Gaza: The Bombed and the Bombers

20 December 2023

Gaza: The Bombed and the Bombers

By Gwynne Dyer

Today (or yesterday, or tomorrow), the known death toll of Palestinians in Gaza since October 7th will reach 20,000.

The deaths of Hamas fighters are included in the numbers that the Hamas-run health ministry releases, and in past clashes with Israel the overall statistics have not been inflated. Hamas understands that accuracy builds credibility. So let’s say 5,000 of the dead are Hamas fighters, although it’s an implausibly high number.

That’s counter-balanced by the number of civilian dead still unfound and uncounted, especially where whole families lie buried deep in the rubble of pancaked buildings. So let’s say 5,000 of them too. It’s still 20,000 dead civilians.

That’s a big number, ranking with the worst air raids over Germany in the Second World War: the firestorm in Dresden in 1945 killed at least 25,000 German civilians, and the one in Hamburg in 1943 (the first ‘thousand-bomber raid’) killed an estimated 40,000.

A better comparison might be civilian deaths over the whole war. About one in one hundred of the residents of Gaza has been killed by rockets, bombs or artillery fire in the past 2 months. Up to half a million German civilians (highest estimate) were killed in the Allied bombing campaign 1942-45, which works out at one in 160 over four years.

Palestinian civilians are therefore having a much worse time now than German civilians had under the British and American thousand-bomber raids. But there is a real difference in the experience of those who did the killing then, and those who are doing it now.

I once did a television series about war that involved interviewing a lot of former aircrew who flew in Bomber Command. They were already in their 60s or 70s, but their memories of the Second World War were still clear and strong: it had been the formative event of their young lives.

They were especially clear about the fear, which was constant. There can be few experiences more terrifying than flying in the dark with enemy night-fighters behind and enemy flak ahead, strapped into a flimsy metal box that gives you as much protection from the bullets and the shrapnel as wet cardboard.

They were eloquent about that, because if they flew twenty-five missions they survived – but more than half of them did not survive. Another quarter were shot down and taken prisoner or were badly wounded in the air and taken off operations. Only 27% completed their twenty-five missions unscathed.

So when you asked them about the innocent women and children under their bombs – because most of the fit adult men in Germany were away in the army – they had no reply. Some of them felt a little guilt long afterwards, looking back, but none could recall any hesitation about bombing civilians at the time.

Fair enough: the constant presence of imminent death tends to focus your attention tightly on your own situation. But what should people in Britain, Canada (which provided 18% of Bomber Command’s aircrew) and the United States (which used the same tactics against Japan even before the atomic bombs) think about it now?

The answer is that they don’t think about it at all. People get very upset even now if you bring it up in public, as if discussing the subject is unfair to those who did the bombing.

But questioning those who took the command decisions is not.

I once interviewed Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who ran Bomber Command in 1942-45. Either he had no imagination, or he just didn’t care. Maybe both. I came away with the sense that I had met a war criminal.

So what is the relevance of all this to the Israel Defence Forces today? Firstly, the Israeli pilots and gunners who are actually doing the killing face almost no risk of death themselves. I’m not sure why that makes a difference, but I’m less inclined to make exceptions for them than for the doomed aircrew of World War II.

As for those who give them their orders, they are professionals who should know that this is a completely futile strategy. Nobody has ever bombed an organisation like Hamas into submission. It would require a much more extensive and aggressive use of Israeli ground troops, and imply far higher Israeli casualties – and it probably still wouldn’t work.

US President Joe Biden calls it “indiscriminate bombing” and former British defence secretary Ben Wallace calls it “a killing rage”. It continues because a) the war keeps Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyu in power, and b) it reassures ordinary Israelis who were shocked and frightened by the massacre of the innocent on 7 October.

But it has to stop, and soon. Biden can stop it just by pulling the plug, and he should. Even if Netanyahu then winds up in jail.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“The deaths…civilians”)