On Dec. 14, CNN offered its viewers a devastating peek into life in Gaza after two months of war. The dispatch, from Clarissa Ward, was the first piece of independent reporting from Gaza by a Western journalist since the start of the fighting. As other US media outlets follow CNN’s lead, the American public may come to understand the conflict through more than just statistics. In the meantime, however, the statistics tell a horrific tale.

“The statistics tell a horrific tale.”

To date, the Gaza Health Ministry has identified at least 22,185 people who have been killed in the Israeli offensive—nearly 1 percent of Gaza’s total population of 2.3 million. Since Oct. 7, at least 47 entire bloodlines have been wiped from Gaza’s civil registry. As The New York Times reports, “the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century.”

Israel’s defenders have tried to play down these figures by emphasizing that the Gaza Health Ministry serves Hamas. This is true, in the same way that government employees who collected trash in Iraq worked for Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein (although formal responsibility for the ministry still lies with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank). However, this doesn’t entail that the ministry is exaggerating the death toll. Indeed, it isn’t even in Hamas’s strategic interests to cook the books. Its ability to exert international pressure on Israel, after all, is contingent on others taking the Gaza Health Ministry’s casualty numbers seriously. Being caught engaging in major exaggerations would deprive Hamas of the ability to undermine the Jewish state on the world stage in this conflict and in all subsequent conflicts, as well.

It should therefore not be surprising that the Gaza Health Ministry statistics have proved consistently reliable. The Associated Press observes, “In the aftermath of war, the UN humanitarian office has published final death tolls based on its own research into medical records. In all cases, the UN’s counts have largely been consistent with the Gaza Health Ministry’s, with small discrepancies.” Likewise, “while Israel and the Palestinians disagree over the numbers of militants versus civilians killed in past wars, Israel’s accounts of Palestinian casualties have come close to the Gaza ministry’s.”

In fact, as Reuters notes, the Gaza Health Ministry’s estimates are likely an undercount of the total dead, because there are many people who never made it to a hospital or other government facility to be identified. There are an estimated 7,000 Gazans still trapped under the rubble, and their bodies may never be recovered or identified.

Herzl Halevi, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, has boasted about the IDF’s ability to minimize civilian deaths. Yet the fact that Israel fields such precise targeting capabilities raises troubling questions about the high casualties among groups that are protected under international law.

For example, the United Nations estimates that at least 300 health-care workers have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7. This exceeds all other conflict-related casualties for medical professionals everywhere else in the world combined for 2022. Additionally, more than 135 UN aid workers have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7—the highest number killed in any conflict, anywhere in the world, since the international body was established in 1945. At least 77 journalists and media workers have likewise been killed to date.

Here, it can be instructive to compare the IDF’s “precision” attacks to Hamas’s “indiscriminate” rampage. According to revised IDF estimates, a total of 1,139 deaths could be attributed to Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel: 766 of these were civilians, including 71 foreign nationals and 36 Israeli children; the remaining 373 casualties were active members of Israeli security forces or police officers. About a third of Hamas’s casualties, then, could be classified as enemy forces, while 3 percent of the dead were children.

Although the Gaza Health Ministry doesn’t distinguish between combatant and noncombatant casualties in the same manner as the IDF, a common practice in combat zones is to simply count all fighting-age males as “enemies killed in action,” even in the absence of evidence that they were, in fact, combatants. The New York Times reports that in past conflicts between Israel and Hamas, about 60 percent of reported casualties in Gaza were men. In the current conflict, however, nearly 70 percent have been women and children.

How does this stack up against other conflicts worldwide? The Times continues:

Even a conservative reading of the casualty figures reported from Gaza shows that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century…. More children have been killed in Gaza since the Israeli assault began than in the world’s major conflict zones combined—across two dozen countries—during all of last year, even with the war in Ukraine, according to UN tallies of verified child deaths in armed conflict.

These extraordinary rates of civilian casualties are neither inevitable nor purely accidental. According to a recent US intelligence assessment, nearly half of the munitions that Israel has deployed in Gaza have been “dumb bombs”—unguided munitions that pose a greater risk to noncombatants.

“High collateral damage is often anticipated and approved in these strikes.”

However, as a report in the Israeli magazine +972 recently made clear, Israel’s precision munitions are also often deployed with minimal regard for noncombatants’ lives. The report details how the IDF is relying on a new artificial-intelligence system, “Habsora,” to identify and target the homes of even low-level Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives. High collateral damage is often anticipated and approved in these strikes. As one Israeli whistleblower put it, “nothing happens by accident. When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed—that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target.”

