When Abdullah Abu Nada, a chemist who was at work in Gaza City, heard that the building where his family was staying had been hit by an airstrike, he texted his wife, Samah. She didn’t reply, and Abu Nada then called his 15-year-old son, Ahmed. When his son didn’t answer, Abu Nada called his 16-year-old daughter, Nawal. She didn’t answer, either. All three of them — as well as the two other Abu Nada children: Anas, 12, and Mohammed, 8 — had been killed in the airstrike.
A different airstrike killed 68 members of the extended Joudeh family. Khaled Joudeh, 9, and his brother Tamer, 7, lost their mother, father, older brother and baby sister.
Mohammad Abu Hasira, a Palestinian journalist, was killed in a separate attack, as were 42 members of his family. Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman, said that several of his family members were killed while sheltering in a church in Gaza. And Ahmed al-Naouq, a graduate student living in London, lost his father, five of his siblings, and 13 nieces and nephews.
The civilian death toll from Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has been a major news story for weeks. In today’s newsletter, I want to put the toll’s scale into context and explain the reasons for it.
The Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, says it has confirmed that more than 15,000 people in Gaza have died during the war. Another 6,000 or so are missing, officials say.
Although the ministry seems to have spread false information during this war (notably about a hospital bombing in October), many international observers believe that the overall death toll is accurate. U.S. officials largely accept it, as do some top Israeli officials.
There is more debate about the breakdown between civilian and combatant deaths.
A senior Israeli military official told my colleague Isabel Kershner this week that about a third of the dead were likely Hamas-allied fighters, rather than civilians. Gazan officials have suggested that the combatant toll is lower, and the civilian toll higher, based on their breakdown of deaths among men, women and children.
Either way, the pace of civilian deaths — at least 10,000 in two months — is extremely high for a war. My colleague Lauren Leatherby has written that Gazan civilians are dying at a faster rate than civilians did during the most intense U.S. attacks in Afghanistan or Iraq. In Ukraine, the number of civilian deaths appears to be much higher — in the tens of thousands — than in Gaza, but Ukraine’s toll has occurred over almost two years in a country with a population more than 20 times larger than Gaza’s.
(This multimedia project examines life in Gaza today.)
Three entities are most responsible for the high civilian toll, and different people obviously put different amounts of blame on each.
The first entity is Israel. After the Oct. 7 attacks — in which Hamas fighters killed more than 1,200 people, while committing sexual assault and torture, sometimes on video — Israeli leaders promised to eliminate Hamas. Israel is seeking to kill Hamas fighters, destroy their weapons stockpiles and collapse their network of tunnels. To do so, Israel has dropped 2,000-pound bombs on Gaza’s densely populated neighborhoods.
These Israeli bombs have turned much of Gaza to rubble. Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official, has told The Times that he thinks the closest comparisons to so many large bombs falling in such a small area are the Vietnam War or World War II.
U.N. officials and many human rights advocates have criticized Israel for not pursuing tactics that would have killed fewer people. Some U.S. officials are frustrated, too, as my colleague Helene Cooper has reported. Before invading the Iraqi city of Mosul to defeat the Islamic State in 2016, for instance, the U.S. military spent months developing a plan, partly to minimize casualties. Israel, by contrast, started bombing Gaza almost immediately after Oct. 7.
Nonetheless, military experts say that there is probably no way for Israel to topple Hamas without a substantial civilian toll. The question is whether the toll could be lower than it has been.
The second responsible party is Hamas. It hides weapons in schools, mosques and hospitals, and its fighters disguise themselves as civilians, all of which are violations of international law.
This approach both helps Hamas to survive against a more powerful enemy — the Israeli military — and contributes to Hamas’s efforts to delegitimize Israel. The group has vowed to repeat the Oct. 7 attacks and ultimately destroy Israel. Hamas’s strategy involves forcing Israel to choose between allowing Hamas to exist and killing Palestinian civilians.
Hamas is simply not prioritizing Palestinian lives.
The third responsible party, and the one that has received the least attention, is Egypt. Egypt’s leaders have maintained a militarized border with Gaza, refusing to admit refugees. “We are prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to ensure that no one encroaches upon our territory,” Egypt’s prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, said recently.
Egypt has justified the decision by saying that it does not want to reward Israel’s aggression by encouraging Gazans to flee. And Palestinians themselves have historical reasons to fear that fleeing their land will lead Israel to annex it.
Still, Egypt’s refusal to accept many refugees is inconsistent with the behavior of many other countries during wars. Germany, Poland and other European countries have accepted millions of Ukrainians even though doing so arguably rewards Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Turkey has admitted millions of Syrian refugees in recent years. Chad has accepted many Sudanese refugees.
In these other cases, countries took steps to save lives. In Gaza, the civilian toll continues to mount.
More on the war
Israel said it was pursuing Hamas leaders in southern Gaza. It said it had killed five commanders and released a photo of them.
The military said its troops had surrounded the home of Yahya Sinwar, who Israel believes masterminded the Oct. 7 attacks. It’s not clear if he is inside.
After Israeli orders, thousands of people fled Khan Younis, but the places they were told to go to had little shelter, water or food.
The hostage families have a message for Benjamin Netanyahu: Time is running out.
Critics are calling for the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania’s president after she evaded questions about whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated Penn’s code of conduct.
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