Well. It’s time to talk about Gaza.
I want to emphasize before I get deeper into this, that I am not a Middle East expert, nor am I an expert on Israel and Palestine. I know just enough about all these things to be dangerous, but my knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep on the topic. Frankly, I don’t like calling myself an expert on anything, as I dislike how the connotation of “expert” can be wielded as an exclusionary cudgel to harass people from offering their insight on pertinent issues. With all that in mind however, I want to try and offer my best, personal opinion on the recent events that occurred in Gaza and Palestine this past May, because I feel I couldn’t not say something.
One last thing before we get into this is, I’m not going to be talking much about the Sheikh Jarrah controversary that served as the spark for the May violence. I’m going to be focusing on the military campaign undertaken by Israel in Gaza because that is a bit more in my wheelhouse of understanding compared to other aspects of what’s going on in Israel and Palestine and also the thing I homed in on the most with everything last month. If you do want to know more about the underlying issues about Sheikh Jarrah and the occupation of Palestine in general, Chapo Trap House recently had on AJ+ journalist Mohammad Alsaafin to discuss it (I can’t say I agree with everything in the interview, but it’s an excellent explainer to the overall situation in the Palestinian Territories).
Now, to actually get started, I’m going to go into this with a personal anecdote right off the bat. I want to stress that the purpose of this is not to center this piece about me or my “story” in regard to the recent events. It is purely because I feel like it helps to provide context for the overall point I’m trying to make in this essay. For those reasons, I’m going to try and keep this section as brief as possible so I can get to that main point and spend more time on that.
I have a long and complicated history with Israel and Palestine. I knew slightly more than the average American knows just by being a nerd in middle school and high school who was fascinated with war and history and the world at large. But I still had the default American position of simply supporting Israel without any criticism or deeper understanding. This changed after I went off to college and got to take a class on the conflict. Despite fact it was taught by someone who was clearly not on the Palestinian side, the content very quickly drove me away from my slightly pro-Israel uncritical stance – though at this point, it just pushed me into a “both sides are equally bad” wishy washy enlightened centrist stance.
As time went on, I got further into my field as I graduated college, worked for a while, and then went back to school for my master’s degree. The more that I learned – both about my field in general and about what was going on in Palestine in particular – the more I began to realize that maybe that the “both sides” argument didn’t do this all justice. While I had already come to that realization in earnest beforehand, watching what happened in Gaza this past May was what finally cemented the last pieces of reality into place for me.
Why is that? Well, while I don’t like to toot my own horn, after over a decade of either studying or working in the defense field I’m pretty confident I know what a war looks like. I have admittedly never served in uniform or gone to war myself, but my job deals with the nature of war on a daily basis. I’ve witnessed enough of them happen over my life and studied them and talked to enough people who have gone to war to know what war entails. In fact, I’d venture to say you don’t have to dedicate your career to studying war to have a general idea of what a war looks like if you’re somewhat well-informed and well-adjusted.
And it’s for that reason everything clicked into place for me during the May bombing of Gaza. I’d been wondering why it affected me so profoundly. Even after the cease fire I had felt awful for several weeks after the fact. I spent most of Memorial Day weekend feeling constantly exhausted and not doing much of anything. I had seen wars before – I had closely watched and wrote about the most recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Artsakh region several months before. While those past conflicts had caused a wide variety of emotions to rise within me, none of them had made me feel as despondent and emotionally drained as Gaza had.
I finally realized it was all because I had been watching Gaza with the expectation of watching a war, and it just quite simply wasn’t one. I wasn’t watching a war. I wasn’t watching a serious, back and forth conflict between two approximately equal adversaries. I wasn’t even watching a counter-insurgency campaign. I was watching human culling being carried out before my eyes.
“Mowing the Grass”
Before I go any deeper into this, I’m going to get on one of my favorite hobby horses, which is of course the use of terminology and the meaning of words when it comes to warfare (again, I’ll try to keep this short, but it’s important for context. I think).
