The grim statistics of death in Gaza suggest that the war could cost up to 130,000 civilian lives – if the international community continues to take no action to restrain Israel.
The Israeli government has repeatedly stated that its war aim is the total eradication of Hamas.
Hamas is a very big organisation. It (and its allies) had around 40,000 fighters in Gaza – and (after two months of war) still have an estimated 35,000. Hamas also has a large non-military wing, totalling many thousands, many of whom are civil servants running key aspects of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure.
After two months of aerial bombardment and one month of ground operations, Israel has so far killed around 5,000 Hamas and other fighters – but that involved also slaughtering around 16,000 civilians, who in many cases happened to live in or near the same apartment blocks or other locations where Hamas fighters and their families live.
The reality is that although Hamas’ senior military commanders almost certainly live in deep underground tunnels, many of the ordinary fighters live amongst the general population in or near ordinary apartment blocks.
So the arithmetic of death is grim in the extreme.
To kill 5,000 fighters, Israel has been prepared to kill 16,000 civilians as so-called ‘collateral damage’. If that ratio is maintained (and if Israel really is determined to try to kill or capture all or most of the 35,000 remaining Hamas and other fighters), that Israeli strategy could cost the lives of an additional 115,000 Palestinian civilians – so potentially a total of around 130,000, including those civilians killed already.
That also means that if killing 5,000 Hamas and other fighters (i.e., 12.5% of them) has already involved maiming and injuring 40,000 civilians (which it so far has), then killing or capturing all or most Hamas and other fighters could potentially involve maiming and seriously injuring up to 320,000 Gazan civilians, if that grim ratio is maintained.
According to the respected UK-based research charity, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), each recorded fatal Israeli airstrike on Gaza, in at least the first month of the war, caused an average of at least 10.1 civilian deaths. That average is far higher than previous Israeli air campaigns against Gaza. The most deadly previous one was in 2014, when the death toll per strike was 2.5. AOAV thinks that the four-fold increase, in the numbers killed per strike, implies that there has been a significant change in Israel’s targeting strategy.
It is noteworthy that on 10 October, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, referring to Israel’s bombing ‘strategy’, explained that “the emphasis is on damage and not accuracy.”
What’s more, thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of additional civilians are likely to die of malnutrition and disease – because, contrary to international law, Israel is not allowing adequate supplies of food, water and medicine to enter the Gaza Strip. Last week alone there were at least 111,000 cases of acute respiratory infections and 75,000 cases of acute diarrhoea (around half in children under the age of five) – as well as a serious outbreak of a hepatitis A.
That is all not only horrifying, but also a harbinger of additional future geopolitical chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The international community is doing virtually nothing to prevent Israel from breaking international laws
What Israel is doing is quite clearly a violation of international laws (covering proportionality; the minimalization of civilian casualties; discriminating between civilians and combatants; collective punishment; and withholding adequate food, water and medical supplies from civilian populations – for more detail, please see below)
But the international community is doing virtually nothing to prevent Israel from breaking those laws on a grand scale. The US continues to supply Israel with funds and weapons – and most of the world is loath to downgrade their diplomatic and trade relations with it.
That failure, to even try to rein Israel in, sends a disastrous message to the poor and oppressed of the world. It tells them that the international community may not lift a finger to protect them.
And that, in turn, incentivizes the poor and the oppressed to turn away from international law and develop their own methods to protect themselves. The world’s unwillingness to at least try to uphold international law may tragically be a giant recruiting sergeant for yet more terrorism, yet more violence and yet more suffering.
What’s more, the failure of the international community to uphold international law may also incentivise a number of governments to emulate Israel and seek to solve geopolitical problems by illegal means.
UK political leaders (including Prime Minister Sunak and Labour leader Starmer) are part of that total failure to try to uphold international law and at least seriously attempt to rein Israel in.
And that is despite the majority of the British public wanting them to exert pressure for an immediate permanent ceasefire and despite hundreds of thousands taking part in pro-ceasefire demonstrations nationwide.
Understanding Israel’s thinking
Key to persuading UK politicians to change their policies on the Gaza war is a greater understanding of the tragically flawed nature of the Israeli government’s thinking and strategy:
Firstly, there was and is an understandable, yet ill-advised, Israeli government wish for vengeance, following Hamas and its allies’ murderous 7 October massacre of Israeli civilians. But revenge, as a motive, is, almost by definition, one that precludes proper consideration of other remedies/responses and the sometimes unintended consequences of vengeance-driven actions. On 9 October, Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant, exemplifying the Israeli government’s reaction, stated that “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly”. On the same day, Israeli Major General Ghassan Alian, the head of the Israeli Defence Ministry unit coordinating governmental activities in the West Bank and pertaining to Gaza, stated: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza]. There will only be destruction”. But, speaking to Israelis in Israel on 18 October, US President Joe Biden wisely warned the Israeli government against being driven by vengeance: “I caution that, while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
Secondly, there is an Israeli government wish to totally eradicate Hamas, whatever the cost, despite the fact that Hamas is an idea as well as a movement – and by trying to utterly destroy the latter, Israel may end up bolstering and re-invigorating the former. What’s more, some Israeli leaders refuse to politically discriminate between Hamas fighters and the Palestinian population in general. Indeed on 13 October, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, referring to the 7 October Hamas massacre and to the Palestinians in general, announced: “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible”.
