Please see below (“Concerning the War in Gaza”, January 14) for my overview of the war, and the disclaimer introducing it, also applicable here. So is this: Every death is a terrible loss, and every civilian death more so.
In 1944, General Curtis Lemay was appointed to command the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) in the Pacific Theater, his predecessor having been fired for a reluctance to bomb civilians. Lemay soon ordered the fire-bombing of Tokyo with napalm, killing as many as 100,000 people in six hours. He repeated this in other Japanese cities, with the estimated total deaths ranging from 241,000 to 900,000. This was before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed another 129,000 to 226,000. These mass bombings were not directed at military targets (few were involved) but were carpet bombings of civilians. To many, Lemay is a hero.
Similar incendiary bombings, also creating firestorms, were carried out by the British and Americans in the German cities of Hamburg and Dresden, killing at least scores of thousands. Civilian populations being what they are, most of the victims in all these cases were women and children. Causing terror was their explicit goal, in the service of ending the war. Some considered these war crimes, but they were never tried or punished as such. German mass murder of civilians, using different methods, was of much greater magnitude, and was punished.
In part in reaction to the destructiveness of that war, the 1949 Geneva Conventions greatly strengthened the laws defining and prohibiting war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, a term coined to describe what the Germans did to the Jews, but subsequently applied—in a few cases I think legitimately—to other mass killings. It has more often been misapplied.
Be that as it may, the number of civilian deaths caused by democracies at war has gradually declined since World War II. The US/UN bombing of North Korea (1950-53) flattened the country and killed over a million people, mostly civilians. Conservative estimates of the civilian deaths in the US bombing of North Vietnam range from 30,000-65,000, with another 30,000 in Cambodia; other estimates are much higher. In Iraq, between 2003 and 2013, US and Coalition forces killed an estimated 130,000 civilians. Between 8,000 and 13,000 civilian deaths were directly due to direct US and Coalition strikes in the war to eradicate ISIS (2015-2020), with other estimates ranging much higher. In all, more than 400,000 “civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of the U.S. post-9/11 wars.”
If we accept Hamas estimates as reported (most observers do), the number of deaths in Gaza as a result of the current war is around 25,000 as of January 21st, including 16,350 civilians (9,600 children and 6,750 women). About 20,000 of these were killed between October 7 and December 20, for an average of about 274 deaths per day; the death rate has averaged around 161 per day since. The New York Times of January 22, using the same sources, states 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.”
An unknown, but probably small, proportion of civilian deaths have been caused by stray rockets fired by Hamas, although it attributes all deaths to Israel. Also, everyone under 18 is considered a child; this would include 16- and 17-year-olds fighting for Hamas.
Ratios between civilian and military deaths in war are very difficult to calculate, but a widely accepted average is now around 1:1, or 50 percent, over many wars. The ratio in Gaza has been between 60 and 67 percent. This if accurate is notably higher and worth investigating, although it is within the range of recent wars.
Since 1967, when Israel first became involved with the Gaza Strip, its population has grown from about 300,000 to 2.1 million in 2023, a 700 percent increase. A little over one percent of the 2023 population has been killed in the present war, the great majority of them in the first half of the war. This percentage is higher than that in some modern wars, but lower than that in others. All estimates are disputed, as the ones for the current Gaza War surely will be.
I thank Lawrence Siskind for his helpful article; all the above numbers are separately sourced.