The lethal airstrikes on the Jabalia refugee camp indicate Tel Aviv’s determination to win this war, civilian casualties be damned. Isn’t that a war crime? What does Israel—or more accurately, Benjamin Netanyahu want? And why isn’t the US doing anything to rein him in?
First, the Jabalia air strikes
Airstrike #1: On Tuesday, the Israeli military launched six strikes at the Jabalia refugee camp—the most densely populated of Gaza’s eight camps. The number of registered residents in Jabalia: 116,000. The target was a row of apartment buildings. They were flattened in an instant, killing men, women and children—leaving deep craters behind. An eyewitness told CNN:
I was waiting in line to buy bread when suddenly and without any prior warning seven to eight missiles fell. There were seven to eight huge holes in the ground, full of killed people, body parts all over the place. It felt like the end of the world…
Children were carrying other injured children and running, with grey dust filling the air. Bodies were hanging on the rubble, many of them unrecognised. Some were bleeding and others were burnt.
Here is footage of the craters:
Here’s a compilation of the strikes and the aftermath—it is difficult to watch:
Airstrike #2: The scene repeated itself again on Wednesday—despite outrage and anger across the region:
A second IDF strike also hit the Fallujah neighbourhood of the same refugee camp on Wednesday. The massive blast destroyed several buildings, with video from the site showing a deep crater and people digging through the rubble searching for bodies.
The body count: for the two strikes is still unknown. The initial estimate for the first strike is 195—and 80 for the second. But experts say it will take time to dig bodies out from under the rubble—and the number will continue to grow. Many of them appear to be women and children.
The other data point: According to US researchers, between 38,200 and 44,500 buildings throughout the Gaza Strip are estimated to have been damaged or destroyed since October 7—that’s in just 26 days. At least 25% of all buildings in the north have razed to the ground.
Question #1: Do civilian deaths matter to Israel?
Israel claims that the first strike was aimed at a senior Hamas commander Ibrahim Biari—who was one of the masterminds of the October 7 attacks on Israel. Its spokesperson also said “the strike hit between buildings, but that the collapse of tunnels used by Hamas militants in the area led to significant structural damage.” When pressed on civilian casualties, this is what Lt Col Richard Hecht said to Wolf Blitzer on CNN:
As for the second strike: on Jabalia, the Israeli Defence Forces said its jets "struck a Hamas command and control complex”—adding: "Hamas deliberately builds its terror infrastructure under, around and within civilian buildings, intentionally endangering Gazan civilians."
As for the civilian deaths: Apart from blaming Hamas, the government has sent out proxies like former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Omert who told ABC News:
I am not certain that so many innocent civilians were killed yesterday. It was the headquarters of Hamas and everyone present there was part of Hamas and the fighting group of Hamas. They were killed, but they were not innocent civilians to start with.
The underlying logic: Tel Aviv appears to be uninterested in calculating the human price of its attacks—and has bluntly signalled its position to the US:
It became evident to U.S. officials that Israeli leaders believed mass civilian casualties were an acceptable price in the military campaign. In private conversations with American counterparts, Israeli officials referred to how the United States and other allied powers resorted to devastating bombings in Germany and Japan during World War II—including the dropping of the two atomic warheads in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to try to defeat those countries.
Earlier this week, PM Benjamin Netanyahu publicly made the same argument to journalists:
“In 1944, the Royal Air Force bombed the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen. It’s a perfectly legitimate target. But the British pilots missed and instead of the Gestapo headquarters, they hit a children’s hospital nearby. And I think 84 children were burned to death,” he said. “That is not a war crime. That is not something you blame Britain for doing. That was a legitimate act of war with tragic consequences that accompany such legitimate actions.”
The bigger point to note: As the Wall Street Journal reports, this time Israel is going all out to take out Hamas:
Israel says it has hit more than 11,000 targets, with missiles, bombs and artillery, in Gaza, an area half the size of New York City that is home to around two million people. That compares to some 1,500 strikes the last time Israel fought Gaza militants in 2021.
And it isn’t doing very much to avoid “collateral damage”:
Tuesday’s attack reflects Israel’s shift to more bare-knuckle tactics. Unlike many such strikes in the past, Israel’s air force didn’t give any advance warning. In the past, Israel has often either called residents directly to warn them or dropped nonexplosive or low-yield munitions onto the roofs of buildings and houses, as a warning to noncombatants inside… This time Israel’s calculus has changed, say analysts: It will order strikes it might have avoided in the past because of the risk of killing or injuring bystanders.
FYI: A BBC News investigation shows that the Israeli military often issues directives, urging Gazans to evacuate the north—and then proceeds to bomb the south.
What Netanyahu is thinking: Acts of war often have as much to do with a leader’s self-interest as the country’s own geopolitical interests. While they may be united in war, the vast majority of Israelis blame Netanyahu for the October 7 attacks. So he has to deliver a resounding military victory to save his political career—which has been built on the promise that he can keep Israel safe.
