Gaza: Collateral Tears

Scroll down to see my previous posts on the Gaza War, beginning January 14.

The phrase “collateral damage,” meaning civilian casualties, arose in the Vietnam War and became a standard of military vocabulary. It is, at least in theory, unintended and ancillary to attacks on military targets. There has been a lot of it in Gaza, and what it really means is blood, pain, disability, loss, grief, anguish, screams, sobs, and tears. According to the Hamas Health Ministry, as of February 21st, 29,313 people have been killed, including at least 8,400 women and 12,300 children; the wounded number 69,333, including at least 6,327 women and 8,663 children. Children have been dismembered by shrapnel, burned, blinded, and crushed under rubble, among other horrible fates. Some have probably died of fright.

So “collateral tears” must include the tears of countless millions of us who read these numbers and see photos of dead or suffering children and their bereaved parents. Someone said that the mark of a civilized person is the ability to look at a page of numbers and weep. If you can’t weep at these numbers, look in the mirror.

However, this is war. I hate war, and I assume you do too. But if you agree with me that war will not be eliminated soon, the question changes. Is Israel’s war in Gaza outside the range for wars since World War II, as measured by the ratio of civilian to military deaths? No, and it is far lower than the civilian casualties caused by the US and UK in Japan and Germany in that war.

Another measure is the civilian casualties per airstrike, using only airstrikes that caused at least one casualty. Reuters fairly criticized a graph that gave a misleadingly low figure for the Gaza War, and corrected the number to 10.1. For comparison, they offer the following numbers from recent wars: the Battle of Raqqa (2017), 9.8; the Battle of Mosul (2016), 12.0; and the Aleppo Offensive (2017), 21.2. So by this measure as well, Israel’s Gaza offensive is within the range for recent wars.

Nevertheless, our tears must lead us to ask Israel to do better. Since early in the war, international pressure has grown to force it to reduce civilian casualties, or even stop the war. Is Israel responding? My makeshift graph below suggests an answer.

The left side, by the BBC, is based on data from the “Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.” My extension on the right is based on the same source, but via the top Arab news service Al Jazeera. The BBC graph ends on 20 December for all deaths but on 12 December for women and children. My extension ends yesterday, February 21.

In the 66 days between October 7 and December 12, about 15,000 women and children were killed, for an average of 227 per day. In the 70 days between December 13 and February 21, an additional 5,300 women and children were killed, for an average of 76 per day, a drop of exactly two-thirds from the first half of the war to the second half.

Total deaths, from a rate of 278 per day before December 20, have fallen to 150 per day on average since that date. Women and children made up 81 percent of all deaths per day in the first half but 50 percent in the second half. Since 74 percent of Gazans are under 18 or women, the proportion of their deaths to population was 1.09 in the first half and 0.68 in the second half. Also using Hamas’s data, but referring to all deaths and different time frames, the January 22 New York Times reported that “the number of people dying each day has fallen almost in half since early December and almost two-thirds since the peak in late October.” Yes, but women and children’s deaths have fallen more.

Bear in mind that all these calculations accept the data supplied by a terror group; that some 10-12 percent of the 12,000 rockets fired by Hamas have landed haphazardly in crowded Gaza, with any deaths blamed on the IDF; that boys under 18 make up an unknown but significant proportion of Hamas fighters; that Israel counts around 12,000 Hamas fighters killed, which if true would mean that the maximum number of women and children killed would be around 17,000, not the 20,700 claimed by Hamas; and of course, that almost every Hamas “soldier” has fought from behind and beneath children and women, making Israel’s success in protecting them remarkable. As military experts and commanders John Spencer and Richard Kemp (neither Jewish) have repeatedly said, no other army has ever faced these circumstances, and no other army could do better at maintaining its humanity.

I have to remind myself that every one of the civilians killed would be living and vibrant but for this war. The number of children and women brings tears to my eyes. They didn’t start the war, but neither did Israel. Israel will finish it. I hate war, but I also hate lies, including lies of omission, and so much of what we have heard about this war is lies. Ignorance is no excuse, and when combined with communal malice against Israel and Jews the result is phony and toxic beyond belief. That’s why I have to stare at these all-too-real numbers until my eyes glaze over, and then become wet.

5 thoughts on “Gaza: Collateral Tears

  1. Mel,
    Though it’s been a half century since we were at school together, I’ve been following your work for a long time.
    This piece is consistent with your usual profound and clear-eyed view of things. As someone who strongly supports what Israel is doing, it nonetheless allowed me to feel some compassion for Gazan civilians without feeling I was betraying my own people. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your words. With all these news and videos of small children covered in dust and blood, I have to do the tenacious yet disheartening job of reminding myself that a kid is sweet and lovable only because our receptor brain has evolved to see them in that way and it’s conditioned to release prolactin and other hormones to make us feel pain and anger when seeing a small creature suffering.

    It might seem a very nihilistic and careless approach, but I just can’t bear the pain of seeing these little broken kids with their souls about to leave their bodies. It’s pretty hard to escape the media sometimes.

    From you I learned that play is energetically expensive, and when I see these wounded children, completely quiet, zombie-like, in dire conditions, it breaks my heart knowing that despite being children, the last thing they want is to play.

    • Yes, play makes use of the excess energy kids have when they are healthy. These kids are, if not sick, weakened and, of course, sad.

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