Israel’s Assault on Gaza Is Unlike Any War in Recent Memory

Israel’s Assault on Gaza Is Unlike Any War in Recent Memory

What we are seeing play out in Gaza daily is not “just another terrible war” but something altogether different. Its scale is comparable to the carpet-bombing of German cities in World War II. A staggering 70 percent of Palestinians killed so far have been women and children – setting Gaza apart from some of this century’s worst wars.

by Branko Marcetic, reposted from Jacobin, December 19, 2023

It took just two months for the Israeli government to kill more than 17,000 Palestinians in Gaza — a death toll that’s been recognized as accurate by leading humanitarian groups, the US State Department, a senior Biden administration official, the esteemed Lancet medical journal, and even the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).That’s an important statistic, because it’s maybe the leading indicator — but by no means the only one — that what we are seeing play out in Gaza daily is not “just another terrible war” but something altogether different.

Consider the verdict of those who have spent their lives and careers in the world’s worst war zones. Martin Griffiths — a long-serving United Nations humanitarian official who started his career in genocide-ravaged Cambodia and served everywhere from Yemen to post-earthquake Syria — has called Gaza the “worst ever” humanitarian crisis he’s seen. Other UN officials have called Gaza “a living nightmare” and “absolutely unprecedented and staggering,” and have described the conditions on the ground as “apocalyptic.”

“I feel like I am running out of ways to describe the horrors hitting children here,” said UNICEF spokesperson James Elder. European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has similarly called the situation in Gaza “catastrophic, apocalyptic,” with the scale of destruction “even greater than the destruction suffered by the German cities during the Second World War.”

These statements are borne out by the numbers, which clearly show that Israel’s military campaign has been exceptional in its indiscriminate brutality. True to Borrell’s words, a Financial Times analysis found that after only six weeks, northern Gaza had been reduced to rubble on a scale comparable only to the carpet-bombing of German cities in World War II.

With 68 percent of buildings damaged or destroyed in northern Gaza by the start of this month, the flattening of that area is worse than the notorious bombings of Dresden and Cologne, and approaching the 75 percent destruction rate of Hamburg.

Furthermore, roughly 70 percent of Palestinians killed so far have been women and children. This is a staggering proportion that sets Gaza apart from some of this century’s worst wars.

At the height of the Syrian civil war in 2015 and 2016, a conflict considered especially deadly for women and children, those two groups comprised 25 percent of the civilians killed by one count, or 37 percent by another. When civilian deaths in Afghanistan reached an all-time high in the first half of 2021, women and children comprised 46 percent of all civilian casualties.

Over the first two years of the Iraq War, that figure was just under 20 percent. In Yemen — generally considered one of this century’s ghastliest wars — from 2018 to 2022, women and children made up 33 percent of civilian casualties, according to data compiled by the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project on the consequences of armed violence. (If indirect causes of the war like starvation and disease are accounted for, Yemen’s numbers are significantly higher.)

A wounded Palestinian child on the floor of Nasser hospital following Israeli air raids in Khan Younis
A wounded Palestinian child on the floor of Nasser hospital following Israeli air raids in Khan Younis (photo)

“Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said last month. Sure enough, Gaza’s children, who made up nearly half of the enclave’s population before the war, have been killed on a scale unmatched by other recent conflicts.

After only three weeks of attacks, Israeli forces had killed more children in Gaza than the number of children killed in all the world’s conflicts over an entire year, outstripping that total for every year since 2019. In fact, with the death toll for Gazan children now standing at more than 7,870, Israeli forces have killed almost the same number of children as those killed in all of the world’s wars over those three years combined (8,174).

According to Al Jazeera, in just two months, the IDF has killed nearly the same number of children that were killed over the eleven years of the Afghanistan War (8,099) and nearly double the official number of kids killed over seven and a half years of the Yemen war (3,774). Even if we take the appalling higher count of children killed in Syria’s twelve-year-long civil war (30,127), its seven-child-deaths-a-day average is still far outpaced by the 160-per-day rate achieved by Israel — a rate that, if it remains consistent, would overtake the Syrian war’s child death toll in less than a year.

Aftermath of Israeli strikes on homes in Rafah
Aftermath of Israeli strikes on homes in Rafah (photo)

The Casualties of This War Are Outstripping Similar Conflicts

These figures are bad enough. But even if we look beyond the child death toll and compare Israel’s campaign to war zones where children don’t make up as high a proportion of citizenry as they do in Gaza, this war is still exceptionally brutal.