Something I see going around a lot on social media involving Israel and Palestine is the idea that what is going on there is not a “conflict,” but wholly one-sided oppression. I both agree and disagree with this. What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is absolutely apartheid – as recognized by Human Rights Watch – and includes acts of ethnic cleansing that may be well on the way to genocide. But I feel like to say there is no conflict involved is part disingenuous and also part not realizing what the term “conflict” means. I have a tendency to take words at their initial, common definition and at face value. This is further colored by the fact I studied national security and international relations and the specific vocabulary associated with those fields.
As a practitioner of national security, there is absolutely armed conflict involved with what is going on in Palestine – that’s obvious to me. But that does not mean that the overall struggle is a simple “conflict” or that it isn’t still heavily imbalanced and not heavily favoring one side in particular. Much of the same can be said of other liberation movements in other countries throughout history, where armed resistance was only one part of a larger struggle that cut across multiple areas of society. There is conflict going on, but that doesn’t suddenly mean that both sides are equally at fault or to blame for what is happening.
Why am I taking the time to get lost in the weeds on this? Because I feel it’s important to drive home that even though what is going on in Palestinian obviously involves a degree of armed conflict between Israel and various Palestinian armed movements, I still can’t think of what I saw happen in Gaza this past month as a conflict, a war, or anything along those lines. It felt like an extremely lopsided slaughter, predominately of civilians, by a vastly superior military force.
Now obviously this was not all completely one sided (but only just barely). Many of us saw the massive rocket volleys that armed groups including the al-Qassam Brigade – the armed wing of Hamas, the political group that governs Gaza – and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Group fired into Israel throughout the IDF’s bombing campaign (most of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defensive system that the United States financially supports and that the Israelis are asking for a financial handout to reload). These rocket strikes absolutely did result in the deaths of civilians, and non-combatant deaths whenever and wherever they happen are bad and I’m not going to get up and jump for joy at the fact they were Israelis rather than Palestinians dying (and if that’s what you’re doing you should seek help because you are probably a bloodthirsty fucking psychopath who desperately needs it).
However, even if everything I mentioned above is true and accurate, when you place all of that against the sheer volume of firepower that the IDF brought to bear against Gaza, the number of civilians it killed, the homes and livelihoods it destroyed and the emotional and psychological damage inflicted upon those who managed to survive that destruction, even if what happened is not entirely one-sided it certainly feels damn near close to that on spec.
When you start to look at casualty numbers from the recent campaign in greater detail, the extent of how much damage inflicted upon Palestinian non-combatants is humbling. According to the IDF, they killed as many as 225 militants, with Hamas putting the number lower at 80. Meanwhile, the United Nations asserts that as many as 128 civilians – including 66 children – were killed out of a total of 256 Palestinians total – with the remaining 128 assumed to be militants. If we are leery of both the IDF’s and Hamas assertions on casualties – and there is good reason to be in either case – and we go with the UN’s middling estimates, we’re still basically looking at the IDF killing one civilian for every one militant they kill. Let that sink in for a moment: for every combatant, they’re killing an innocent civilian. Aside from the human cost, millions of dollars in damage were done to industry, while thousands of housing units were damaged, rendered unfit for living, or were completely destroyed as a result of Israeli bombing.
Looking at these numbers, I walk away with two different possible conclusions: A.) either the IDF simply didn’t care about civilian casualties and collateral damage as it tried to destroy Gazan armed groups’ ability to fight and sought to achieve its objectives no matter the cost in civilian blood, or B.) armed groups like Hamas was incidental or secondary targets of the IDF and the ultimate point of their campaign was to punish the Palestinians in Gaza in general – regardless of whether or not they were militants.
I’m honestly not sure which of these two is the accurate one – the truth, as with so many things, may lie somewhere in between. But the result either way is that the IDF are not prosecuting a war or combat operations. They are undertaking largely one-sided slaughter whether they are cognizant of that or not – effectively a culling of the Palestinian population in Gaza, treating them even more like animals in their own land than they already have been.
