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Why Israel's push into Gaza is killing so many children

Man carrying prone child through dust after explosion
An unidentified Palestinian man carrying an injured child away from the site of an Israeli airstrike at the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on Tuesday.Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images
  • Israel-Hamas violence has killed more than 3,000 children. Almost all are Palestinians hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

  • Children account for a startlingly high share of Palestinians reported killed in Gaza — roughly 41%.

  • Gaza's demography, geography, and IDF military tactics have contributed to the high death toll.

The monthlong Israel-Hamas fighting is killing children at a rate faster than almost every other armed conflict in decades.

The overwhelming majority of the children — a reported 3,542 as of October 30, as compared with more than 30 children reported killed on the Israeli side — have been Palestinians in Gaza.

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The only comprehensive statistics for civilian casualties in Gaza come from the Palestinian Health Ministry, an agency of Gaza's Hamas-run government whose credibility has come under scrutiny after it blamed an explosion at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza on Israeli forces — a claim disputed by numerous open-source researchers and the assessment of the US intelligence community. After President Joe Biden publicly doubted the accuracy of its casualty statistics, the Health Ministry released a list that it said contained the names, ID numbers, and ages of every person killed by Israeli airstrikes. Insider was unable to verify the list, which has been endorsed by officials from the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Out of every 10 people listed as killed by the Health Ministry, four were children. That proportion of child deaths exceeds all other recent armed conflicts, including Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Israeli warplanes have relentlessly bombarded the 25-mile-long strip since Hamas' October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, which killed an estimated 1,400 people. More than 200 people were taken hostage, including an estimated 30 children. Many were tortured.

On Sunday, the international humanitarian organization Save The Children said the number of children killed in Gaza in three weeks had surpassed the total number of children killed in all global conflict zones since 2019. To find a comparable death toll, one would have to go back to the Syrian civil war, which killed 27,126 children over a period of more than 10 years, or the ongoing Yemeni civil war, in which 3,774 children have died in seven years of fighting, according to the UN.

The current Israel-Hamas conflict, by comparison, is less than a month old and continues to intensify as Israel begins ground operations in Gaza. Neither Syria nor Yemen saw children accounting for such a large share of civilian deaths.

Geography, demography — and a relentless air assault

Several factors contribute to the elevated death toll among children, experts told Insider. Demographics and geography play a role — nearly half of Gaza's 2.1 million residents are 18 or younger. In addition to being one of the most densely packed areas in the world, Gaza's terrain is mostly flat, increasing the effective range of bombs and explosives.

And Hamas, which sparked this most recent round of violence with the brutal and indiscriminate October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians, operates beside and beneath an urban environment from which it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for residents to escape.

But the Israeli strategy of assailing Gaza with wave after wave of airstrikes is also to blame, according to Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. Sheltering in UN-operated refugee camps, schools, and hospitals creates risks for more civilian casualties because people are congregated in areas under attack, Shakir said.

"The intensity of the bombardment they've carried out carries a foreseeable risk to civilian harm," Shakir said. "We're seeing that at a different degree of intensity. The significant death toll is in line with the intense type of bombardment."

Palestinian children walking by a building reduced to rubble in Gaza.
Palestinian children walking toward a destroyed home on Monday, the day after an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp, in the central Gaza Strip.Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

"The 6,000 bombs that Israel said it dropped on Gaza during the first week is an incredible number," said Brian Finucane, a former State Department advisor on the law of war, now at the International Crisis Group. "That's more than the US coalition against ISIS would drop in an entire month."

And, Finucane added, there are reasons to doubt whether Israel has an accurate picture of exactly whom those bombs are falling on. "Israel's failure to anticipate the atrocities of October 7 calls into question the quality of intelligence about any preplanned targets," he said. "Whether or not they remain lawful military objectives, and whether Israeli intelligence regarding collateral civilian harm is up to date."

'A growing stain on our collective conscience'

Children constitute 41% of the 8,525 Palestinians whom the Palestinian Health Ministry has reported killed in Gaza. On the Israeli side, the United Nations says more than 30 children were killed in Hamas' attacks.

