Israel-Hamas War’s Massive Destruction
The 21st century's most brutal conflict and the laws of war.
WaPo (“Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars in Gaza“):
The Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip has been unlike any other in the 21st century.
In response to the unprecedented assault by Hamas on Oct. 7, Israeli airstrikes and a ground invasion that began 20 days later have destroyed large swaths of the besieged territory, killed at least 20,057 people and displaced a vast majority of the population.
As with most media reports, this article relies on figures provided by Hamas, of which I’m skeptical. Still, the UN and various rights organizations seem to trust them.
The most ferocious attacks have come from the air, flattening entire city blocks and cratering the landscape.
The Washington Post analyzed satellite imagery, airstrike data and U.N. damage assessments, and interviewed more than 20 aid workers, health-care providers, and experts in munitions and aerial warfare. The evidence shows that Israel has carried out its war in Gaza at a pace and level of devastation that likely exceeds any recent conflict, destroying more buildings, in far less time, than were destroyed during the Syrian regime’s battle for Aleppo from 2013 to 2016 and the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in 2017.
While comparison of US and Israeli destructiveness is potentially useful as a baseline test of intentionality, it’s not obvious to me that Gaza, Aleppo, Mosul, and Raqqa are comparable environments. A quick search for population density figures led me to an article by Dr. Michael Knights, the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, written near the outset of this campaign, titled “Gaza’s Urban Warfare Challenge: Lessons from Mosul and Raqqa.” He explains,
Every urban battle is unique and shaped by the cityscape, human terrain, and forces, so comparing Gaza and its relevant forces with other urban battlefields and combatants is a useful first step. Although the Gaza Strip comprises 140 square miles overall, its numerous semi-urban and lower-density areas mean that the urban battlefield can more accurately be thought of as a network of four to six smaller zones, the largest being Gaza City, which covers about 20 square miles, plus a number of 5 square mile zones (e.g., Khan Yunis, Rafah). This makes it somewhat smaller than the past Iraqi urban battlefields of East Mosul and West Mosul (about 30 square miles each) and nearly the same surface area as Raqqa, Syria, the former “capital” of the Islamic State (IS). Yet Gaza’s population of approximately two million people is on par with all of Mosul’s circa 2014, when the city fell to IS. In other words, Gaza City is far more densely populated than other recent urban battle environments—though how much of the population will remain there following Israel’s evacuation order and the beginning of the battle itself is unclear.
Gaza is also an unusually complex urban battlefield, including in the third dimension. Gaza City has around sixty buildings that are six floors or taller, compared to almost none in the 2016-17 Battle of Mosul and 2017 Battle of Raqqa. Hamas has also invested huge effort in developing military tunnels under the Strip, expanding the potential battlespace to an unknown extent. Taken together, seizing all of Gaza’s conurbations would entail an operation equivalent to one West Mosul-size fight plus one or two Raqqa-size fights (whether these battles unfold sequentially or in parallel is uncertain).
Moreover, Hamas differs from the opponents in Mosul, Raqqa, and other smaller urban battles such as Kobane, Manbij, Ramadi, and Fallujah. It is certainly on par with IS in its ability to conduct suicide bombings, and probably superior in anti-armor warfare, drone operations, and air defense. And while IS had around two years to prepare Mosul and Raqqa’s defense, Hamas has had fifteen years to prepare a dense “defense in depth” that integrates subterranean, ground-level, and aboveground fortifications, communication tunnels, emplacements, and fighting positions, as well as potential minefields, improvised explosive devices, explosively formed penetrator anti-armor mines, and buildings rigged as explosive booby traps.
So, we would certainly expect considerably more destructiveness simply based on the battlefield itself. Factor in that Gaza neighbors Israel, is run by the very folks who directed the attack on Israel, and is seen as an existential threat in a way that neither the Iraqi insurgency nor ISIS was to the United States, and one might expect different rules of engagement.
The Post also found that the Israeli military has conducted repeated and widespread airstrikes in proximity to hospitals, which are supposed to receive special protection under the laws of war. Satellite imagery reviewed by Post reporters revealed dozens of apparentcraters near 17 of the 28 hospitals in northern Gaza, where the bombing and fighting were most intense during the first two months of war, including 10craters that suggested the use of bombs weighing 2,000 pounds, the largest in regular use.