The fact that the overwhelming majority of casualties of this conflict have been women, children, and protected professionals (journalists, health care workers, U.N. staff) reflects political choices made by Israel’s hard-line leadership, and not simply the intrinsic difficulties of fighting a group like Hamas (which often embeds its fighters and infrastructure among civilians) or operating in a densely populated theater like Gaza. And as extreme as it is, the death toll only captures a small portion of the devastation visited upon the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the more than 20,000 killed in the conflict, more than 57,000 others have been wounded. Most have been unable to receive adequate medical care in the aftermath due to Israel bombing medical facilities and choking off access to aid, water, fuel, and the internet. Children have had to undergo surgeries without anesthesia. Babies have reportedly starved to death in hospitals after medical staff were forced to evacuate. Young people have witnessed their entire families being wiped out, and must live with the trauma, as orphans, for whatever time they have left.

Bakeries, schools, and a university have been bombed—alongside churches, mosques, and cemeteries. The Wall Street Journal estimates that more than 70 percent of homes in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. Statistically, the devastation in Gaza is comparable to the Allies’ bombardment of Dresden or Cologne during World War II, or the US razing of Vietnam.

Around 80 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced by the conflict, even as colder temperatures render reliable shelter ever more urgent. The United Nations estimates more than a quarter of Gaza’s population is facing starvation.

Those who remain in areas occupied by the IDF are routinely detained without cause, often stripped of their possessions, abused and humiliated, and dropped off in the most dangerous sections of the enclave once Israel is done with them. Many abducted by the IDF haven’t been heard from since (some detainees have perished in IDF custody). Meanwhile, myriad videos have emerged, shared proudly on social media, of Israeli soldiers vandalizing the few possessions that Gazans might return to in buildings that remain, humiliating noncombatants caught in the IDF’s dragnet, or even bragging about killing children.

All of this has been enabled by the United States. From the outset of the conflict, the Biden administration dismissed the idea of making security assistance to Israel conditional on the American client respecting international rules and norms. Thousands of US troops and multiple carrier strike groups were deployed to the Middle East to deter regional powers from intervening. To undermine diplomatic pressure against Israel, the White House repeatedly rebuked calls for a ceasefire from within the United States, and has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for the same (despite overwhelming support for such a measure in the General Assembly).

“All of this has been enabled by the United States.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman John Kirby has tried to cast doubt on the Gaza Health Ministry’s casualty estimates, while characterizing any casualties that occurred as sad but necessary. The Biden administration’s public advocacy for Israel has been so fierce, in fact, that the IDF seemingly had to warn the White House against making “irresponsible” and “inaccurate” claims about Hamas.

Granted carte blanche by Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have rendered large swaths of Gaza uninhabitable, with hard-line ministers floating plans to drive most of the surviving population permanently out of the enclave. The proper term for any such program is ethnic cleansing, which is considered a crime against humanity under international law. Although the Biden administration has declared that it strongly opposes any forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza, it has declined to take meaningful action to curb Israeli violence.

Instead, reckless disregard for civilians in Gaza has emboldened Israeli settlers to attack Palestinians in the West Bank, too. According to a UN report, nearly 300 Palestinians were  killed in the West Bank between Oct. 7 and Dec. 27, and more than 1,200 were displaced due to settler violence. Assaults, threats, and harassment against Palestinians have gone unchecked. Instead, according to a UN assessment, Israeli security forces directly “accompanied or actively supported the attackers” in close to half of documented incidents.

The fact that Israelis can act with such disregard for Palestinian lives, dignity, and rights in Gaza and the West Bank, while everyone else stands idly by as a result of US vetoes and deterrence, has led growing numbers of Palestinians to view Hamas as the only force that will even try to resist the slaughter, oppression, and expulsion of people like themselves.

Before Oct. 7, the militant group was deeply unpopular among Palestinians, and there were large public protests against it in Gaza. Since the Israeli bombing campaign and uptick in settler violence, there has been a surge of support for the Islamist group, with the biggest gains in the West Bank, where the reigning Palestinian Authority has suppressed protests against the Jewish state, while doing little to defend Palestinian citizens from aggression by Israeli settlers and security forces.

Worse, in spite of the devastation wrought on Gazan civilians and civilian infrastructure, Hamas remains militarily and organizationally quite strong. Israel has estimated that it has killed around 8,000 Hamas fighters. Taking this number at face value, the overwhelming majority of Hamas’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters remain alive after three months of conflict. Hamas has been inflicting high losses and injuries against the IDF, and its tunnel system remains largely intact.