Thirdly there is an official Israeli government view (believable or otherwise) that the only way to get the hostages back is through total war. But that extreme form of war is likely to kill rather than save many of the hostages, just as it is killing many Palestinians. It will also tragically increase the hostages’ captors wish for vengeance.
Fourthly some members of the Israeli government would relish any opportunity of forcing a sizeable percentage of the Gazan population to flee abroad. That’s an attractive proposition for the Israeli right – because they want to create a Greater Israel (with as few Palestinians in it as possible) – and continuing the war may give them an opportunity to ethnically cleanse on a grand scale. Indeed on 12 October, Major General Giora Eiland (of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Israeli National Security Council) told Israeli media that “creating a severe humanitarian crisis is a necessary means to achieve the goal. Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf”.
Last but not least, Israel claims that it needs to eradicate Hamas in order to be able to defend itself against any future 7-October-style attacks. But, even if some sections of the Israeli government actually believe it, that claim is a deeply flawed one – because it conveniently forgets that the appalling Hamas terrorist attacks were only able to occur because Israel’s border defences were woefully inadequate, because its government was asleep at the wheel, because of a huge intelligence failure, because Israel had massively contributed to the breakdown of political solution negotiations with the Palestinians (and had made it clear that it wasn’t really interested in a just political solution), and because insufficient measures had been taken by Israel to ensure that Hamas could not import rockets, rocket components and other weapons etc from abroad.
Two wrongs do not make a right
Clearly international pressure is increasing to stop Israel’s mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza
Even if the worst death rate scenarios, that I mentioned above, hopefully don’t fully materialise, the number of dead and seriously injured innocent Palestinian civilians is likely to reach between 100,000 and 200,000.
Politicians all over the world are coming under increasing public pressure to do more to rein in Israel’s leaders.
What Hamas and its allies did on 7 October was an appalling war crime. Their cold-blooded murder of 1,200 Israelis, and it’s abduction of 240 others, are unforgivable.
But the world must do more to ensure that innocent Palestinian civilians (including vast numbers of children) are protected from Israel’s vengeance. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Hamass’ military wing is a terrorist organisation and behaved like one. But Israel is a nation state, a member of the United nations, a signatory to various international treaties – and should be upholding international law, not violating it and committing war crimes.
Sadly, at present, Israel is breaking international law in a whole range of different ways:
Its depriving the civilian population of Gaza of adequate food, water, medicines and fuel is illegal
Not taking adequate steps to avoid civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure is also illegal
It is illegal for Israel not to take adequate steps to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
Not acting proportionately is also a violation of international law. The killing of 16,000 Gazan civilians so far is certainly not a proportionate response to Hamas appalling war crimes.
It is only legal to use substantial force for self-defence if other less violent methods are not available. Other methods (such as bolstering border defences and deploying more defensive forces) were and are available.
Any forced transfer of populations is also illegal under international law. Sadly, Israel – as part of its aerial bombardment strategy – has been ordering entire populations to move into ever smaller areas with increasingly inadequate or non-existent public utilities. Indeed, senior Israeli politicians have made it clear (see quotes above) that they would like to see Gazans permanently forced out of the territory.
What’s more, the Israeli government appears to be subjecting the population of Gaza to collective punishment, which is illegal under the 1949 Geneva Convention and that convention’s 1977 additional protocols.
Israel has also almost certainly broken international law in the way it deployed white phosphorus projectiles in Gaza on 11 October.
Outside Gaza – ie., in the West Bank – Israel has long been defying international law by constructing ever more illegal settlements – and by allowing the Israeli settlers to attack Palestinians and drive them off their Palestinian land. The Israeli military has also been violating international law through aspects of its detention- without-trial policies in the West Bank. So far, since 7 October alone, around 3,500 Palestinians there have been arrested and imprisoned (some as virtual hostages) – and 250 others have been shot dead.
Finally – also in the West Bank (the main area of illegally-occupied Palestinian land), Israel applies two very different legal systems (one benign one for Israeli settlers – and another very oppressive one for Palestinians). This blatant systematic racially-based discrimination and oppression is also illegal under international law.
There is a desperate need for an end to the Israel/Palestine conflict – but peace (and a genuine ‘two state’ solution) will only be achieved by very substantial international economic, political and diplomatic intervention to encourage Israel to stop violating international law and to start providing justice for the Palestinians and therefore also long-term security for Israelis.
But to get the international community (including British political leaders) to exert such pressure will require huge encouragement from the public here and abroad. Writing to (or sending an email) to your MP, to the prime minister, to the leader of the opposition and to the media are all crucial ways of providing that encouragement.