Israel destroyed half of Gaza, but for what purpose?

The massive destruction inflicted on Gaza raises questions about Israel’s desire to spare as many civilians as possible in the name of destroying Hamas.

Israel destroyed half of Gaza, but for what purpose?

An aerial view of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the Palestinian refugee camp Jabalia, Gaza City, on Oct. 11, 2023. (Credit: AFP)

Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza in the first six days of the war. Just a little less than the US dropped on Afghanistan (or Russia dropped on Ukraine) in one year. The shelling of the enclave continues to this day, more than a month and a half after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Israel is carrying out an intense campaign unprecedented in recent wars.

45% of buildings damaged. 279 schools destroyed. 14,000 dead and 28,000 wounded. Although the figures come from Hamas and cannot be independently verified, observers and some politicians agree that the numbers are credible, if not underestimated, like US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf on the death toll: “We think they're very high, and quite frankly, they could be even higher.”

One question remains unanswered: Is this unbridled attack really necessary to overcome Hamas's military capabilities?

Since Oct. 7, Israel has been targeting areas so densely populated with heavy artillery that the result can hardly be expressed in anything other than thousands of deaths and devastation. According to a Reuters journalist, “barely a single habitable building remains standing” in Beit Hanoun, a northern town where over 52,000 people lived before the war. The level of destruction raises the question of proportionality regarding Israel’s response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, as well as respect for the precautionary principle for civilians.

According to an analysis of satellite images by US radio station NPR, 94% of the damage in central and southern Gaza occurred after Oct. 13, when northerners were ordered to evacuate to so-called safe zones. The town Khan Younis is a regular target for bombardment, and new strikes on three residential buildings left 32 people dead on Saturday. Prior to this, the refugee camps Jabalia (north), Maghazi and Bureij (center) were partially pulverized, each time claiming dozens of victims.

“If we take the example of the strike on Jabalia camp, the target of which was, according to the Israeli army, a Hamas official, but which caused between 50 and 70 deaths, it is easy to determine the lack of precautions. The same applies to the deprivation of an entire population of water, electricity, food and medicines. It seems clear that civilians were the target,” said Johann Soufi, a lawyer and international prosecutor who has worked for the United Nationas Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Gaza.

“Colossal and probably unprecedented”

In purely military terms, the power of the strikes used by the Israeli army also raises questions. “Considering a very low average of 100 kg of explosives per bomb dropped, 6,000 would already give the equivalent of 1,500 Russian Kalibr or Kh-101 cruise missiles, but we're very probably beyond that in terms of power, as the Israeli army uses a lot of ammunition with a mass of over 900 kg (GBU-15, 27, 28 and 31), in particular to reach hidden infrastructures and Hamas underground tunnels,” explained military historian Michel Goya on his blog “La voie de l'épée.” According to him, this is equivalent to between “1,500 and 3,000 Russian missiles of the same type as those which have fallen on Ukrainian cities over the past 21 months hitting the 360 km² of the Gaza Strip in one week,” — a level of bombing he describes as "colossal and probably unprecedented.”

During the first six days of the war, the use of 6,000 bombs for 2,687 targets (two figures announced by the Israeli army at the same time) also indicates that several shells were fired per objective, “at least two on average,” wrote Michel Goya. “At this number of targets, we're already beyond the initial targeting list, the one that allows us to prepare the shots and warn the population, before switching to dynamic targeting, on rocket targets for example, which is inevitably less precautionary,” continued the former French colonel.

“Soldiers have an obligation of proportionality,” said David Des Roches, professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and former senior official at the US Department of Defense. Whatever the provocation, it is imperative to minimize civilian suffering. “But the notion of proportionality remains highly subjective,” he said. However, international law is clear on proportionality. Israel will have to provide proof that its strikes constitute a strategic military interest justifying the killing of so many civilians, at the risk of being accused of war crimes.

Israel has consistently defended itself by explaining that these bombardments are aimed at a human or material target of Hamas, even when it targets civilian infrastructures. The Islamist movement is accused of using civilians as “human shields,” and schools and hospitals for military purposes, as denounced by the UN and the EU.

“When it comes to a civilian building, such as a hospital, school or even a home, the presumption is that it is protected property. The burden of proof that the property has lost its protection always lies with the attacker,” said Johann Soufi. While al-Shifa hospital has been the target of several Israeli army raids over the past week, plunging it into an untenable humanitarian situation, no Hamas member has been captured, nor has any major military infrastructure been revealed.

“On a certain level, this seems to me to be a logic of revenge rather than a logic of changing the political landscape,” said Eugene Rogan, Middle East historian and professor at Oxford University.

Beyond the question of intentionality, the Israeli army remains particularly hostile to the risk of casualties in its ranks, pushing it towards a less precautionary modus operandi towards civilian populations. “They prefer to fight from a distance, because losing hundreds of soldiers is considered a profound strategic failure in Israel, even if they achieve their military objectives,” said David Des Roches. For example, Israeli forces pounded Gaza from the air for three weeks before sending in ground troops. “Engaging them earlier would not have prevented collateral damage ... but we could have hoped, provided we had solid, disciplined soldiers — in other words, real soldiers — by taking the time and the maximum precautions, to reach the heart of the enemy, kill as many of his fighters as possible and destroy his infrastructure without killing thousands and thousands of civilians,” wrote Michel Goya.

Disproportionate use of force

The feasibility of the Israeli army's objectives remains unclear. The military goals are clear, but colossal: Destroy hundreds of kilometers of underground tunnels, rocket factories and launch sites, and capture or kill Hamas leaders. “There are around 30,000 Hamas cadres, so it's unrealistic to say they'll neutralize them all,” said Eugene Rodan. “I'm not sure the Israeli soldiers know exactly what they're doing over there, and that's the problem with sending military forces to achieve what is above all a political objective,” argued David Des Roches. “When military forces feel that the tasks they have been given do not allow them to accomplish their overall mission, they may interpret proportionality and the definition of the military objective more broadly than they normally would,” cautiously described the former US paratrooper.

In other words, a disproportionate use of force.

All the more so as time is not on Israel's side in this war, undoubtedly encouraging it to strike hard in a limited window of opportunity, while the international community is raising its voice. The UN has referred to possible “war crimes.” French President Emmanuel Macron said there was “no justification,” “no legitimacy,” for bombing civilians, calling for a ceasefire. Joe Biden's resolutely pro-Israeli stance is increasingly challenged internally a year before the elections, foreshadowing the erosion of American military support for Israel.

“It's all a real challenge for Israel, because in reality, I don’t think they're planning the endgame,” said David Des Roches. “They first want to make sure that Oct. 7 never happens again.” For the time being, this objective signals the continuation of large-scale destruction of the Gaza Strip.

This article was also published in French.

Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza in the first six days of the war. Just a little less than the US dropped on Afghanistan (or Russia dropped on Ukraine) in one year. The shelling of the enclave continues to this day, more than a month and a half after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Israel is carrying out an intense campaign unprecedented in recent wars. 45% of buildings damaged. 279...