Gaza: one of the most intense bombardments in history?

On 7 October, the Hamas militia attacked Israel. Since then, the Israeli military has bombarded Gaza in an effort to “obliterate” Hamas’ military infrastructure. [1] Dr Philip Webber and Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, assess the scale of the Israeli military assault in comparison with other wars, and consider the possibilities for peace.

Article from Responsible Science journal, no.6; advance online publication: 20 December 2023

 

The horror of the latest war in Gaza has dominated international media coverage since it began on 7 October, not least because of the very high intensity of weapons use in such a small geographical area and over such a short time-period. These factors have unsurprisingly led to a huge casualty rate.

The purpose of this article is to critically examine key data, technical information, military analysis, and related evidence on the war to date, making comparisons with other conflicts as appropriate, and informing efforts to find a peaceful resolution.

 

Events of 7 October

There has been a long history of conflict between Israel, Palestinian armed groups, and other nations in the region over many decades, encompassing religion, human rights, land rights, and other related issues.[2]  Of particular note in the current situation are the asymmetric power relations between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories, not least Israel’s longstanding military occupation of those territories (including recent expansion of its ‘settlements’ within them), and its ability to rapidly deploy cutting-edge weapons technologies at scale.

The latest spiral of violence began on 7 October when Gaza’s Hamas militia attacked Israel, killing approximately 840 civilians and 350 soldiers and security personnel, and kidnapping 240 hostages.[3]  The scale and brutality of this attack – which involved deliberate targeting of civilians, including children, and led to the largest loss of life in an attack on a Jewish community since World War II – led to widespread condemnation.

Israel – which has an extensive military intelligence network intended to discover and prevent such attacks – was caught unawares. However, it had well-developed military plans for retaliation, and these were quickly brought into action as ‘Operation Iron Swords’.

 

Israel’s military offensive: how destructive has it been?

Israel’s military operation began with heavy aerial bombardment of Gaza. After five days of this attack, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) posted on social media[4] that it had dropped “about 6,000 bombs against Hamas targets” – 1,200 bombs a day. This amounted to 50 bombs dropped every hour, roughly one every minute of a 24-hour day – a huge rate. A separate source reported, on the same day, that these 6,000 bombs comprised 4,000 tonnes of munitions.[5]  A figure of 4,000 tonnes is consistent with the use of US-made Mk80-series bombs, of weight 227 to 907kg, as well as some use of M117 ‘demolition’ bombs, of weight 372kg. (Typically, about half the weight of these bombs is explosives.) Assuming that each target is struck by two bombs, these figures imply that 600 targets a day were hit each by an average total bomb weight of approximately 1,300kg (1.3 tonnes). Also notable is that at least 5,000 Mk82 bombs had previously been supplied to Israel by the USA.[6]

The IAF also posted graphic images of the destruction caused by this bombardment.[7] They show whole neighbourhoods, including high rise structures completely flattened consistent with very heavy bombardment with the heavier Mk80-series bombs and M117.

 

Image    Image

 

Images from Israeli military post on X, 12 October [note 7]

 

Subsequent to this posting, the IAF changed their reporting to ‘targets’ not ‘bombs’, possibly to avoid projecting such a poor public image.[8]  They also ceased posting graphic images of whole areas flattened, replacing these with specific target destruction videos and images.

By 2 November – 26 days into the bombardment – the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor (EHRM) estimated that Israel had dropped 25,000 tonnes of bombs on 12,000 targets.[9]  Whilst the number of targets struck is consistent with IAF updates, the estimate for the tonnage of bombs would mean an average of more than 2 tonnes of bombs per target which is higher than estimates based on a range of other sources. EHRM makes a comparison with the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb (equivalent to about 15,000 tonnes of TNT) and suggests that by this date Gaza had been bombarded with the equivalent of two nuclear weapons over an area of 360 square km - far smaller than that of Hiroshima at 900 square km in 1945. This source also refers to the documented use of banned cluster and white phosphorus munitions, the latter which cause severe burns.

