The War in Israel: Costs and Consequences

By Mel Gurtov

The Victims

Israel’s air war on Gaza is not only the most extensive ever carried out there; it is one of the largest bombardments anywhere in recent times—one that, according to the New York Times

“exceeds even the most intense month of strikes by a US-led military coalition on ISIS-held Mosul in Iraq, according to Airwars [a London-based group that monitors air attacks and civilian harm]. . . . 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.”

About 1400 Israelis were killed on October 7, and more than 220 hostages are in Hamas’ hands. Israel has struck about 7000 targets in Gaza since October 7, killing 1400 people according to Israel and over 7000 (including 2700 children) according to the Gaza health authorities. (The actual figure on deaths in Gaza is in dispute, with Pres. Biden among those who question it and the head of Human Rights Watch in Israel among those who accept it.) Either way, the death toll in Gaza already exceeds the total number of people killed in all the fighting in Gaza since 2008.

Israel’s military contends the bombing is saving lives by preparing the way for a ground invasion, but actually it seems intended to soften up the expected resistance when the invasion occurs. Palestinians (and the UN secretary-general) see the bombing as collective retribution. 

Whereas Israel’s attacks have destroyed mosques, homes, and other structures in order to root out or eliminate supposed Hamas military assets and fighters, to Gazans these are senseless acts directed at civilian targets. UN workers, journalists, and NGO officials are among the victims.

Gaza on the Brink

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, known as UNRWA, writes: 

“Nearly 600,000 people are sheltering in 150 schools and other UNRWA buildings, living in unsanitary conditions with limited clean water, little food and medicines. Mothers do not know how they can clean their children. Pregnant women pray that they will not face complications during delivery because hospitals have no capacity to receive them. Entire families now live in our buildings because they have nowhere else to go. But our facilities are not safe – 40 UNRWA buildings, including schools and warehouses, have been damaged by the strikes. Many civilians sheltering inside them were, tragically, killed.” 

In an interview, Lazzarini adds: “Food and water are running out. The streets of Gaza have started overflowing with sewage. Gaza is on the brink of a massive health hazard as the risks of diseases are looming.”

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the air raids is the impact on hospitals. By now we have all seen video of desperate people crowding Gaza’s few remaining hospitals, hoping for care for the wounded. Doctors are in short supply; many have fled. 

The most ordinary medicines and other supplies are running out, beds are not available for most patients, and electricity is unreliable. The Gaza health authorities say the hospital system is on the verge of collapse. They say 12 of Gaza’s 34 hospitals no longer function.

Aid to Gaza via the Rafah crossing from Egypt has been pitifully small. A 20-truck convoy that was allowed to proceed got plenty of attention, but observers at the scene say the aid so far is a drop in the bucket. One UN official reminds us that before Oct.7, 500 trucks crossed into Gaza daily, 45 of them with fuel for hospitals, bakeries, and autos. 

A major reason for the aid delays is that Israel and Egypt allow only certain kinds of aid to enter Gaza. Fuel is not one of them: A large convoy carrying fuel has been stopped at the border, on the argument that Hamas would steal the fuel if it entered. Calls from the UN and WHO for a humanitarian pause in the fighting so that aid can be allowed in are being ignored. It seems clear that international assistance is not going to be of any help to Gaza’s survivors.

What Next?

The New York Times reported on October 26: 

“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.’” 

That may well be the result: It is hard to imagine the level of destruction in Gaza not inspiring young men to join the resistance. But it is also hard to imagine Israel’s response if the hostages are not released. Even if they are, hatred of “the other” for what they did—a hatred that will be returned—will only harden.

More terrorists are just one probable cost of the war once it is concluded. Rebuilding Gaza will take billions of dollars. Who will pay for that? A significant percentage of Gaza’s population has left the country, while hundreds of thousands of others have been forcibly relocated within Gaza. 

Will all these people be willing and able to return, how will that come about, and who will pay for the resumption of their lives? The UN is deeply divided over the war; we cannot expect much relief assistance from it. 

Then there’s the matter of Gaza’s political leadership. If Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas’s top command, who will be the governing authority? Any Palestinians Israel might designate to take over risk being considered tools of the occupiers.

Finally, what happens to Israel’s leadership after the war? Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Israeli opinion polls, is widely condemned for the failure to prevent the Hamas attack. Three-quarters of Israelis want him out after the war, but until that happens, he’s in charge and will do everything he can to stay in charge. 

That Netanyahu is the only top Israeli national security official who has not accepted any blame for the Hamas attack is indicative. Will postwar Israel again be plunged into political chaos? Will the far right be empowered or discredited because of the war? Will Israel after the war continue expansion of settlements and deprivation of Palestinians’ rights in the West Bank?

One outcome of the extraordinary violence seems certain: The hope for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, not to mention a two-state arrangement, has been dashed for many years to come.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

This article was sent to The PeaceWorker and other peace groups on October 29, 2023.

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