The ongoing military operation by Israel, launched after Hamas' reprehensible and vicious attack on 7 October that killed over 1,400 Israelis, is inflicting horrendous civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, which with a population of about 2.3 million Palestinians, is one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
It’s variously estimated (including by UN-OCHA) that around 11,000 Palestinians, including about 4,800 children, have been killed with entire families wiped out. Additionally, estimatedly 26,500 are wounded, and around 1.5 million of Gaza's 2.3 million population is now displaced.
With the destruction of living complexes, water and electricity supplies, bakeries, markets, schools, hospitals, and ambulances, along with a choked inflow of supplies, the living situation is equally dire.
International law requires militaries to differentiate between civilians and militants or terrorists, not to emulate tactics and practices similar to those adopted by the latter, and to take all possible precautions to prevent harm to civilians.
Karim Khan, an International Criminal Court prosecutor, emphasised that the military's decision-makers in conflict should be “on clear notice, they will be required to justify every strike against every civilian object.”
As per the United Nations Human Rights Office, the attack on the Jabalia refugee camp, which alone killed 110, “could amount to war crimes.” Tel Aviv, however, maintains, blandly, that the bombing achieved its aim of killing Ibrahim Biari, a high-ranking Hamas commander.
Although the civilian deaths in the one month of Israeli attacks on Gaza top the entire Russia-Ukraine war (civilian) toll, the stance of the US in particular has been intriguingly inexcusable.
Instead of calling for a ceasefire or asking Israel to act to curtail civilian casualties, the US has vigorously defended Israel’s actions with not a hint publicly that Israel may be violating any of the laws of war. It has also accelerated the delivery of arms and munitions to it.
So, are civilian casualties really a new phenomenon?
The reality is starkly sickening. Civilians have been, and will perhaps continue to be targeted in almost every war on account of three broad factors.
Role of the Public in Sustaining Wars
It’s said that "wars are started by politicians, fought by soldiers, but sustained through public opinion."
So, when war "visits" civilians and starts to affect them personally through the loss of loved ones, and the degradation and destruction of private property, businesses, (insurance does not cover war), infrastructure, etc, segments of the populace can be terrorised into turning against their own government, seeking an end to war.
We saw shades of that after the hijacking of IC-814 (December 2001). It is for this reason that civilian populations are often targeted with a wink-and-a-nod, even as leaders spout lofty homilies about “protecting civilians.”
And this is not a recent dynamic. Genghis Khan often slaughtered entire populations of cities and destroyed fields and irrigation systems, which usually led to the next city surrendering tamely.
Industrial Nature of Modern Warfare
Wars had begun to turn industrial in nature towards the middle of World War I.
Large militaries, wielding automatic weapons, tanks, aircraft, naval vessels, etc, required huge industries for the mass production of weapons, munitions, and logistic items to sustain battlefield efforts.
Further, in order to facilitate efficient production, the factories also started grouping ancillary plants and importantly, workers’ habitats, in cities. The consequent bombing of industries proved ineffective, as concrete could be poured, new machines manufactured and factories started afresh.
This led to air power strategists like Italy’s Giulio Douhet, US General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, and Britain's Hugh Trenchard advocating mass aerial bombing to annihilate entire cities and populations as a means of winning a war – while factories could be re-built, finding fresh workers would be difficult.
Besides, a suffering populace would turn against the government. This practice conformed to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, who had famously outlined that the key to winning a war was to attack the center of gravity (CG) of the enemy's capacity to wage war – and by World War II, the CG was no longer the mere destruction of the military, but factories and people who worked in these industries.
This concept thus led to the erasure of the distinction between the soldier and the civilian, which is critical to modern notions of military ethics and morality.
WW II, therefore, saw massive civilian casualties, a few examples of which are iterated below:
Japan: The Allied strategic bombing of Japan from November 1944 onwards included mass attacks with bombers on Kobe and Tokyo in February and March 1945.
The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that Operation Meetinghouse (bombing of Tokyo in March 1945) alone killed over 88,000 people, injured 41,000, destroyed 267,000 buildings and 25 percent of Tokyo, and left a million homeless. In fact, it killed more civilians than the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (66,000 civilians killed) or Nagasaki (39,000 killed).
Major General Curtis LeMay, in charge of Operation Meetinghouse, later said, “Killing the Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time.”
Germany: The Allied strategic air bombing against German harbours, railways, cities, workers' housing, and industrial districts in World War II killed approximately 4.1 lakh German civilians, with an average of 13,536 people being killed every month between July 1944 to January 1945. Much of this was the outcome of the "thousand-bomber raids."
For example, in Operation Millennium (30 May 1942), 1,046 bombers dropped high explosives and incendiaries on Cologne, burning it from end to end; and in the Battle of the Ruhr, during the strategic bombing of Germany’s industrial heartland, 13,500 sorties were conducted against coke plants, steelworks, synthetic oil plants, and dams.
That tragic situation continues. The Watson Institute of Brown University estimates direct war deaths of civilians post-9/11 in major war zones at: Afghanistan – 46,319; Pakistan – 24,099; Syria – 1.38 lakhs; Iraq – 1.8 to 2.1 lakhs.
It is for this reason that Prime Minister Netanyahu (on 30 October) and other Israeli officials cited US actions on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, and Afghanistan back to US officials to justify the civilian toll in Gaza, adding that with Hamas fighters embedded within the city's population, it would be impossible to defeat it without killing innocents.
The Realpolitik Factor
The US' focus on retaining its hegemonistic global pre-eminence drives its realpolitik, which is evident from its contrasting policies towards Israel and Russia.
It has conveniently ignored Russia’s “right to defend itself” (expansion of NATO), mobilised a broad anti-Russia coalition, imposed sanctions on Russia, and is supporting Ukraine via financial and military assistance.
In the case of Israel, which has incrementally and illegally occupied Palestinian land, and where the civilian death toll is far higher, Washington is endorsing “Israel’s right to defend itself” on account of its special relationship with Tel Aviv.
Although US Congressional Research Reports entitled “Israel: Major Issues and US Relations” mention various issues that should be irritants in that relationship, the fact of the matter is that their multi-faceted security cooperation makes Israel a military outpost for the US.
The US maintains massive War Reserve Stocks for Allies in Israel, while American law requires certain actions to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME) in various ways.
Parties involved in war are supposed to be governed by the set of conventions, treaties, and war crimes tribunal rulings known as “international humanitarian law” (IHL).
This has two key elements: protection of non-combatants such as civilians or soldiers who have surrendered; and restrictions on the type of warfare employed. Israel has not ratified certain protocols in the conventions covering areas such as collective punishments.
However, the US and other countries regard these provisions as having entered customary international law and therefore binding on all states.
Yet, the US makes exceptions in the case of Israel.
In sum: the commonly held notion that wars are fought nobly and with great morality, ethics, and explicit rules, is ill-conceived. The reality is the contrary, and targeting the civilian population happens to be part of that unstated immorality, with civilian casualties being an enduring, albeit nauseating feature of wars.
It is for this reason that soldiers who have participated in full-blown wars hate wars.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)