Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Rubble from Bone

Tom Stevenson writes about Operation Iron Swords

3953 words

In the first three months​ of Israel’s attack on Gaza around 25,000 Palestinians were killed and around 60,000 wounded, 70 per cent of them women and children. Around 80 per cent of the population of Gaza has been displaced. The rate of killing has been higher than in most wars this century, sometimes reaching more than two thousand deaths a week. There have been airstrikes on ambulances, airstrikes on bakeries, airstrikes on UN schools serving as shelters. Israeli forces have killed more than 150 UN staff. International charities have been reduced to tallying daily limb amputations. While Israeli officials stick to absurd denials that there is any kind of humanitarian crisis, much of urban Gaza has been turned into an uneven igneous landscape of black-grey mounds.

In Israel the desire for retribution for the 7 October attack was widespread. But the Israeli army clearly knew much less about what was happening inside Gaza than it thought it did. If Israel had been blind to an assault so meticulously planned and on such a large scale, how was it now to conduct a coherent military operation? Removing Hamas or destroying it as an organisation would have been extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, even if Israel had good intelligence in the strip. Faced with the fact that it didn’t, Israel’s solution has been to raze Gaza. Israeli officials and ambassadors have themselves compared the air campaign to the bombing of Dresden. The scale of the killing, extraordinary as it is, has been exceeded by the systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure. The war has required the mobilisation of at least 360,000 reserves: 4 per cent of Israel’s population. From the political and military hierarchy down to individual platoons, the nature of the operations seemed to be accepted from the first: Gaza would be destroyed and the Israeli flag planted in its ruins. Soldiers would record a constant stream of videos in which they documented and celebrated driving Palestinians from their homes. As Israel’s Channel 13 put it, Israeli forces would celebrate ‘Hanukkah in Palestine Square’.

The war began with weeks of strategic bombing conducted square metre by square metre. Residential buildings believed to contain apartments belonging to Hamas members were targeted with no regard for how many others might be killed. In some cases, hundreds of civilians died in Israel’s attempt to target a single Hamas figure. But, according to the Israeli investigative journalist Yuval Abraham, who has good sources in the military and intelligence chain of command, much of the air campaign has been targeted at Gaza as a whole, not at Hamas, as Israel continues to claim. According to Abraham’s sources, the majority of airstrikes are explicitly aimed at civilian targets and ‘mainly intended to harm Palestinian civil society’. In December the American political scientist Robert Pape described it as ‘one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history’.

What strategic bombing does to a city is to produce, by military means, something similar to the massive urban destruction of last year’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria: mangled pipes and wires, the ganglia of shorn rebars and masonry, homes cut in half, exposing their foundations like uprooted trees. Somehow there seems to be more debris than the total mass of the original buildings. Who could ever clear all this away, and where would it go? How would diggers sort the rubble from the bone? On the ground, Israel’s strategy was to begin by encircling the remains of Gaza City. Troops entered the northern section of Gaza between Beit Hanoun and the sea and cut off the route of retreat just north of Wadi Gaza before connecting the positions together along the coast. After the week-long temporary truce at the end of November, ground operations began further south. In December, Israeli forces made for Khan Younis, driving most of the population to Rafah and a narrow strip of land along the Egyptian border. Very few people are permitted to cross, so the population of Gaza remains trapped in a way rarely experienced even by those in war zones.