“There’s no safe space. Period,” said Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who visited Gaza on Dec. 4. “I haven’t passed one street where I didn’t see destruction of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.”
This certainly raises a big red flag. Then again, as the linked International Humanitarian Law Databases makes clear, literally in the first sentence, “
Medical units exclusively assigned to medical purposes must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy.” The degree to which Hamas is doing that matters.
The war has wounded more than 53,320 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 7,700 Palestinian children have been killed, and women and children make up around 70 percent of the dead, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which also says that 1.9 million people have been displaced, equivalent to 85 percent of the population. The vast majority of Gazan civilians fleeing the invasion are not allowed by Israel and Egypt to leave.
“The scale of Palestinian civilian deaths in such a short period of time appears to be the highest such civilian casualty rate in the 21st century,” said Michael Lynk, who served as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories from 2016 to 2022.
Even if we assume these figures are inflated for propaganda purposes, there’s simply no denying that a humanitarian tragedy is occurring on an epic scale. Whether it’s justified under the laws of armed conflict is really hard to assess from this vantage point. It’s quite possible that this level of destructiveness is necessary to achieve Israel’s military objectives. My lingering question, though, is whether the military objective of destroying Hamas is achievable and, more importantly, whether achieving that military objective yields the strategic/political objective of lasting safety for Israelis from Palestinian terrorism.
In a reply to questions from The Post, the Israel Defense Forces sent a statement saying: “In response to Hamas’ barbaric attacks, the IDF is operating to dismantle Hamas military and administrative capabilities. In stark contrast to Hamas’ intentional attacks on Israeli men, women and children, the IDF follows international law and takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.”
It’s unassailable that the IDF takes greater care to prevent civilian harm than Hamas, which intentionally targets civilians to achieve terror. “Better than Hamas,” alas, is not the standard to which we hold civilized governments.
Soon after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israeli military leaders signaled their intent to retaliate with widespread devastation.
On Oct. 10, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops he had “released all the restraints” and that “Gaza will never return to what it was.” The same day, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said that “while balancing accuracy with the scope of damage, right now we’re focused on what causes maximum damage.”
While I’ve mostly defended Israeli actions since the war started, I criticized them for that early messaging. It was reckless and signaled a total indifference to the laws of war. They have since redeemed themselves by taking some rather extraordinary measures to warn civilians—and thus, also, their enemy—ahead of strikes.
The problem, of course, is that there is no safe place for the civilians to go. Partly, that’s a function of Hamas using them as human shields, thus committing perfidy, arguably the worse of war crimes. Mostly, though, it’s a function of the geography of the battlefield.
In a little over two months, Israeli air forces fired more than 29,000 air-to-ground munitions, 40 to 45 percent of which were unguided, according to a recent assessment from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The bombing rate has been about two and a half times as high as the peak of the U.S.-led coalition’s effort to defeat the Islamic State, which at its height fired 5,075 air-to-ground munitions across both Iraq and Syria in one month, according to data from the research and advocacy group Airwars.
One hallmark of the 21st century’s most indiscriminate air campaigns, as in Syria and Ukraine, has been the bombing of hospitals, which cannot be attacked under the laws of war unless they are actively being used to “commit acts harmful to the enemy.”
The Israeli military made no secret of its view that Gaza’s hospitals were military targets.
“Hamas systematically exploits hospitals as a key part of its war machine,” Hagari, the military spokesman, said on Nov. 5. “We will not accept Hamas’s cynical use of hospitals to hide their terror infrastructure.”
By Dec. 14, Israeli bombardment and fighting had forced the closure of more than two thirds of the 28 hospitals identified by The Post in northern Gaza.
As Israel’s military campaign went on, satellite imagery reviewed by The Post showed how heavy strikes around Gaza’s hospitals destroyed entire neighborhoods, wrecked infrastructure and displaced civilians, often making it impossible for hospitals to function.