Israel even has a name to accompany this pattern of recurring strikes against Gaza that has been going on long before the events of May, ostensibly with the aim of keeping militant forces like Hamas down: they call it “mowing the grass.” But when I hear that, as a defense analyst, I don’t hear a concept for a military strategy to be used against an armed adversary. Instead, what I hear is genocidal rhetoric aimed at a people as a whole to keep them down. I hear something that sounds much more at home in 1994 Rwanda than it does in 2021 anywhere. And when I see the disproportionate damage “mowing the grass” inflicts on civilians and civilian infrastructure rather than militants, I can’t help but feel like my initial gut reaction is being proven right.
Now, a defense that the Israeli government or one of its defenders might potentially give you regarding the high levels of civilian casualties and collateral damage that resulted from its strikes in Gaza – both in 2021 and in the past – is that Hamas and other militants are mixed in with civilians amid the small, densely populated, highly urbanized landscape of the Gaza Strip. Like many real or notional defenses of horrific acts, there is an element of truth in here. So, allow me to peel that truth out and qualify it somewhat before I call the rest of this out as bullshit.
Urban warfare is nothing new. Some of the most notable and bloody battles of World War II occurred in urban terrain – Stalingrad, Berlin, and Manilla to name a few. Urban battles didn’t disappear after that war either, as examples such as Hue City, Sarajevo, Grozny, Fallujah and Mosul have also all showed us. A depressing, but unfortunately likely prediction about large-scale war in the future is that it is going to involve even more urban warfare as urbanization continues and cities keep growing larger in both population and the territory that they cover. That also means that more and more civilians will be increasingly in the line of fire as a result.
One of the most recent examples of modern, large-scale urban warfare was the Iraqi government’s 9-month long campaign to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State from 2016 to 2017. The Iraqi government and its supporters were eventually successful in retaking Mosul from IS, but it came at a heavy price. I came across multiple different estimates of the human cost and it’s hard to pin down. NPR put the civilian casualties at somewhere over 5,000. Exact numbers of IS dead are likewise hard to come by, but it is generally agreed upon that more civilians than IS or Iraqi/coalition personnel died in the campaign to retake the city. This is to say nothing of the destruction visited upon the city itself with $6 billion in damage done to the housing sector alone, and the resulting displacement of families (over 300,000 were still displaced in 2019, two years after the battle had ended).
Now some people may look at these casualties – or other possible figures from the Mosul battle – and go back and look at the recent Gaza figures and say “wait Savage, based on this, the Iraqis killed just as many of their own people for each militant as the Israelis did for Palestinians. Why are you calling out Israel in particular in this case?”
First of all, I absolutely would call Iraq and its Coalition partners out on this. As much as IS was a real threat and needed to be dealt with, this level of civilian casualties egregious and did not have to be that high. Besides that, when I look at the Battle of Mosul, I see actual war. I see a campaign in a dense urban environment that lasted for three quarters of a year, involving a disparate coalition of professional and irregular military forces on one side – some of those coalition members having questionable ethics or levels of discipline and training – and a fundamentalist Islamic paramilitary organization on the other side whose bloodthirstiness and cruelty should need no introduction if you haven’t been living under a rock since 2013. The intentional and unintentional actions of both of these sides – I’m not trying to “both sides” the anti-ISIS campaign but there were big Coalition fuck ups in addition to ISIS atrocities – inflicted a terrible toll on the innocent population of Mosul.
But what I’m really trying to get at here is, while the Iraqi forces certainly had a superiority in numbers and firepower, IS clearly had enough going for it to close the capabilities gap between the two forces – something that was certainly seen in the early days of the groups rise when it routed entire Iraqi Army divisions in its drive south in Iraq. Separately, you also had the fact that Iraqi forces were ostensibly fighting to liberate their own people and city from the forces of IS – which had been ruling the city for some three years by the time of its liberation (this doesn’t excuse the civilian loss, but the context, conduct, and conditions of the battle are important).