Fighting through rubble is more difficult than in undamaged streets. The Israeli army has used Chinese quadcopter drones, such as the DJI Mavic 3, to enter bombed buildings before clearing them. Its soldiers dodge IEDs and fire rifles through holes in buildings that serve as parapets. The combat engineering corps conducts controlled demolitions of entire areas. During the assault on Khan Younis, the IDF deployed a full airborne division in and around the city in addition to the three armoured divisions that were still operating in Gaza City. Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and other armed Palestinian groups have mounted a defence. Before Hamas took over the administration of the Gaza Strip in 2006, its al-Qassam Brigades developed a domestically manufactured copy of the Soviet shoulder-fired RPG-2, which they called the Yassin (after Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of Hamas’s founders). Israeli military analysts thought it wouldn’t be effective against their heavy tanks and armoured vehicles. The Merkava tank has an active protection system (called Trophy) designed to protect it against anti-tank weapons. During the 2014 and 2021 assaults on Gaza, Trophy worked. But there’s some evidence that this time al-Qassam fighters have been able to approach tanks on foot and place munitions under active protection systems to disable them before launching their RPGs. Gazan militias have also made use of rifles locally manufactured using lathes and basic machine tools. As of 23 January, Israel had lost 217 soldiers in Gaza, some killed fighting Palestinian militia, others (like the 21 reservists killed on 22 January) dying after the explosives they had planted blew up prematurely.

Palestinian men and boys between the ages of 12 and 70 are stripped, cuffed, blindfolded and then loaded onto the backs of trucks to be taken for interrogation. Some have numbers written on their arms. Hundreds detained in Gaza have been transported to the desert prison of Ketziot, near the border with Egypt. Others have probably been taken to nearby military bases. Some men who were taken prisoner in Beit Lahiya were stripped and transported to fenced-off camps where for days they were tied up, beaten and tortured. Others have disappeared. The IDF has subsequently said that between 85 and 90 per cent of these detainees were civilians. Israeli forces have repeatedly raided UN schools and detained any men found inside. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights documented an incident on 19 December when the Israeli army surrounded and then entered a building in the Remal neighbourhood of Gaza City. ‘The IDF allegedly separated the men from the women and children, and then shot and killed at least eleven of the men, mostly aged in their late twenties and early thirties, in front of their family members.’

From the beginning, Operation Iron Swords has been an all-out assault on a captive and overwhelmingly civilian population. Israeli tactics have little in common with standard counterinsurgency doctrine or rules of engagement. The war on Gaza is at its core retributive: an act of collective punishment. Like all punishment, to ask whether or not it ‘works’ misses the point that punishment is often an end in itself. But the conduct of the war also has an orgiastic quality. The celebrations of the killing by Israel’s political leaders; the fantastic schemes for the removal of Palestinians to Sinai, or Europe, or Congo; the public figures signing bombs to be dropped on what’s left of Gaza; the gleeful recordings made by individual soldiers – all combine malice and mirth.

We might want to compare the current war with the Israeli operations against Gaza in 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and 2021. But it’s more instructive to compare the vastly larger Operation Iron Swords with Tufan al-Aqsa, the attack on multiple fronts led by Hamas on 7 October. Within minutes of breaching the Gaza barrier (it’s not a border), militants came across the Israeli edition of a Brazilian trance festival being held close to Re’im. Almost immediately it became a massacre, with hundreds of festival-goers killed and others taken hostage. In the kibbutzim the fighters targeted the local rapid response forces (in Nir Yitzhak they killed about five armed men), along with Israeli civilians and farm workers from South-East Asia. Tufan al-Aqsa is usually described as a Hamas attack, and it was almost certainly planned and ordered by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, and the commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, Muhammad Deif. But it was also a collaboration between Gaza’s various militias, with the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades supporting the al-Qassam Brigades and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. These forces were later joined by Gazan irregulars, with the result that organised al-Qassam strike teams exhibiting both military discipline and exemplary violence were accompanied by untrained fighters lacking the former. In total, around eight hundred Israeli civilians, including 36 children, and 370 soldiers and security personnel were killed (a small number of them as a result of Israeli army attempts to retake control of the area). Another 250 were taken as hostages. Around half of the civilian death toll came from the festival.