However, even if 25,000 tonnes of bombs were used, it is problematic to make a direct comparison because a conventional (non-nuclear) bomb typically contains less than half its weight in high explosives and the damage mechanisms are very different. For example, a nuclear weapon produces a persistent fireball and blast wave together with radiation. Nevertheless, this should not detract from the enormous scale of the Israeli assault.

On 10 November, the IAF posted[10] that: “More than 15,000 targets… in the Gaza Strip have been attacked since the beginning of the fighting… Hundreds of targets are targeted by the infantry forces and by the intelligence wing in real time, and are attacked in a short time by the Air Force and the Navy.” This works out at about 430 targets a day, a very high average bombing rate. The IAF also posted intermittent daily numbers of targets hit ranging from 250 to over 750 in a day over this period.

Even using the most conservative estimate of 500kg of bombs per target (2 x 250kg weapons per target), this would amount to 7,500 tonnes of weaponry over this five-week period (approximately 3,750 tonnes of explosives). Using the 10 November IAF data combined with other sources – which seems more consistent – the total weight of bombs could be up to 20,000 tonnes.

 

Still image from Israeli military post on X, 13 November [note 11]

A measure claimed to reduce civilian casualties was the Israeli military’s setting up of what they called ‘evacuation corridors’ to move people south away from areas being targeted.[11]  In reality, these routes were widely reported to be themselves subject to attacks by air and ground forces. To date, around two million Gazans have been displaced due to their homes being destroyed in the intense bombardment. Also, after moving south, those same Gazans then experienced further attacks as Israeli forces shifted their attack.

By 6 December, analysis published in the Financial Times (FT)[12] referred to Israel needing a constant supply of US munitions to keep up its intense bombing attack. The article stated that “Gaza will also go down as a place name denoting one of history’s heaviest conventional bombing campaigns.” It also cited a new study by US-based academics which suggested the devastation rate of buildings in northern Gaza was comparable to that of German cities during the Allied bombing campaigns of World War II. We discuss this further below.

Israel’s very high bombing rate has only been made possible by using a new targeting system called ‘Habsora’ (which translates as ‘The Gospel’), which harnesses the speed and computational power of artificial intelligence (AI).[13] Habsora was created in 2019 by the Israeli military’s Targets Administration Division to ‘accelerate target generation’ and ‘shorten kill chains’. In practice, this means that it can take less than 10 minutes to identify a target and then hit it with an air strike. Former Chief of Staff of Israel’s military Aviv Kochavi has stated that Habsora “is a machine that, with the help of AI, processes a lot of data better and faster than any human, and translates it into targets for attack, … in the past there were times in Gaza when we would create 50 targets per year [emphasis added]”. A source who worked in the Targets Administrative Division stated, “We prepare the targets automatically and work according to a checklist… It really is like a factory. We work quickly and there is no time to delve deep into the target.”

As the Israeli military operation has continued, increasing numbers of ground troops, helicopter-borne, artillery and naval munitions and forces have been increasingly involved. Official postings on social media often refer to the close integration of all arms of the armed forces.

The impacts of this intense bombardment and the combined land and sea attacks have been stark. By 19 December, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the occupied West Bank and other agencies, over 19,000 persons in Gaza had been killed, including 7,700 children – hundreds of them, infants. Over 52,000 people had been injured, some very seriously, with more than 8,000 others missing.[14]  By early December, 305,000 residential units had been damaged with over 46,000 completely destroyed.[15]

 

Historical comparisons

How does ‘Operation Iron Swords’ compare to other recent Israeli military offensives? Table 1 compares the bombing rates of the previous four offensives to the current one, using figures from Israeli military sources.[16]  The increase in bombing rate and total ordnance used is stark. A previous attack rate of 100 to 200 targets a day has more than doubled to over 400 and – in the first 5 days – it was over six times larger.