The Bibi-Hamas link: This war is especially important to Netanyahu because he built up Hamas—to keep the Palestinian Authority weak in the West Bank. And that divide and conquer strategy would ensure that there will never be an independent Palestine state. Now, he has to get rid of Hamas to rewrite this bit of inconvenient history:
There was a not-so-tacit agreement between Hamas and Netanyahu that, after each round of fighting, Israel would allow funds from Qatar and elsewhere to flow back to Hamas. This was against the recommendation of much of his own security establishment. As has been seen, those funds were used by Hamas to build tunnels and stockpile weapons rather than build internal infrastructure for the people of Gaza.
The Israeli security apparatus often wanted to go after the leadership of Hamas in a concerted way during many of these mini-wars. They were kept from doing so by Netanyahu — because he needed Hamas as his foil against the PA. He had no long-term strategic objectives, only short-term political ones.
It’s hardly surprising that Bibi has zero interest in a cease-fire that may leave Hamas in place. As the creator of this Frankenstein, he has to destroy it.
Question #2: But isn’t this a war crime?
The UN Human Rights Office says that the Jabalia attacks “could amount to war crimes” given “the high number of civilian casualties and the scale of destruction.” And here’s why: humanitarian law prohibits “disproportionate attacks.” One of its definitions is as follows:
[A]ttacks that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof and that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
In other words:
(1) Any attack must be in proportion to the threat that is faced, and any reprisal must be proportionate to the attack suffered. (2) The incidental civilian loss or damages must be proportionate with the military advantages. If this proportionality requirement is not followed, humanitarian law considers the attack to be indiscriminate.
Death toll as of today: 8,796 people have been killed in Gaza—including over 3,648 children and 2,290 women. The number of Israeli deaths has risen to 1,538. In terms of sheer numbers, the balance will inevitably be weighted toward the Palestinians—as the war goes on. Besides, the UNICEF’s calculation of losses just in terms of children seems entirely disproportionate—as you can see in this video:
Question #3: Does the United States care?
Yes, but not enough to actually keep Israel in check. For weeks now, Washington has been fervently declaring unconditional support for Israel—while insisting it really, really cares about dead civilians. But it won’t do much more than “advise” Tel Aviv to exercise restraint. For the past few weeks, we’ve been treated to a stream of contrary messages. For example, here is National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday:
Kirby said it was “obvious to us” that Israeli forces were working to minimize casualties, but added: “Sadly, our own experience as a military over the last 20 years has shown us that even with our best intentions and all the efforts that we put into avoiding civilian casualties, we still cause them.”
And this is Kirby on Wednesday: “We are working very, very hard to continue to make sure that our Israeli friends are prosecuting these operations with as much due care to minimising civilian casualties as possible, and that work will continue.”
The main result: is to make the US look weak—and unable to control its closest ally—or unwilling to do so. After all, it’s an election year for Biden, as well. That said, it is still unclear as to how far the White House will go to support Israel. Most experts don’t think the US has the stomach for a long and bloody war in Gaza—which would deeply jeopardise its relationships with the Arabs.
Point to note: There are plenty of US targets in the Middle East—with troops in Syria and Iraq. There’s already been complaints about Iranian-backed forces targeting US bases. An incautious spark could easily spark a broader war. The last thing Biden needs is a regional war—that will drag the military back into the Middle East. That doesn’t win elections either.
The bottomline: For now, no one can stop Netanyahu—and his drive for a blood-soaked victory. Not even the United States. As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times:
Joe Biden has hitched his fortunes to a man — Benjamin Netanyahu — who is co-creator of the ghastly dilemma with which Israel is now faced. The problem with Biden’s bearhug strategy is that he has no veto on the Israeli prime minister’s actions. The tool Biden wields is influence. Everything about Netanyahu suggests that behind-the-scenes suasion is not a method that works… Netanyahu answers to nobody but himself. While Netanyahu remains, Biden’s presidency is hostage to a man who will never repay the favour.
That leads to the next big question: Will the Arab nations be forced to step in? We will take a look at that—and the geopolitics of the ‘new Middle East’ tomorrow.
CNN is best on the Jabalia strikes. Read BBC’s investigation of IDF’s evacuation warnings—and check out New York Times’ maps of the destruction in Gaza. For good critiques of Biden’s strategy, read Khalil Jahshan over at the Arab Center and a more sympathetic Edward Luce in the Financial Times (paywall). CNN points to US vulnerability in the Middle East—and BBC News looks at how far it will go for Israel. Haaretz has inconvenient truths about the changing US-Israel relationship. Wall Street Journal looks at why Israel doesn’t care about civilian deaths in Gaza. The best take on Netanyahu is in The Atlantic —while The Hill looks at his past relationship with Hamas.