In Gaza, I just don’t see the same thing. As mentioned before, armed groups in Gaza launched rockets but the amount of damage and death those that actually got past the Iron Dome caused pales in comparison to the destruction visited upon Gaza. Other than that, what resistance did the IDF meet in its campaign? Some isolated cases of skirmishes on the ground occurred, sure, but nothing on the scale of Mosul. Maybe this would have been different if the IDF had committed to a ground incursion like it had in 2008 or to a lesser extent in 2014 – but they didn’t. The armed groups in Gaza aren’t without the ability to fight back, but I’d venture an educated guess that the gap in capabilities between them and the IDF is considerably wider even than that which existed between IS and the Iraqi government forces in Mosul. The IDF has massive military superiority over the militant forces in Gaza and has used that to the fullest. Its forces are able to operate with near-total impunity. As far as I know, in the entirety of the recent campaign against Gaza, only one IDF serviceman was killed when his jeep was hit by an anti-tank missile along the border. The IDF was essentially invincible during this campaign and was able to visit as much destruction on Gaza as it wished with essentially no substantial opposition.
It is that lack of substantial, serious opposition that serves to make what happened in Gaza feel even more one-sided. Again, I’m not trying to cheapen or discount the civilian deaths and injuries that occurred in Israel – 9 Israeli civilians were killed along with an Indian and two Thai citizens, with another 114 wounded. However, when I’m looking at a Palestinian civilian death toll that is around twenty times larger than the Israeli civilian death toll, I can’t help but call that lopsided. Physical destruction by Hamas rockets in Israel was also very real, but again, when you compare that to the number of civilian buildings totally destroyed in Gaza by Israeli firepower, once again you can’t help but feel like this isn’t a “both sides” kind of issue. It drives home the feeling that this wasn’t so much war as it was the IDF culling what it sees as an annoying pest.
The Cruelty is the Point
Civilian deaths in war are something that, unfortunately, cannot be completely avoided. The longer a military confrontation goes on, sooner or later civilians will die for one reason or another. That doesn’t make this good or right or something we should settle for, but it is a reality that we need to deal with. This is one of many reasons why, though I think war is something that is sometimes unfortunately necessary, it is something that should not be taken lightly and should only be done in a truly defensive manner as a last resort. When a military does go to war, it has a moral obligation to do everything in its power, in good faith, to minimize the likelihood of civilian casualties occurring – something not all military forces are prone to do.
This is something that is both more pressing and more difficult in an urban environment. While urban warfare isn’t new, factors like the increasing lethality and sophistication of weapons and the fact that battles are shifting even more to urban terrain than they have in the past have given it a pressing urgency and have encouraged new thinking and analysis. There are no easy answers to avoiding civilian casualties in an urban conflict, but there are those in the defense field that are actively trying to find ways to do so and encourage militaries the world over to engage in them, whether these be more in-depth training before a conflict, or more active efforts to shape the conflict after hostilities break out in a way that does its best to avoid civilian casualties. This is a body of scholarship that is still growing and developing, but it exists and is ready to be called upon by those who need it.
With all this in mind, let’s turn back to Gaza. Let’s forget for a moment that the fact that civilians are forced into close proximity with militants is in large part due to the fact that they are not allowed to leave Gaza– essentially turning the strip into an open-air prison. That aside, knowing how bloody and chaotic military actions in an urban environment can be, from my observation of what happened in Gaza in May it seems that the IDF is using these realities as an excuse for carte blanche violence rather than an impetus to try and be more cautious in its actions – let alone try and deal with the Gaza or Palestinian issue with anything more than violence. Instead of seeing the complexities of military operations in urban terrain as obstacles to overcome, the IDF seems to use them as a reason to shrug its shoulders and go “well, that’s the way it is” as it proceeds to engage in actions that are quite clearly war crimes.
Not only does the IDF seem to have zero interest in trying to limit or shape its operations to avoid collateral damage, from the outside looking-in it appears as if Israel has done seemingly the opposite and gone out of its way to find reasons to target non-military structures in Gaza. In particular, Amnesty International has documented how Israel has extensively targeted residential buildings with strikes on suspicion of being tied to militants, something that many of us witnessed in real time during the recent campaign via social media and streaming. In these cases, the IDF offers no explanation of what military objectives it was achieving in these strikes. Amnesty also outlines how the IDF has bombed critical civilian infrastructure such as water, electricity, and medical facilities. In one of the most publicized cases, the IDF even went as far as to bomb and destroy an office building holding the offices of international news media organizations including the Associated Press and al Jazeera, on suspicion that Hamas was also using the building to jam its Iron Dome missile defenses.
