By Girish Linganna
The conflict in Gaza is taking a devastating toll on civilians. According to the Gazan health ministry, the death toll has exceeded 8,000 people, with over 3,000 of them being children. This number of child casualties surpasses the annual child death toll from all wars in each of the previous three years. Additionally, satellite imagery analyzed by a renowned media house suggests that more than 10 percent of Gaza’s housing has been destroyed, leaving over 280,000 people without homes to return to. While urban warfare tends to be highly destructive, Israel’s actions in Gaza have distinctive features.
Conflict in urban areas is invariably tragic. In 2004, the initial U.S. assault on Fallujah resulted in the deaths of approximately 600 civilians, accounting for 0.2% of the city’s population. In comparison, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has a civilian casualty rate of 0.3%. A subsequent assault on Fallujah later that year claimed the lives of approximately 800 more civilians and caused extensive damage to the city’s buildings.
Fallujah is a city in Iraq, located in the Al Anbar Governorate, to the west of Baghdad.
Similarly, a battle for Sadr City, located as a suburb of Baghdad, is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 people in March and April 2008. This occurred in a population of around 2 million, a size similar to that of Gaza.
The most significant urban conflict in recent times was the operation to retake the city of Mosul, which had been captured by the Islamic State (IS) group. This operation was led by an American-led coalition, in collaboration with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. During 2016-17, at least 9,000 civilians lost their lives in Mosul, as reported by Airwars, a non-profit organization that monitors civilian casualties. This figure represents 0.6% of the population at that time. It’s worth noting that over 80% of the damaged buildings in Mosul were residential structures.
Mosul is a city in Iraq, located in the Nineveh Governorate in the northern part of the country.
The Kurds are an ethnic group with their own distinct language and cultural identity. They primarily inhabit a region known as Kurdistan, which spans across parts of several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
Kurdish forces typically refer to armed groups or military units composed of Kurdish fighters. These forces are often involved in conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, where the Kurdish population resides in several countries, including Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
These instances may suggest that, in terms of destruction, the ongoing conflict in Gaza is not extraordinarily severe when viewed through a historical lens, at least not at this stage. However, there are significant distinctions to consider. The most prominent one pertains to the treatment of civilians. In Mosul, the Islamic State attempted to hinder civilians from escaping by firing at them and setting up obstacles along exit routes. Despite these obstacles, a substantial number of civilians managed to leave. Between October 2016 and June 2017, nearly 900,000 individuals departed, which accounted for nearly half of the city’s population before the war.
Even Russia, during its siege of Mariupol in Ukraine from February to May 2022, engaged in negotiations for humanitarian pauses, allowing some civilians to exit the city. In contrast, Israel has thus far declined requests, coming from entities such as the European Union and others, to implement similar pauses in the conflict in Gaza.
Israel continues to conduct airstrikes in southern Gaza, although these strikes are less extensive than those in the northern areas. According to Amos Fox, an authority on urban warfare who has extensively studied the situation in Mosul, the locals find it difficult to escape, and the fighting is constrained within urban areas, making it more costly in terms of both lives and infrastructure than previous conflicts.
Even the civilians who have relocated to the southern region are confronted with a deepening humanitarian crisis. Gaza’s healthcare system is only equipped with 3,500 beds, according to Médecins Sans Frontières, a humanitarian organization, which falls far short of the demand for medical care.
- In Mosul, the World Health Organization managed to set up trauma stabilization points close to the front lines, providing critical medical assistance within 10-15 minutes, with larger field hospitals an additional hour away. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have a limited number of “humanitarian affairs officers” integrated into their fighting units, responsible for addressing the local population’s needs. However, these resources are insufficient to cope with the demands and extensive suffering resulting from a ground offensive.
Israeli politicians have stated that they won’t send aid to civilians until all hostages are released, although officials recognize that this stance may evolve as the offensive progresses.
- Another distinction lies in the extent to which civilian and military infrastructure are intertwined in Gaza. In the case of Iraq, the Islamic State had control over Mosul for a relatively brief period of just over two years before efforts to liberate the city commenced. Yet, within this short timeframe, the group managed to establish complex and layered defenses, drawing from Western military principles. Rupert Jones, a retired British major-general who served as the deputy commander of the anti-IS coalition, pointed out the sophistication of these defenses.