The scale of the Hamas attack, and the number of killings in a single day, were shocking. Since that day, Israel has killed at least twenty times that number and more than two hundred times as many children. It has also systematically attacked Gaza’s health facilities, although under international law there are very restricted grounds for such actions. In mid-October the international media were briefly animated by the question of whether or not Israel was responsible for a strike on the courtyard of al-Ahli Hospital. But this was not the first hospital to be attacked. Almost all the hospitals in northern Gaza – the Indonesian Hospital, al-Awda, al-Rantisi, al-Shifa, al-Quds, al-Ahli, the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, al-Wafa – have been shelled, besieged or occupied by Israeli forces. Most were rendered inoperable by the end of November. The director of al-Shifa, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, was detained on 23 November, and is still being held (it was al-Shifa that was the supposed location of Hamas’s ‘command and control’ centre). Al-Ahli itself was occupied and shut down by the Israeli army on 18 December. In mid-December, Israeli forces surrounded and shelled Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya although they knew it was full of patients. They then entered the building and detained more than a thousand Palestinians, including the hospital staff, trucking about seventy to an unknown location. The World Health Organisation has recorded 240 attacks on medical facilities.

At first Israeli forces blocked all aid from entering Gaza, while also cutting off supplies of fuel, water, electricity and food. The UN assessment is that a quarter of the total population is suffering catastrophic famine – 80 per cent of the people worldwide currently in that category. Gaza has the highest percentage of people facing acute food insecurity ever recorded. The naval blockade could easily be lifted to allow aid to be shipped in. Hundreds of trucks of aid and food wait in Egypt but are effectively prevented from entering. For the first two months of its war, Israel demanded that the small amount of aid permitted to be sent from Egypt was first transported along the Taba-Rafah road for inspection by Israeli officials at Nitzana before being driven back to the Rafah crossing for entry to Gaza. Now inspections can take place at the Kerem Shalom crossing, but the trucks are still being manually inspected according to the whims of the Israeli military (on one occasion stretchers were rejected). Before they can enter Gaza, trucks must be fully unloaded for inspection and then loaded up again, causing considerable delays. Israel could allow aid to pass into Gaza from its territory at any time. It has chosen not to. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem concluded that mass hunger in Gaza ‘is not a by-product of war but a direct result of Israel’s declared policy … allowing food into the Gaza Strip is not an act of kindness but a positive obligation under international humanitarian law. Refusing to comply with this duty constitutes a war crime.’

One of the justifications for the scale of destruction is the existence of Gaza’s tunnel network. The construction of the tunnels has been treated by Israel and its defenders in the US and Europe as inherently nefarious, with suggestions that Hamas uses them to ‘divert’ money and goods from citizens. It’s less often mentioned that the tunnels, some of which predate Hamas, were dug and expanded as a defensive measure after repeated Israeli attacks on Gaza, and as an attempt to circumvent a blockade (some of the tunnels went into Egypt, though most of them have been destroyed). Any administration in Gaza that didn’t take some such measures would have been negligent. And the tunnels appear to have been quite effective at frustrating and slowing Israel’s ground operations. Yet both in Israel and in the US and Europe the tunnels have reinforced the idea of Gazans as an out-of-control infestation: subterranean creatures, children of darkness.

The Israeli government’s declared objectives in Gaza were to eliminate Hamas and recover the hostages. But very few senior Hamas figures have been confirmed killed or captured in Gaza and just one hostage, not a civilian, has been rescued by Israeli troops as a result of a military operation. Tens of thousands have been killed, but the two most prominent Hamas leaders in Gaza, Sinwar and Deif, are not among them. The most significant Hamas leader to have been killed since the start of the war is Saleh al-Arouri, assassinated in Lebanon on 2 January. Israeli troops are still clearing northern Gaza, but the al-Qassam Brigades continue to operate in Gaza City and Khan Younis. The IDF has killed thousands of Palestinian fighters, but it’s very likely that the war has led to new fighters being recruited. Israel’s military operations haven’t achieved any of their public objectives; the real purpose appears to be collective punishment and full-scale destruction.