Indiscriminate and disproportionate killing is nothing unusual when it comes to Israel’s various wars on Gaza over the years. But this one stands apart even among those. According to an analysis by Open University of Israel sociology professor Yagil Levy, even a very conservative estimate of the civilian death toll in Israel’s current war — 61 percent — would put it at a far higher proportion than Israel’s previous military campaigns in the territory, higher even than the average civilian death toll over every war fought from World War II until the 1990s.

According to the United Nations, at the time of writing, 19,453 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, with women and children comprising more than 13,000 of the dead, putting the total Palestinian civilian death toll somewhere between these two figures (not counting those missing or buried under rubble).

Israeli officials claim they’ve killed 5,000 Hamas fighters, a dubious figure that would effectively mean almost every single Palestinian man killed in the war has been a noncivilian — and it’s even more dubious when we consider that Hamas’s  30,000 fighters [a number reported by Israel] comprised only 1.4 percent of Gaza’s prewar population.

In any case, compare this to the 15,000 civilians killed by direct military action from 2015 to 2019 in Yemen, generally considered one of this century’s worst wars. The number of Palestinians killed so far, after just over two months of Israeli bombardment and ground invasion, is more than the yearly death toll of most of the years of Yemen’s conflict, by one conservative estimate.

The Israeli campaign has also outpaced the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the focus of much of the world’s outrage over the past two years. It took twenty-one months for the civilian death toll to cross 10,000 in Ukraine, including more than 560 children killed. By contrast, it took Israel only forty-five days to cross the threshold of 10,000 women and children killed, and it had killed at least 583 Palestinian children after just six days.

Or consider the Syrian city of Aleppo, virtually synonymous with senseless human carnage throughout the 2010s. Around 31,000 people died as a result of the notoriously cruel and indiscriminate four-year campaign by the Syrian government to retake the city, which means Israel is already more than halfway to reaching that total in a fraction of the time.

In fact, the monthly average of 8,589 Palestinians killed by December 7 is far beyond the deadliest months and even some years of the Syrian war as a whole, a war considered so brutal it inspired constant calls for military intervention, attempts at regime change, and years of crippling US sanctions and bombings of the country.

The 2011 civil war in Libya and dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s threats of reprisal against rebel forces likewise triggered impassioned pleas for Western military intervention to protect civilians. Those pleas were soon acted on and morphed into a disastrous regime change operation. According to Airwars, the highest estimates count 3,400 civilians killed over the eight months between that war’s start and Gaddafi’s murder, with the dictator responsible for as many as 2,300 of those deaths — about one-fifth of just the number of women and children Israeli forces had killed in a quarter of the time.

Israel’s campaign doesn’t fare much better next to some of the worst US wars, either. The 2016–2017 battle against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul was widely held up as a shocking exhibition of Donald Trump’s scandalous disregard for innocent lives, claiming as many as 11,000 civilians over nine months — a total and rate of killing that both fall short of what Israel’s managed so far.

In fact, Israel has already killed more women and children than all the civilians US forces killed in both the first and second years of the Iraq War, and at least nine other years of that invasion. They’ve killed more civilians than the US military killed over nearly two decades in Afghanistan. The Palestinian death toll is already approaching the 21,000 civilians killed over the first two years of US bombing of Vietnam, today considered one of the most shameful episodes in US history and an event that destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Israel's war on Gaza has included “a scale and pace of loss of media professionals’ lives without precedent,” the International Federation of Journalists recently said.
Israel’s war on Gaza has included “a scale and pace of loss of media professionals’ lives without precedent,” the International Federation of Journalists recently said. (photo)

Journalists, Medics, and UN Workers Are Being Slaughtered

But it’s not just the civilian death toll that points to the exceptional violence of this war, which has been uniquely lethal to groups that are generally considered off-limits in modern warfare.

Take journalists. By whatever count you use — estimates range from fifty-six killed, on the low end, to as many as sixty-eight — journalists’ rights groups are in agreement that this has been an extraordinarily deadly war for reporters, inarguably the worst this century, if not the worst since journalist deaths started being tracked in the early 1990s, according to two separate organizations. It has been “a scale and pace of loss of media professionals’ lives without precedent,” the International Federation of Journalists recently said. And some of those deaths have been deliberate assassinations.

After only a month of fighting, the United Nations (UN) had seen 101 of its staff killed in Gaza, the largest loss of life among its workers in a single conflict in the organization’s entire history. That death toll is now up to 130. This news has come as Israeli officials have verbally attacked top UN officials, charged the organization with being “contaminated with antisemitism,” threatened to expel it from the Palestinian territories (and did so), and accused UN workers of being part of Hamas. Israeli bombing has now also killed a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor and his family, as well as a French diplomat.