The few “solutions” the IDF does offer to try and avoid civilian casualties are laughable, if not cruel and sadistic. In some cases, it’ll try to call or text people to let them know they are about to be bombed (how considerate). But one particular method we saw in May was the “roof knock”, where the IDF strikes the roof of a target building with a small bomb that is not enough to destroy the building entirely but to get people to leave before the main strike comes to demolish it. Great job guys! The families inside get to have the ever-loving shit scared out of them and be scarred for life as they grab what meagre possessions that they can manage and flee before the main strike comes and destroys their home and anything or anyone left in it. I’m sure that one is a shoo-in for a Nobel Peace Prize. Look out Oslo, here comes the IDF!
If anything, I’d say the IDF’s tactics – or lack thereof – on avoiding civilian casualties are more of a middle finger to anyone who expresses outrage regarding them. They’re basically trolling by way of methods that, while maybe technically reducing civilian casualties in some cases, still causes immense harm and hardship to those that the strikes are visited upon for what I can only venture is marginal military gains (if any). I see tactics like these, and the first parallel I can think of is many of the humiliations and abuses that U.S. police officers visit upon protestors and marginal populations. Much like with those, all I can think of when I see IDF tactics in Gaza is what I’ve heard a number of folks on the left say: “the cruelty is the point.”
Enough is Enough
Even if I throw my morals and ethics (and brains and soul) to the wind and abstain from objecting to Israel’s tactics, I can’t say they even got any good long-term results. Despite the fact the IDF dealt damage to armed groups’ command structure and military capabilities, rockets continued to be launched throughout the conflict up until a few days before the ceasefire on May 21st – even under punishing IDF fire. Groups like Hamas may take time to recover, but with the political capital they will have earned by their perceived defense of Palestinians in the context of the Sheikh Jarrah dispute and other ongoing issues, Hamas and other groups may come out of this recent crisis even stronger in the long run. If the IDF’s intent was to cripple or even destroy armed group’ ability to fight, any victory Israel can claim will likely be temporal and beyond that it may have even shot itself in the foot as it will have strengthened resistance to its occupation.
What this means is, everything we saw in May is likely to happen again. If anything, we’re lucky (in the loosest sense of the word) that this recent campaign did not go on as long as those in 2008 or 2014, or involve ground campaigns, as the casualties would have likely been even worse.
I’m not going to pretend like I have the answer to solving Israel/Palestine because I sure as shit don’t and I don’t think most people who say they do have an answer either. I do know that the only way anything will be made right there is when Palestinians are truly free, allowed to return to their homeland, and live fully equally with the same human and civil rights as Israelis. I don’t know how we get there. I feel like it is possible but is something that will take generations of work to get to and will not be easy and will be rife with pitfalls along the way.
What I do know for sure is that one of the first steps on this journey is holding Israel accountable for everything I have described, something that the United States – Israel’s main supporter – has studiously avoided during the May bombings and virtually every other military action Israel has undertaken in the past. Simply put, we can’t let Israel keep getting way with this, or nothing will change. They will only grow more emboldened – more so even than they have in their most recent brazen attacks – and engage in more wanton violence as the mainstream of Israeli politics continues to lurch further and further to the right with no sign of hitting a wall.
I am filled with some hope in that I feel fewer and fewer people are tolerating the slaughter, as was seen with protests and displays of solidarity across the United States during the course of the campaign. As the mask comes off of Israel’s behavior, I have to hope that eventually the pressure will reach a point where even U.S. politicians – traditionally having a bi-partisan consensus to uncritically support Israel in any of its actions – will finally be forced to hold Israel accountable. We’re already seeing some elected officials apply more pressure on that front.
The events of May could finally be at a turning point where enough people decide enough is enough when it comes to the horrors inflicted on Palestinians. I can only hope that this change in opinion happens sooner rather than later, as the longer change takes the achieve, the more Palestinians will be victims of the IDF “mowing the lawn” in Gaza.
(Essay photo credit: Reuters)