Israel’s leaders seem to back this assessment. For the minister of heritage, Amihai Eliyahu, the destruction of northern Gaza was ‘a pleasure for the eyes’. Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken of inducing the Palestinians to leave. The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, imagines a future with ‘100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million’. Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said that Israel is ‘fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly’. Some of these statements are collected in South Africa’s submission to the International Court of Justice, issued on 29 December, which charges that Israel’s actions are passing from massacre to genocide. On the opening day of the hearings Tembeka Ngcukaitobi argued that ‘the evidence of genocidal intent is not only chilling, it is also overwhelming and incontrovertible.’ On 26 January the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel must ‘take all measures’ to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza. It said it had ‘taken note’ of the statements made by Gallant and others.

There is a temptation to blame the Israeli right for the war’s brutality. But political divisions faded after 7 October, premised as they were on pretending that the occupation was an irrelevance and the existence of the Palestinians an inconvenience. Shikma Bressler, one of the main figures in the opposition movement, said last August that Palestinian flags were discouraged on opposition marches in order ‘to show that this is not the main thing here’. Domestic support for Netanyahu’s government is weak and it is criticised for failing to recover the hostages. But there is a strong consensus in favour of the war effort, save for a few dissidents at the fringes. Gaza has provided excellent cover for joint police-settler aggression in the West Bank, and Israeli leaders have used the moment to hint at the possibility of attacking Lebanon. On 1 November, the Israeli historian Benny Morris suggested that ‘the timing will never be better than it is now’ for Israel to attack Iran. ‘It is possible that such an attack, especially if it succeeds, would even please Washington,’ Morris wrote in Haaretz.

The reaction to the attack on Gaza from both Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon has in fact been guarded. Hizbullah has launched missiles into northern Israel, and Israeli forces have fired white phosphorus shells and dropped bombs on towns close to the border, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes on both sides. On 8 January the senior Hizbullah commander Wissam al-Tawil was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike. But on the whole Hizbullah’s reaction to the war has been modest. Hassan Nasrallah didn’t speak publicly about Gaza until 3 November, and even then said very little. Iran, too, has been relatively restrained, its response mostly confined to symbolic proxy attacks on US military outposts in Iraq and Syria. The Houthis’ attempted blockade in the Red Sea is more consequential. In what they describe as a form of piratical humanitarian intervention, they have successfully diverted a large part of one of the world’s most important trade routes, and US and British strikes in Yemen have so far proved ineffectual in stopping them.

Israel’sactions can’t be seen in isolation from the US, since American protection shapes the environment in which Israel operates. The deployment of US aircraft carrier groups to the region (along with a few British warships) was intended to show neighbouring states that Israel wasn’t acting alone, thus mitigating the risk of regional opposition. The war itself is a transnational effort. Bombs manufactured in Texas are fitted with precision-guidance systems from Missouri, shipped to Europe, then flown, perhaps via British bases in Cyprus, to Israel before being dropped on Gaza. US and European foreign policy is aligned to enable Israel to do precisely what it is doing now. The US quickly provided an additional $14.5 billion of emergency aid to Israel for the war effort. Military supplies include 2000 Hellfire missiles and 57,000 155mm shells. When the IDF came close to running down its stores of 120mm tank shells the State Department approved a shipment of 14,000 more. On 20 October the White House requested the removal of all restrictions on access to munitions it has positioned in Israel.

A week after the Israeli assault began, Antony Blinken travelled to Tel Aviv for nine hours of talks in the underground control bunker below HaKirya, the IDF’s headquarters, known as ‘the pit’. Undeterred by the devastation, American officials continue to make constant visits to Israel to reaffirm what the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, called the US’s ‘unshakeable’ support. Initially it claimed to be flying drones over Gaza for ‘hostage recovery’. But a freedom of information request by the American journalists Ken Klippenstein and Matthew Petti revealed that the US air force has deployed intelligence officers to Tel Aviv to provide targeting support for the air campaign. Of course, the extent of the slaughter in Gaza could make things difficult for American leaders. The tame White House and State Department press corps – responsible for a Time magazine profile of Blinken that glowed with radioactive sycophancy – ply the line that the US has been valiantly ‘negotiating’ with Israel to show ‘restraint’. But there’s no reason to take that characterisation seriously. A more accurate assessment was provided by Colin Kahl, a former under-secretary of defence: ‘Biden immediately rallied to Israel’s defence and has stuck by Israel even in the face of growing domestic and international criticism.’

