Israel’s Strikes on Gaza Are Some of the Most Intense This Century. Why?

Israel’s 19-day bombing campaign in Gaza has become one of the most intense of the 21st century, prompting growing global scrutiny of its scale, purpose and cost to human life.

Since terrorists from Gaza raided Israel on Oct. 7, killing roughly 1,400 people according to the Israeli government, the Israeli military says it has struck more than 7,000 targets inside Gaza. That is a higher number than in any previous Israeli military campaign in the territory, a narrow enclave less than half the size of New York City. It also outstrips the most intense month of the United States-led bombing campaign against ISIS, according to Airwars, a British conflict monitor.

For Palestinians, the scale of the bombing campaign has appeared vengeful and unfocused, killing Gazans from across a wide spectrum of civilian life and destroying residential areas. The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry says Israeli strikes have killed more than 6,500 people, a number that if verified would make this the deadliest conflict for Palestinians since at least the Lebanon war of 1982.

But to Israelis, there is a necessity and a method to their strikes, which they say are not about retaliation but defense. The campaign, Israeli officials say, is focused on degrading Gazan military infrastructure that is often built near homes and civilian institutions. Officials and analysts warn that a potential ground invasion of Gaza could be even bloodier than the air war. They argue that strikes that ease an Israeli ground advance will help reduce the loss of life for Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers alike, once the invasion begins.

The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry says Israeli strikes have killed more than 6,500 people. That number could not be independently verified.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

Since Oct. 7, Israel has said it has targeted scores of Palestinian rocket launchers, command centers and munitions factories. It has also used powerful bombs to penetrate the surface in order to collapse a network of tunnels, hundreds of miles long, that armed groups like Hamas have dug deep beneath the territory’s most crowded urban centers.

Even as Israel has used precision weapons, it has maintained a broad definition of what constitutes a military target. Fighter jets wrecked the Islamic University in Gaza because Israel said the campus had been used to train intelligence operatives. They have targeted mosques that Israel says served as weapons depots and operation centers. And they have targeted Hamas commanders in their homes.

The strikes appear to have successfully curbed the groups’ rocket-firing abilities. The Israeli military has not released exact numbers, but there were fewer than 20 air raid sirens across Israel on Wednesday, compared with hundreds during the first days of the war.

Despite that, Israel has continued to pound the enclave. On Tuesday, the Hamas-run health ministry said that 704 people had been killed in the previous 24 hours. If verified, it would be Gaza’s single deadliest day of the war.

For many in Gaza, the high death toll is an indication that Israel is seeking to collectively punish the people of Gaza and not just Hamas, the group that controls the strip and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.

To Dr. Yousef Al-Akkad, the director of the European Gaza Hospital, a medical center in southern Gaza, the strikes constitute “an attempt to satisfy the instinct of revenge and vengeance within Israeli society by bringing the number of martyrs to unprecedented levels.”

But the Israeli military says that even after striking scores of rocket launchers, there are still many military targets left — including Hamas leaders and underground bunkers. On Wednesday, it said its forces had assassinated a senior Hamas commander in southern Gaza, and eliminated a Hamas squad that emerged from a tunnel in the north of the enclave.

Smoke rises above northern Gaza after an airstrike there on Saturday.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The air war, Maj. Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesman, explained is “part of the campaign to prepare the ground for an invasion.” He added: “Destroy the tunnels and kill as many terrorists from the air as possible.”

The strikes have continued amid growing concern in Israel that its troops, despite their technical superiority over Hamas’s armed wing, will become locked in a bloody urban war after they invade.

Tens of thousands of Hamas gunmen are thought to be lying in wait, most of them in the group’s sprawling tunnel networks. Analysts expect that Hamas will try to slow Israel’s advance by exploding some tunnels once soldiers are in their vicinity; setting roadside bombs; booby-trapping buildings and emerging suddenly from hidden tunnel entrances and ambushing Israelis from behind.

The military publicly says it is ready to invade, but there are a growing number of experts and former leaders who argue that Israel does not need to rush the invasion. Instead, they reckon Israel should extend its air campaign in order to make it as easy as possible for Israeli ground forces to operate once the ground war begins.

“Israel is not in a hurry,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence and a retired Israeli Air Force general. “The U.S. destroyed ISIS over five years so Israel doesn’t have to destroy Hamas in six days.”

A convoy of Israeli military vehicles headed toward the border with Gaza earlier this month. Israel says the air war is in preparation for a ground invasion.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

As well as attempting to collapse the tunnel network, the Israeli Air Force may also be trying to destroy aboveground structures, from which Hamas snipers could ambush advancing Israeli columns, said Relik Shafir, a retired Israeli Air Force general.

“Let’s say you’re a foot soldier and you want to get to a strategic point,” Mr. Shafir said. “You don’t want to be flanked by units shooting at you at close range, either with small-arms fire or short range missiles. And so you need a kind of corridor so that you can see where you’re going.”

To achieve that, the Air Force needs to “demolish the buildings on the way, flatten them in such a manner that they can’t be used for guerrilla warfare,” Mr. Shafir said.

To lessen the likelihood of civilian casualties, Israel has warned an estimated 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to head south, away from the focus of both its air campaign and its expected ground invasion.

In a control room in southern Israel, a group of Arabic-speaking Israeli soldiers regularly telephone community leaders in northern Gaza to push them to encourage their neighbors to flee. The soldiers also harvest phone data to monitor how many people are leaving particular neighborhoods — and they say that this data informs the military’s decision about where and when to strike.

But military officials also said that they have scaled back their use of so-called warning strikes — smaller munitions that shake a building without causing catastrophic damage, giving its occupants advance warning of a larger strike in the near future.

The outcome is an aerial bombardment that exceeds even the most intense month of strikes by a U.S.-led military coalition on ISIS-held Mosul in Iraq, according to Airwars. In March 2017, the coalition fighting ISIS fired roughly 5,000 munitions, at least 2,000 fewer than Israel has fired in less than three weeks.

Emily Tripp, the director of Airwars, said: “It is on a scale that definitely outpaces the intensity of any conflict that we’ve monitored since 2014,” the year that the group was founded.

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting from Cairo and Johnatan Reiss from Jerusalem.

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