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“A Tragedy Beyond Words”: The Devastating Effects of the Gaza War

More than seven months after the October 7 terrorist attacks, the Israeli war in Gaza grinds on, with no clear end in sight. The war’s most likely near-term outcomes are either a continuing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Gaza or a wider war in the Middle East. An end to the war and efforts to remedy the suffering in Gaza are better, if less likely, options.

War in Gaza

The immediate cause of the war was the October 7, 2023 attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The attackers killed people indiscriminately in southern Israel. An estimate made in February 2024 placed the resulting number of dead at 1,163 people, 767 of them civilians. The victims included children ages six and under, with the youngest being a baby girl whose pregnant mother had been shot while in labor. 

Hamas also took more than 250 people hostage. While more than 100 hostages were released in November,  perhaps roughly another 100 are still alive and being held by Hamas. 

Israel has responded with a bombing campaign against Gaza followed by a ground invasion of both northern and southern Gaza. Aimed at defeating Hamas, this military campaign has had a devastating effect on Gaza’s people. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes to escape the fighting. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that by October 12, 2023, more than 400,000 Palestinians had been displaced. By March 20, 2024, about 1.7 million had been displaced, with these people now living in or around emergency shelters. Tens of thousands of refugees are clustered in small areas of southern Gaza, notably the district of Rafah. The United Nations (UN) estimates that, in Rafah, more than 1 million people “are squeezed into an extremely overcrowded space.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports widespread damage to Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, and water and sanitation facilities. WHO estimates up to 80 percent of civilian infrastructure has been destroyed or severely damaged and will take decades to rebuild.

Food and other humanitarian aid are scarce in Gaza. The UN’s estimates are that prior to the war, 500 humanitarian aid trucks came into Gaza daily. As of March 2024, 164 aid trucks were arriving daily. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that meeting Gaza’s basic food needs would require at least 300 trucks per day. Carl Skau, WFP’s chief operating officer, comments, “The complicated border controls, combined with the high tensions and desperation inside Gaza, make it nearly impossible for food supplies to reach people in need, particularly in the north.”

Given limited food supplies and the war’s other disruptions, Gaza is now facing famine. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the global organization responsible for declaring famine situations, said in March that famine could strike northern Gaza by May and central and southern Gaza by July. Roughly half of Gaza’s population could be enduring catastrophic hunger by the summer.

Precisely how many people have been killed in Gaza since the war began is controversial. As of late April, Gaza’s health authorities place the death toll at more than 34,000 people. Since Hamas runs the health authorities, though, such estimates are open to criticism. Defenders of Israeli policy argue Hamas’ numbers may be false or may not distinguish between civilians and Hamas militants.

Caution is certainly warranted in evaluating Hamas’ figures for those killed in the war. Nevertheless, massive numbers of civilians have undoubtedly been killed in Gaza over the past seven months. A military campaign waged in a very densely populated territory (more than 2 million people live in the 25-mile-by-6-mile Gaza Strip), including urban areas such as Gaza City, is inevitably going to lead to many civilian deaths. 

Even presupposing dramatic exaggeration by Hamas, if the actual civilian death toll were only a quarter of Hamas’ numbers, that would still mean more than 8,000 civilians have been killed. Such numbers are more than 10 times the number of civilians killed in the original October 7 attacks. Such a tally—let alone possible higher numbers of civilian deaths—points to the terrible human cost of the Israeli campaign, which is unlikely to end soon. 

As of this writing, mediators are seeking a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, while the Israeli military is bombing the enclave of Rafah, as an apparent prelude to a ground assault. Martin Griffiths, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has warned that an assault on Rafah would be “nothing short of a tragedy beyond words…a ground invasion would spell even more trauma and death.” 

Tamer Al-Burai, who has been sheltering in Rafah with his extended family, told Reuters they had decided to flee the area. “We have women, children, elderly and sick people, who may face problems escaping should the invasion happen suddenly," Al-Burai said. 

War in the Middle East?

Beyond the threat of further bloodshed in Gaza, continuing the military campaign threatens to escalate into a regional war. Early in the conflict, the Gaza war sparked violent exchanges in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen between Israel and the United States on the one hand and pro-Palestinian militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis on the other. 

In January, a drone strike killed three United States soldiers stationed in Jordan. The United States attributed the attack to various militant groups aligned with Iran and responded with air strikes in Iraq and Syria. 

The biggest escalation to date came in April. An Israeli air strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria on April 1 killed 13 people, including two generals. This strike may have been retaliation for a drone attack the same day which Israel attributed to Iran. 

Iran retaliated on April 14 with a massive strike of missiles and drones against Israel. The Israelis, supported by the United States and other nations, successfully shot down most of the Iranian strike, which ultimately caused minimal damage. Israel apparently retaliated April 19 with an air strike on a military base in Iran.

The recent exchange between Israel and Iran seems to have been an exercise in international shadowboxing: the two countries are demonstrating their resolve against each other while doing little actual harm. Nevertheless, two major Middle Eastern powers have now attacked each other. Taken together with the other violent exchanges that have occurred across the Middle East since the Gaza war began, Israel and Iran’s recent round of attacks is very ominous. A regional war involving Israel, Iran, or other nations would be a bloody disaster that could drag the United States into another conflict.

How Will It End?

The Gaza war’s human toll and dangers of a wider war are even more disturbing given the vague and discouraging goals the Israeli government is pursuing. In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a brief statement offering a post-war plan for Gaza. The plan includes Gaza’s demilitarization, Israeli control of the territory’s northern and southern borders, replacing Hamas’ rule with “local elements with administrative experience,” and a “comprehensive de-radicalization program.”

This proposal for essentially indefinite Israeli governance of Gaza is hardly just and does not seem likely to stop armed Palestinian resistance to Israel. Combined with the embittering toll of the war, a re-occupation of Gaza will likely fuel further violence from whatever remains of Hamas, new militant groups, or both.

A better alternative would be an agreement in which Israel, in return for the release of the remaining hostages, ended the current campaign and withdrew from Gaza. The Israeli government could establish new security arrangements within Israel, such as a fortified buffer zone around the Gaza Strip, to guard against a repetition of the October 7 attacks. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid should be allowed into Gaza free of wartime disruptions. 

The United States, as Israel’s leading supporter, might be able to pressure Israel into accepting such an agreement by making key aid conditional on its acceptance. Such an outcome is unlikely, given the United States’ past support for Israel even amid the Gaza war: the United States Congress recently passed, and President Joe Biden signed, a bill providing roughly $14 billion in military aid to Israel. The Biden administration has also continued to transfer weapons such as fighter jets and bombs to Israel. The administration did pause some weapons transfers to Israel in light of the assault on Rafah, but whether that will affect Israeli military operations is unclear. 

Nevertheless, United States citizens concerned with protecting Gaza’s people can try to influence government policy. They should contact the Biden administration by phone, at 202-456-1111, or email their representatives in the House and Senate to advocate pressure on Israel to end the war and withdraw from Gaza.

Those interested in supporting organizations that help Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere might consider donating to Action against Hunger, United Palestinian Appeal, Anera, and Islamic Relief USA.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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