make sure that there is limited civilian impact.”

Israel’s ground invasion came on Thursday night following a breach of the border into Israel by 13 terrorists via a tunnel that emerged next to a kibbutz. The plot was seemingly foiled by air reconnaissance that spotted the intruders and alerted ground forces.

“Since the beginning of the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has targeted 150 targets across the Gaza Strip,” an IDF statement confirmed on Friday afternoon. “Among the targets were 21 concealed rocket launchers, 4 terror activity infrastructures, a weapon manufacturing facility, and 4 tunnels. IDF soldiers engaged 17 terrorists, 13 others surrendered and were taken for questioning.”

Despite Israel’s advance more than 50 rockets were fired out of Gaza into Israel this morning. Speaking on Al Aqsa TV last night, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum warned, “The resistance will confront the Israeli ground invasion and will defend the people of Gaza. Israel will pay a heavy price.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com