 

Table 1 – Comparison of bombing rates of recent Israeli military offensives 

Year

Israeli military operation

Total number of targets

Time period of bombardment (days)

Bombing rate (targets hit per day)

2008

Cast Lead

3,400

22

150

2012

Pillar of Defense

1,500

8

190

2014

Protective Edge

5,250-6,250

51

100-120

2021

Guardian of the Walls

1,500

11

140

2023

Iron Swords

6,000

(first 5 days only)

5

1,200

2023

Iron Swords

15,000

(first 35 days)

35

430

NB Some figures are rounded.

 

What about comparisons to other past bombing campaigns? The FT analysis mentioned above has looked at data from the Allied campaign of World War II against German cities. During a two-year period – from 1943 to 1945 – 61 cities were targeted. On average, an estimated 50% of buildings in these cities suffered major damage, with levels in Dresden and Cologne reaching about 60% and Hamburg 75%. Using satellite radar data, US-based academics have analysed the damage in north Gaza due to the Israeli bombardment – up to 29 November – and found that over 60% of buildings had suffered severe damage, with some districts experiencing more.

The bombing of Gaza has also been much more severe than the most intense periods of the US-led air campaign in Mosul in Iraq in 2016, when roughly 600 munitions were dropped in a week, while the tonnage of explosives expended during the first week of bombardment is higher than one year of the US in Afghanistan.[17]

 

The deliberate use of ‘disproportionate force’

International humanitarian law demands that militaries take steps to minimise the civilian casualties that may be caused by any military attack. As such, these casualties should be ‘proportionate’. While there is much debate about whether such legal standards are adequate for protecting civilians, there is little evidence to suggest Israel is serious about trying to apply these standards.

According to Jeremy Binnie,[18] a Middle East defence specialist at Janes, a London-based security think-tank, “The sheer pace of the campaign does raise questions about the Israeli rules of engagement, its targeting process, and the levels of civilian casualties it is prepared to accept.” This is a polite way of saying that there can be no effective oversight of targeting to hit more than 15,000 targets within 5 weeks and that the use of a legal check that each target is consistent with international humanitarian law is not possible. 

Further evidence of the legal shortcomings comes from analysis of the casualty rates. Israeli analysis suggests that over 60% of casualties have been civilians.[19]  This estimate itself seems to be an underestimate. From the widely reported Gaza casualty figures,[20] 68% of those killed (nearly 13,000) are children and women. Even if half of the remaining 6,000 men were Hamas militants, meaning a further 3,000 male civilians were killed, the civilian death rate would be around 85% – a shockingly high level. A similarly high civilian death rate was reported by the Times of Israel[21] where only 11% of those killed in 2014 ‘Protective Edge’ air strikes on high rise targets in Gaza were confirmed as ‘terror operatives’– in other words, an 89% civilian death rate for this type of air strike. A CNN report refers to Israeli sources claiming that they had killed 7,000 out of 30,000 ‘Hamas terrorists’ by 10 December.[22]  This figure is larger than the total reported deaths of men and appears to be an unreliable over-estimate. It also highlights that most Hamas fighters were still operative.

In fact, a ‘disproportionate’ response, attacking civilian areas and infrastructure, is a key element of current Israeli military strategy, as part of the ‘Dahiya’ doctrine developed in 2006.[23]  According to the Israeli-based +972 news outlet,[24] which has interviewed government officials in the country, “the doctrine – developed by former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot – … part of the current war cabinet – in a war against guerrilla groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, Israel must use disproportionate and overwhelming force while targeting civilian and government infrastructure in order to establish deterrence and force the civilian population to pressure the groups to end their attacks.” This doctrine is also described in a 2008 document by the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).[25]

Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, has stated[26] that they may kill 600,000 civilians and repeatedly invoked the Allies’ bombing of German cities in World War to justify Israel’s military objectives in Gaza.

 

Breaching international humanitarian law

There seems little doubt that international humanitarian law has been breached – both in the Hamas attack of 7 October and in the ensuing Israeli military offensive.