Politically, there seems to be no real plan for who could govern Gaza other than Hamas if and when the military operation eventually winds down. In short, insofar as the goal of the campaign is to eliminate Hamas, it seems to be failing.

Israel has declared that its secondary objective in Gaza is to secure the release of hostages captured by Hamas on Oct. 7. On this front, too, the campaign has fallen short. Netanyahu repeatedly rejected offers to release hostages in exchange for a ceasefire, only relenting briefly after nearly two months of pressure exerted by the hostages’ families. At present, 129 people abducted by Hamas remain unaccounted for.

Among those who have been released, multiple hostages criticized Netanyahu. One condemned the bombing of the area they were being held in, saying: “We were in tunnels, terrified that it would not be Hamas, but Israel, that would kill us, and then they would say Hamas killed you.” Another declared, “I was in a hideout that was bombed, and we became wounded refugees. This doesn’t even include the helicopter that fired at us on our way to Gaza.”

Indeed, government sources and eyewitness testimonies have stirred a debate inside Israel over whether the IDF may have been responsible for a number of Israeli deaths during the Oct. 7 counteroffensive. And since Oct. 7, nearly 1 out of 5 Israeli military casualties has been the result of friendly fire and accidents. In December, the IDF also killed three hostages who had escaped Hamas, despite the fact that these hostages were shirtless, unarmed, and waving a white flag. The IDF’s apparently indiscriminate killing, in other words, is not just dangerous for Gazans, but for Israelis, as well.

Meanwhile, the Arab population within Israel, even as it largely condemns Hamas’s actions, feels under siege. Arab citizens of Israel have faced growing harassment, surveillance, and conflict with their neighbors, and ongoing restrictions on movement. The Israeli government routinely arrests and punishes Arabs who show any sympathy for the plight of Gazans in this conflict, and has threatened to strip the citizenship of (and expel) any Arabs who seem insufficiently loyal to the state. Thousands of Palestinian guest workers have already been deported into Gaza’s war zone since the start of the conflict.

In the wake of Hamas’s vicious and unprecedented attack, an Israeli military response was both inevitable and—morally, politically, and strategically—necessary. However, the campaign is being carried out in ways that don’t seem to serve the Jewish state’s needs or goals. If the objectives are to ensure the release of hostages, protect Israeli lives, and eliminate Hamas, rather than collectively punishing Gazans or trying to expel them from the strip altogether, then the military operation in Gaza has not just been ineffective, but counterproductive.

US interests in the Middle East have been undermined, as well. American installations and forces have come under attack throughout the region as a result of the US role in the conflict. Washington-brokered efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states have been put on hold. Meanwhile, despite America’s expressed commitment to a two-state solution, Israeli officials have publicly and overtly rejected any possibility of a Palestinian state in any conceivable future.

It is within America’s power to force a change of course. As retired IDF Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brick recently observed, “all of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the US. The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability… Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.” So far, however, Team Biden has declined to exercise this leverage.

Facing an internal revolt, the State Department has slow-walked the sale of M16 assault rifles pending assurances that they won’t end up in the hands of West Bank settlers. State Department officials have also pledged to deny visas to confirmed settler extremists. However, the posture of the rest of the administration remains largely unchanged.

When President Biden recently characterized the Israeli bombing in Gaza as “indiscriminate,” a White House spokesman immediately walked back the comment. The administration continues to insist that military support for Israel remains unconditional, regardless of how Israelis conduct themselves in combat. In addition, the president has repeatedly circumvented congressional oversight and approval to make sure the weapons can keep flowing, even if lawmakers determine they shouldn't.

“The dynamics at play are bad for the United States and Israel alike.”

Although divided about what the right course of action might be, the American public is united in overwhelming disapproval of Biden’s current approach to the conflict—even as the Israeli public has grown increasingly disaffected with Netanyahu. And for good reason: The dynamics at play are bad for the United States and Israel alike.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials have declared that the campaign against Hamas will go on for another six months at least. Although the IDF has declared an intent to redeploy some forces away from Gaza in the coming weeks, it plans to shift many of these troops to Israel’s northern border in anticipation of escalating conflict in Lebanon.

Netanyahu’s grip on power depends upon the war continuing—an overwhelming majority of Israelis want him to resign after the conflict is over. To stay in office, the Israeli premier seems committed to extending the fighting as long as he possibly can. And Biden seems committed to standing unwaveringly by his side. God help us all.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Compact columnist and an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.


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