To assess destruction around hospitals, The Post analyzed U.N. Satellite Center data in areas within 180 meters — the distance at which the smallest commonly used bombs, weighing 250 pounds, can cause enough damage to make a building uninhabitable, and the largest, weighing 2,000 pounds, can damage a structure beyond repair, according to a report by Armament Research Services commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The data showed that Israel’s bombardment and other fighting had damaged structures within 180 meters of all of northern Gaza’s 28 hospitals.
Again, this is horrific. Whether it’s a war crime depends on Hamas’ use of the hospitals. If they’re simply hiding there to avoid Israeli attack, it’s perfidy but still not a legitimate military target. If they’re basing operations that kill Israelis out of the hospitals, they lose their protected status.
Unless that question is addressed, this is all theatrics:
Across northern Gaza, visual evidence and other accounts showed how Israeli forces shot at, bombed, besieged and raided hospitals.
Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, Gaza’s only cancer treatment center, shut down on Nov. 1 after nearby airstrikes. At least four cancer patients died afterward, according to the health ministry. Al-Rantisi Hospital, the only hospital with a pediatric cancer ward, evacuated on Nov. 10 along with three nearby hospitals after being struck on Nov. 5 and surrounded by Israeli troops days later. Four premature babies left behind on breathing machines at one of the hospitals would later be found dead.
Video shot by a journalist in the parking lot of al-Awda Hospital showed nearby strikes filling the air with dust and smoke and raining debris down on ambulances.
This is as close as the report comes to that:
The IDF has published videos and images that show weapons and othermilitary items, which it said were found in multiple hospitals. Underneath al-Shifa Hospital, Israeli troops excavated a tunnel with multiple empty rooms, alleging that they had been used by Hamas. The military said Hamas fighters there and elsewhere had fled before Israeli troops arrived and taken materiel with them. None of the evidence was possible to verify independently, because Israel does not allow journalists to enter Gaza except on strictly guided tours.
“Only the current misuse of the hospital deprives it of its protection, but if that misuse ends, that protection is restored,” said Adil Haque, an international law expert and Rutgers University professor. If there were a tunnel or underground structure beneath the hospital, and troops weren’t sure what was inside them, any doubts should “caution in favor of restraint,” he added.
Here, “if that misuse ends” is doing a lot of work. If Hamas was using a hospital as a base in November but subsequently abandoned it, IHL clearly prevents Israel from targeting it in December. If Hamas fired rockets on Israeli targets at 0915 on December 23, the fact that no intervening rockets were fired does not mean bombing it at 1130 is prohibited.
Legalities and the realities of war don’t, of course, negate the humanitarian nightmare:
Officials at humanitarian and health-care organizations with lengthy experience in major conflict zones said Israel’s war in Gaza was the most devastating they had seen.
Tom Potokar, a chief surgeon with the International Committee of the Red Cross working in Gaza for the 14th time, said explosive injuries were responsible for all the wounds he and his colleagues at European Hospital in southern Gazahad been treating. Many patients had necrotic wounds requiring amputation due to the lack of supplies and equipment at battered and besieged hospitals in the north.
“For me, personally, this is without a doubt the worst I’ve seen,” said Potokar, who has worked during conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Ukraine.
Zaher Sahloul, the president of MedGlobal and a doctor who worked in Aleppo during the battle for the city, said he believed that “what’s happening right now in Gaza is beyond any disaster that I’ve witnessed at least in the last 15 years or so.”
But all of that must be weighed against the threat to Israeli civilians by the terrorist government of Gaza.
Pnina Sharvit Baruch, a former high-ranking military lawyer who was responsible for advising Israeli commanders, said that Israel is currently facing “the biggest threat to its existence” from enemies determined to destroy it. Hamas made Gaza a “fortified military area” and operates from within civilian structures, she said, adding that “Hamas’s strategy of using civilians as shields means that attacking its military capabilities leads to unfortunate yet inevitable civilian casualties.” When Israeli commanders weigh civilian harm against military advantage when deciding whether to strike, she said, the “level of threat posed by Hamas [to Israel] is a legitimate component of evaluating the military advantage.”
Again, the legality of this is likely impossible to assess while the war is ongoing. And world opinion is likely going to be against Israel here regardless of such niceties as “military necessity” simply because of the sheer scale of the destruction and killing here.