Israel-Gaza: A Question of Numbers

6 November 2023

Israel-Gaza: A Question of Numbers

By Gwynne Dyer

Being the Heritage Minister is not the summit of achievement in Israeli politics, but it is a cabinet position, and Amihai Eliyahu, the current occupant, really should watch what he says. When Radio Kol Berama asked him whether an atomic bomb should be dropped on Gaza, he should not have replied “This is one of the possibilities.”

It is technically one of the possibilities, of course, in the sense that Israel has had nuclear weapons for more than half a century, but it’s not something any Israeli government, even one of the extreme right, would ever do. Half the Israeli population would be under the fall-out no matter which way the wind was blowing.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promptly suspended Eliyahu, but not before the latter ‘clarified’ his statement, saying that it was just a metaphor. “However,” he added, “a strong and disproportionate response to terrorism is definitely required, which will clarify to the Nazis and their supporters that terrorism is not worthwhile.”

The Nazis? Yes, they’re back, and the Spanish Inquisition is also on its way. The Crusaders haven’t checked in yet, although they massacred all the Jews in Jerusalem when they conquered the city in 1099. Maybe they can’t decide which side to pick, because they massacred all the Muslims in Jerusalem at the same time.

But enough of history. Monday was a big symbolic moment, because the death toll of Palestinians from Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip reached 10,000.

It was purely symbolic, because there must be at least another thousand or so people still buried under the debris from the buildings they were sheltering in. Their remains will only be found weeks or months from now when the shooting stops and the clearing-up begins. But it’s a powerful symbol, because Hamas has made it so.

Hamas controls everything in the Gaza Strip, including the Health Ministry which announces the daily death toll, but the latter has established a reputation among the international media for being as accurate as possible in its numbers.

Why? Because Hamas’s leaders are smart enough to know that a number which is credible has more power to persuade than a number that is exaggerated and disbelieved.

Persuade whom to do what? Persuade the ‘international community’ to revolt against the spectacle of so many deaths and force Israel to accept a ceasefire.

It has succeeded a number of times in the past, and it will probably eventually work this time too. Everybody knows that Hamas militants are included in the count, but everybody also knows that the great majority of the casualties really are innocent civilians. Indeed, about half of the dead are women and children.

Israelis might reasonably object that this international pressure is unfair. After all, nobody minded much when Allied bomber crews killed the wives and children of real Nazis, or at least real Germans, during the Second World War.

Allied bombers destroyed sixty German cities and killed about half a million people, mostly women, children and old men. (Most of the younger men were away at war.) It probably wasn’t even cost-effective: 80,000 Allied aircrew were also killed.

At least 10,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombing in the ‘softening-up’ of German defences before the D-Day landings in 1944, and nobody objected to that either. But the past is a different country.

What we now have – and it makes all the difference – is vivid, constant images of the killing process. The images of Israeli families murdered at breakfast are last month’s news; the slaughtered Palestinian families are today’s news, and the number of days we have been seeing them is mounting up.

I used to make the lazy rule-of-thumb calculation that international pressure would force the Israelis to stop when the kill-ratio hit ten-to-one in their favour, but in this particular case that would be over 14,000 dead Palestinians. I couldn’t believe that, so I went on the ‘Jewish Virtual Library’ website to check the ratios.

It’s more complicated than that. During the early wars, when it was soldiers against soldiers (the Israel Defence Force against Arab armies), the reality more or less matched my mental image: twelve-to-one in Israel’s favour in the 1956 Sinai campaign, more than twenty-to-one in the Six Day War of 1967, about eight-to-one in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

But in the later wars, against guerillas, terrorists and incidental bystanders, it goes off the scale: ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2008-09) one hundred-to-one, Operation Pillar of Defence (2012) one hundred and fifty-to-one; Operation Protective Edge (2014) thirty-to-one, Operation Guardian of the Walls (2021) twenty-to-one.

So we probably shouldn’t expect the current operation to close down tomorrow.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“It is…blowing”; and “At least…country”)