In late October, over one thousand of the UK’s most senior lawyers and former judges, signed a series of letters to the British Prime Minister,[27] making the case that “we are witnessing clear violations of international humanitarian law… in Gaza.” After pointing out the breaches committed by Hamas, they stated that these attacks cannot “justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” For example, “[t]he instructions issued by the Israeli authorities for the population of Gaza City to immediately leave their homes, coupled with the complete siege explicitly denying them food, water, and electricity, are not compatible with international humanitarian law.” Nine UN Special Rapporteurs have further warned that Israel’s “wilful and systematic destruction of civilian homes and infrastructure” is “resulting in crimes against humanity in Gaza.” [28]  The legal professionals also highlighted statements made by senior Israeli government and military officials immediately before and during the military assault on Gaza as evidence of the deliberate disregard of international law. For example, the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, Major General (Res) Giora Eiland, has publicly asserted that “[c]reating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve the goal” and that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” [29]  Indeed, the combined actions of Israeli forces in both Gaza and the West Bank territory have prompted the nine UN Special Rapporteurs to warn of a risk of genocide of Palestinians.[30]

On 13 October, the IAF posted that “dozens of fighter jets” had hit over 750 targets overnight including 12 multi-storey buildings “used by the Hamas for terror purposes.” Amnesty International called for a war crimes investigation into the use of some extremely large 1,000kg and 2,000kg bombs used to hit such targets because of the large numbers of civilian casualties.[31]

The UN Secretary General António Guterres on 6 December even unusually invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter to warn of a grave danger to global security resulting from the extremely poor humanitarian situation in Gaza.[32]  The World Health Organisation has since warned that disease could kill even more people in the territory than bombs.[33]

 

The search for a ceasefire and beyond

There have been repeated, urgent calls for a ceasefire by many national governments, both individually and through the United Nations, as well as by large sections of civil society.

On 4 December, Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, termed the situation “a moral failure of the international community” and called upon all parties “to de-escalate and find other than military solutions … to protect the rights of civilians, detainees and hostages.” She pointed out that humanitarian agencies in the territory were completely overwhelmed, and that only political action could relief the suffering.[34]

At the United Nations on 12 December, 153 nations supported a non-binding UN resolution for a ceasefire.[35]  In an earlier 8 December resolution, the USA used its veto to block the resolution, despite 13 members of the Security Council voting in favour. The UK abstained.[36]

At the time of writing, Israel continues to resist the ceasefire calls – yet still retains the political and military support of the USA, the UK, and many other Western powers despite the overt breaches of international humanitarian law (although criticisms from some officials in those countries are growing louder). The justification repeatedly given is that Hamas needs to be “obliterated” or “eliminated” to prevent attacks like that on 7 October from happening again.

However, the evidence is that support for Hamas could be growing amongst Palestinians.[37]  Meanwhile, experience from recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere repeatedly show the failure of using intense force against paramilitaries embedded within civilian communities. Independent monitoring groups such as Iraq Body Count, Airwars, and Brown University’s Costs of War project find that these post-9/11 wars have killed at least 900,000 people through direct violence and a further 3.5 million indirectly, with 38 million people displaced.[38]  None of these wars has produced, or seems likely to produce, a lasting peace. Armed conflict continues within Iraq, Libya, and Syria, while Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militias have dispersed across the Sahel region of Africa and beyond.

There is little reason to believe that the situation in Gaza will be any different, especially considering the four previous Israeli bombing campaigns listed above, so continuing to support another even more intense military offensive in Gaza – with the associated extreme casualties, humanitarian suffering and displacement of over one million inhabitants of northern Gaza – is also a fundamental mistake. Professor Paul Rogers, of the University of Bradford, amongst other commentators, terms this response an example of ‘liddism’[39] – trying to keep a ‘lid’ on a security problem rather than ‘turning down the heat’ – that is to say by addressing the root causes of the violence by using political tools based on social justice, fair political representation, and economic development. Turning down the heat, we think, is the only way to end the extremely destructive cycle of violence.