The US has all but foreclosed the possibility of effective pressure from the UN, since the ‘unique relationship’ policy outlined in a White House memo of May 1961 still applies: ‘Israel must know that if attacked, it can count on United States action inside and outside the United Nations.’ Biden is known to dislike Netanyahu, but at the height of the killings they were talking every other day. The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid revealed that Biden and Netanyahu had an awkward phone call in late December and have only spoken once since then. On 16 January Blinken conceded that, while US support wasn’t in question, ‘far too many Palestinians, innocent Palestinians, have already been killed.’ But that rhetorical shift shouldn’t be taken to mean that much has changed. Blinken and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, probably told Israel to moderate the rate of killing in order to make things easier for its defenders in the US and Europe. Blinken’s statement coincided with the IDF’s switch to what one Israeli security official called a ‘lower-intensity mobile campaign’.

The UK has supported the attack on Gaza not just with modest supplies of arms and munitions but, as a Five Eyes state, through the provision of signals intelligence. The RAF has flown intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance aircraft over Gaza. On 8 December Human Rights Watch called on the UK to stop arming Israel or risk ‘being complicit in grave abuses’. But the British political establishment has shown firm support for Israel. David Cameron, now foreign secretary, said that there was no way Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, because it is ‘a democracy’ and ‘a country with armed forces that are committed to obeying the rule of law’. On 14 December the UK’s chief of the defence staff, Tony Radakin, defended Israel’s military, saying that ‘inevitably fighting in such densely packed urban areas risks causing immense harm to civilians.’ Ministers trot out phrases from past Gaza wars that are meaningless in the present context. Talking to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 9 January, Cameron said calls for a ceasefire were unrealistic since the burning question is: ‘How do you get rid of Hamas’s capacity to launch more rockets?’ As though rockets were anyone’s main concern.

One might wonder what the response would be if the arguments deemed good enough to justify the attack on Gaza were inverted. Suppose national newspapers were to argue that because the government of Israel has ordered hideous atrocities, as it certainly has, Israeli officials should be killed at any cost, and if Tel Aviv must be destroyed to achieve this then so be it. If the bars of Rehavia must be turned into rubble, too bad – besides, look how close they are to the presidency on HaNasi Street. Has the Israeli state ‘diverted funds’ to the building of underground bunkers for its leadership? Is carpet bombing justified on grounds that the government and the political parties that constitute it are ‘integrated into Israeli society’? Arguments as absurd as these acquire respectability in the service of killing Palestinians.

The proportion of buildings destroyed in Gaza now approaches that of Guernica, Hamburg or Hiroshima, cities synonymous with the worst wartime devastation. Israel’s declared objective to ‘destroy Hamas’ has no relation to its tactic towards the general population, which has been to kill them or drive them towards Egypt. It appears no longer to want to run Gaza as a cordoned-off prison camp. But its plans are unclear. Negotiations with Hamas have been taking place through Egypt and Qatar. Some reports suggest that Israel offered a two-month ‘pause’ in exchange for the release of all the remaining hostages; Hamas countered that further releases of hostages would come only when Israel agrees to stop the attack and withdraw. Yoav Gallant has said that Gaza should return to ‘Palestinian administration’ guaranteed by the US. But on 30 December Netanyahu suggested that Israeli forces should also take control of the Philadelphi corridor, the 14-kilometre border between Gaza and Egypt. Israel continues to reject any political framework in favour of looking for ‘security’ in a pile of bones. Both Netanyahu and his chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, say the war will continue for many months. Who in Gaza has that sort of time?

26 January

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