December 19, 2023 - 7:00am

When Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, the scale and brutality of its assault won the Jewish state one of the most powerful, if intangible, weapons in any country’s arsenal: international sympathy. For the first time in many decades, Israel could plausibly be viewed as a victim, and the international community broadly accepted both Israel’s moral right and political compulsion to extirpate Hamas from Gaza. 

Just over two months later, and the poles have been reversed: the sheer scale of civilian fatalities in the Gaza war has caused even Israel’s closest allies to blanch. On Saturday the UK Foreign Secretary published a joint op-ed with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, observing that “too many civilians have been killed” and calling for “a sustainable ceasefire”. More pressingly for Israel, US President Joe Biden has warned that its “indiscriminate bombing” has meant that the country is “starting to lose [international] support”. 

The proportion of civilian deaths already vastly outpaces America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the comparable air-led Coalition campaigns to root out Isis from Raqqa and Mosul. Around 25,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, including around 5,000 Hamas fighters according to Israel: roughly one-sixth of the group’s total numbers. Indeed, the proportion of civilian deaths is higher than the average for even the bloodiest 20th-century conflicts. 

More of Gaza has been damaged or destroyed than the RAF managed in the bombing campaigns against Dresden and Cologne, now bywords for indiscriminate aerial bombing. According to US intelligence agencies, almost half of the munitions used have been unguided bombs, perhaps because Israel is storing up its guided munitions for potential use against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

While Israeli military casualties have been lower than anticipated at the beginning of the war — with only 129 soldiers killed in Gaza so far — the staggering scale of civilian deaths is in itself a strategic millstone for Israel. As pressure for a ceasefire builds, the US is urging Israel to transition to a lower-intensity phase of the conflict “in a matter of weeks, not months”. The risk for Israel is that, as well as eroding international legitimacy for its response to the 7 October atrocities, the scale of civilian deaths will force the IDF to call a halt to its campaign before it achieves its war aims of destroying Hamas. 

Could things have been different? The only viable alternative solution for Israel would have been to accept a higher level of IDF casualties, in a ground-led operation in which aerial bombing would have been used sparingly, against targets of tactical opportunity. This would have followed Coalition practice in Raqqa and Mosul, though even then the two cities were largely levelled, with civilians killed in their thousands. Yet more carefully calibrated use of air power could have reframed the international debate away from the current binary between a total ceasefire and total military victory, affording Israel more space to conduct its campaign towards a successful conclusion. 

Even here, however, success would depend on the IDF’s attitude towards preventing civilian harm. The killing this weekend by IDF ground troops of Israeli hostages waving a white flag and the “murder” by Israeli snipers of two Catholic women in a church compound highlights that either IDF rules of engagement or the level of training undertaken by its conscripts depart markedly from Western norms. As a consequence, civilian suffering may soon allow Hamas to claw back a bloody victory from the edge of military defeat. Disastrous for Palestinian civilians, the IDF’s seemingly lax attitude to target acquisition may be seen by Israelis, within a few weeks, as “worse than a crime, a mistake”.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.