The war has likewise been a bloodbath for medics. The Palestinian health minister put the health care worker death toll in Gaza at 250 earlier this month, while the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations recently placed it at 283. Either total is more than all of the health care workers killed across all of the world’s conflicts during the entirety of 2022, which was declared the most violent year of the past decade for health care workers by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition.

And it is more than the total killed in every year documented by the organization going back to at least 2017. By comparison to the first year of the Ukraine war, Russian forces carried out far more attacks on the Ukrainian health sector, but they killed sixty-two health workers — a shocking figure that nevertheless pales in comparison to the number in Gaza.

People mourn next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes at Abu Yossef Al-Najar hospital, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
People mourn next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes at Abu Yossef Al-Najar hospital, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (photo)

A large part of the reason for this level of lethality is the unique ferocity of the Israeli bombing campaign, coupled with a new level of disregard for civilian casualties. After just five days, Israel had dropped six thousand bombs on Gaza. That’s approaching the highest number of bombs and other munitions dropped on Afghanistan in a single year since 2006 (7,423), and the total number of bombs and missiles dropped by NATO over the entire Libyan intervention (7,600). It’s also far more than the average number of bombs dropped per month on Iraq and Syria (2,500) in the battle against ISIS.

Since then, Israel has reportedly dropped a total of 29,000 munitions on Gaza, or an average of nearly 500 bombs per day. That’s about the same amount the United States and UK dropped on Iraq in that invasion’s first month — a country 1,200 times the size and about one-hundredth of the population density of Gaza in 2003 — and more than the total number of bombs dropped by the United States in all countries over the entirety of 2016.

It’s also more than the 20,650 Trump dropped in his first six months in office, considered shocking and unprecedented at the time. To put it into perspective, Israel’s average number of bombs dropped per day is orders of magnitude more than the US daily average across all war zones for the past twenty years (forty-six) and more than the daily average of glide bombs Vladimir Putin was dropping on Ukraine earlier this year (twenty). Last month, the Russian leader made headlines for what was an unprecedentedly ferocious set of strikes in Ukraine, dropping eighty-seven bombs on the Kherson region.

It’s not just the scale of bombing but the type of bombs being used. Israel has made liberal use of very large munitions in the densely populated enclave: bombs weighing 1,000 to 2,000 pounds made up 90 percent of Israeli munitions dropped in the first two weeks, according to the New York Times, while US military officials believe even 500-pound bombs were too large for them to use in urban areas in the Middle East.

In addition, 40 to 45 percent of the bombs dropped so far have reportedly been unguided, “dumb” munitions, prone to causing more civilian casualties. This is a bigger proportion than that used in US wars like Iraq (35 percent), Bosnia (31 percent), and Libya (0 percent).

A bombshell investigation by the Israeli digital publication +972 Magazine, published last month, had multiple intelligence sources telling the magazine that Israel had significantly relaxed its already loose restrictions on bombing civilian targets. The Israeli military knew exactly how many civilians were likely to die in every strike, they said, tolerated more civilian deaths if it saved time or meant killing a Hamas commander, and even greenlit deliberate attacks on civilian targets in the hope that the resulting destruction would push Gazans to put “pressure” on Hamas.

These confessions lend credence to a senior US intelligence officer’s recent statement that “it’s hard to come to any other conclusion” than that the Israeli military is deliberately punishing the entire population of Gaza.

Photos: Aftermath of deadly Israeli strike on Rafah home
Photos: Aftermath of deadly Israeli strike on Rafah home (photo)

Looking Beyond the Numbers

Even a cursory glance at the facts and figures above is enough to understand that what the Israeli military is doing in Gaza is not just another terrible modern war but something far worse and more hideous.

These statistics are damning in themselves. But they also have to be taken in the context of the weeks and months of statements from top Israeli officials and politicians drawing on shockingly racist, dehumanizing rhetoric about Palestinians, expressing the idea that ordinary civilians are guilty for Hamas’s crimes and are legitimate military targets, and voicing the desire to kill and destroy as much as possible in Gaza and make it uninhabitable.

They must also be taken alongside the numerous reports since the start of the conflict on Israeli proposals to transfer Palestinians out of Gaza, “thin out” its population, and occupy and possibly annex the territory, including a recent five-point plan presented by one Likud member of parliament.

What’s required to stop this is not another disastrous war or regime change — which the United States and its partners have resorted to in the past for far less when an unfriendly state has been the one carrying out atrocities — but simply depriving the Israeli military of the weapons it needs to carry out this mass slaughter. Unfortunately, the Biden administration refuses to do this. At the rate Israeli forces are killing people, and with disease and hunger set to start taking many more lives in Gaza, allowing this carnage to continue will only turn what is already an exceptionally savage military campaign into something even more unspeakable.



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