Hamas is considered a Palestinian organization that was founded in Gaza in 1987. Its roots can be traced back to the establishment of the welfare organization Mujama al-Islamiya, known as the “Islamic Center,” founded by Ahmed Yassin in 1973. Over the course of five decades, Hamas has become deeply integrated into Gaza’s social fabric and has been in control of the Gaza Strip for 16 years. Its defensive structures have been established around, and sometimes beneath, the civilian infrastructure within the territory. In 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza from Palestinian rivals, its fighters were largely recruited from the local population.
- A third distinguishing factor is the tactics employed. Israel’s military authorities claim to prioritize the protection of civilians. However, Israel’s intense bombardment of Gaza during this conflict has exceeded historical standards. In the first six days of the war, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on the territory, a rate of ordnance that surpasses American and Western counter-terrorism campaigns. To provide a comparison, in Mosul, during the most intense period of bombing, the American-led coalition dropped 7,000 bombs over two months. As a former deputy commander of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Gaza Division stated on October 30th to the Financial Times, “When our soldiers are manoeuvring, we are doing this with massive artillery, with 50 airplanes overhead destroying anything that moves.”
Tactics in the Gaza conflict are influenced by Israel’s perception of the war’s significance, their view of Hamas as an existential threat, and the lack of affinity between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian civilians. This differs from other conflicts like Mosul or Marawi, where the dynamics and stakes were different, and there was a varying level of connection between the military and the local population.
In Mosul, Iraq’s political leadership, including the prime minister, stressed the importance of prioritizing civilian protection. Lieutenant-General Basim al-Tai, a high-ranking Iraqi officer, assumed responsibility for the humanitarian efforts and was deeply committed to safeguarding the well-being of the Mosul population, as noted by General Jones. Caroline Baudot, an adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, concurs that the commander’s intentions regarding civilian protection in Mosul were exceptionally clear.
Nevertheless, examining various sections of Mosul provides valuable insights. The eastern part of the city, often seen as more intellectual and sophisticated, experienced fewer damages. In contrast, the western old city, where ISIS made its final stand, was perceived by Iraqi forces as more conservative and sympathetic to the extremist group, resulting in significantly greater destruction. “Your approach to fighting influences your planning, actions, and even the post-conflict reconstruction,” notes Ms. Baudot. When operating on your own territory, as opposed to foreign territory, the level of consideration for civilians may vary.
In this conflict, the role of medical facilities has become a subject of contention. In previous conflicts, Palestinian hospitals and civilian relief centres were marked as non-strike areas on Israeli military maps. Israel claims that any previous hits on these facilities were unintentional. However, in the current war, Israel has ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, including hospitals, citing their alleged use as Hamas command posts. According to the laws of war, hospitals can lose their special protection if they are used for military purposes. Even in such cases, military forces can only attack them after providing due warning and a reasonable time limit.
- Regarding the fourth and final distinction, it pertains to the nature of battlefield intelligence. At the beginning of this conflict, the IDF likely possessed extensive intelligence on Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza, gathered over several years. However, many of these targets would have been struck in the initial week of the campaign. Subsequently, air forces must transition to “dynamic” targeting, which involves identifying and attacking targets that were not known at the war’s outset and need to be developed within a relatively short period. Experts note that this phase is where most instances of civilian harm tend to occur.
In Mosul, the cooperation of local civilians, despite their strong opposition to ISIS, proved invaluable as they provided a wealth of human intelligence (HUMINT) – information relayed by sources on the ground – to assist Iraqi forces in locating ISIS fighters. However, in the 2017 battle for Raqqa, a Syrian city under ISIS control, commanders faced a different situation. They had fewer infantry forces on the ground and, as a result, were “deprived of local information.” Consequently, they became heavily reliant on aerial surveillance, which couldn’t provide insight into the interiors of buildings, as indicated in a report by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank.
Israeli intelligence previously faced a significant failure in Gaza, as it missed several indicators of Hamas’s preparations for the October 7th attack. While the IDF has access to advanced electronic intelligence, supported by American aircraft patrolling the eastern Mediterranean, Hamas is likely to have an advantage in ground intelligence. This is because locals are likely to provide a continuous stream of human intelligence (humint) to Hamas as the IDF advances. This reversal of the humint situation, compared to what was seen in Mosul, means the IDF will need to systematically contend with better-planned and prepared defenses, potentially leading to more civilian casualties. The past three weeks have been challenging for Gaza’s civilians, and the upcoming weeks could prove even more difficult. (IPA Service)