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Scientists for Global Responsibility viewpoint

Following from the analysis above, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) views the Israeli bombardment of Gaza as disproportionate, unlawful, and counterproductive. While we condemn the Hamas attacks of 7 October, we cannot support the Israeli response. We join others in calling for an immediate ceasefire, the urgent delivery of humanitarian relief, the release of all hostages, and for a new peace process to be pursued that addresses historical injustices and lays the foundations for a secure future for everyone in the region. As a UK-based organisation, SGR also calls on the UK government to recommit to international humanitarian law by supporting an immediate ceasefire and by ending its provision of arms and military aid to Israel. These actions will help safeguard civilian life, and end the UK’s current enabling of likely war crimes and crimes against humanity, and possible genocide. 

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Dr Philip Webber is Chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of SGR. Both have written widely on science, technology, and security issues.

 

References

[2] A useful summary of the history of the regional conflict can be found at: Council on Foreign Relations (2023). 4 December. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/israeli-palestinian-conflict

[4] IAF (2023a). Post on X, 12 October (translated from Hebrew). https://x.com/IAFsite/status/1712484101763342772

[7] IAF (2023a) – as note 4.

[10] IAF (2023b). Post on X, 10 November. https://x.com/IAFsite/status/1722971638411444556

[11] IDF (2023). Post on X, 13 November. https://twitter.com/IDF/status/1724018068131557816

[12] Financial Times (2023). Military briefing: the Israeli bombs raining on Gaza. 6 December. https://www.ft.com/content/7b407c2e-8149-4d83-be01-72dcae8aee7b [subscription only]

[13] +972 Magazine (2023) – as note 3.

[14] Multiple sources summarised by: Al-Jazeera (2023). https://www.aljazeera.com/news/longform/2023/10/9/israel-hamas-war-in-maps-and-charts-live-tracker (which gives data attributions) [accessed 19 December]

[16] +972 Magazine (2023) – as note 3.

[18] FT (2023) – as note 12.

[20] As note 14.

[24] +972 Magazine (2023) – as note 3.

[26] Talk TV (2023). Video clip, YouTube, 19 October. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zphG6Eokke4 ; BBC Radio 4 (2023). Audio clip, Yahoo News, 16 October. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/israels-uk-ambassador-compares-24-080710104.html

[27] UK Lawyers (2023). Open Letter Concerning Gaza, 26 October. https://lawyersletter.uk/ and https://lawyersletter.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/theletter.pdf

[28] International Committee of the Red Cross (2023). 13 October. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/israel-and-occupied-territories-evacuation-order-of-gaza-triggers-catastrophic-humanitarian-consequences  The UN Secretary-General's remarks to the Security Council on 24 October concur with this assessment: “Protecting civilians does not mean ordering more than one million people to evacuate to the south, where there is no shelter, no food, no water, no medicine and no fuel, and then continuing to bomb the south itself.” Sonnenseite (2023). https://www.sonnenseite.com/en/politics/even-war-has-rules-says-un-secretary-general-guterres/  Also see: Amnesty International (2023). 25 October. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/israelopt-israeli-army-threats-ordering-residents-northern-gaza-leave-may-amount-war

[29] Ynet News (2023). 12 October. https://www.ynetnews.com/article/sju3uabba

[32] UN News (2023a). 6 December. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/12/1144447

[34] ICRC (2023). Post on X, 4 December. https://x.com/ICRCPresident/status/1731761900994621721

[35] UN News (2023b). 12 December. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/12/1144717

[36] UN News (2023c). 8 December. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/12/1144562

[37] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (2023). Public Opinion Poll No. 90, 13 December. https://pcpsr.org/en/node/961

[38] Brown University (2023). Costs of War project. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures

A bombed street in Gaza - image by the Israeli military on X

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