Neither statistic has been independently verified. The UN has historically found the reporting of civil authorities in Gaza to be reliable.

UNICEF, which has called for an immediate cease-fire days before Israel expanded its ground-invasion operations in Gaza, said the "staggering" death toll of children was "a growing stain on our collective conscience."

Shortly after Biden's comments casting doubt on Palestinian casualty figures, HuffPost reported that 20 State Department "situation reports" had cited the Health Ministry's numbers internally. In one of those reports, on October 21, an official wrote that the numbers were "likely much higher," attributing the discrepancy to the UN and nongovernmental organizations on the ground.

On October 13, Israel issued an evacuation order to 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza, asking them to move south.

But those Palestinians who followed the instructions of the Israeli government and relocated to the south did not escape the threat of Israeli airstrikes. Some Israeli planes continued to target southern Gaza after the evacuation order. Among those killed were family members of Al Jazeera Arabic's Gaza bureau chief, including his wife, daughter, son and grandson; another young daughter was badly injured.

Gaza is already crowded, and Israel's evacuation orders have packed the civilian population into even smaller areas. Shakir, HRW's Israel and Palestine director, attributes much of the disproportionate effect on children to the scale of the offense in this shrinking, overcrowded space.

Israel says its attacks are highly regulated and reviewed by lawyers

In a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said they were adhering to the law of armed conflict, which requires combatants to balance military necessity against the protection of civilian life. The IDF has "a highly-regulated, multi-tiered process for approving pre-planned attacks against military objectives," the spokesperson wrote, adding that military lawyers "are on hand at all levels of command to ensure that strikes comply with international legal obligations, including proportionality."

The IDF's professed adherence to international law stands in contrast to statements made during the conflict by Israel's political leaders, who have promised to deliver no-holds-barred vengeance for the Hamas attacks. "We will cripple them mercilessly and avenge this black day they have brought upon Israel and its citizens," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "Residents of Gaza, get out now. We will be everywhere and with all our might."

Yoav Gallant, Israel's minister of defense, said he was removing "all restraints" from Israel's response and characterized his targets as "human animals."

"It is an entire nation out there that is responsible," Israeli President Isaac Herzog said. "It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved. It's absolutely not true."

Herzog later said he did not mean to imply that Palestinian civilians were legitimate targets. Nevertheless, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari reportedly said airstrikes on Gaza would prioritize "damage, not accuracy."

In a follow-up email, Insider asked the IDF spokesperson whether Israel had imposed any special measures to protect the lives of children. The spokesperson said Israel was operating "in stark contrast" to "Hamas' barbaric attacks." "The IDF follows international law and takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm," they wrote, without providing specifics.

The International Criminal Court has been investigating Israel on suspicion of war crimes since 2019

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Karim A.A. Khan, said on Sunday that Israel, by impeding aid, could face further war-crime investigations. Collective punishment and starving civilians are banned by the laws of war.

"It's alarming to see the bodies of young children that could be our own children being dragged, baked in dust, still, silent, motionless because they're dead — or with injuries and blood — being rushed to medical facilities that may not have the means to fix them and give them a chance to breathe the air and see the sun of tomorrow," Khan said in Cairo. Khan's remarks appeared to suggest that Hamas as well as Israel could find themselves prosecuted by the ICC. Since 2019, the court has had an open investigation into whether Israel has committed war crimes.

Tahani Mustafa, the senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the high death toll, disabling injuries, and "undignified" ways in which children's families, friends, and neighbors had been killed in Israeli airstrikes would also cause surviving children deep psychological trauma and physical pain.

"They are seeing their entire world get destroyed," Mustafa said. Given the blockade imposed by Israel, which for a time completely stopped the flow of food and water into Gaza, and continues to cut off fuel, children are also witnessing the way they have had to store bodies, including in ice-cream trucks. This kind of trauma and violence, Mustafa said, "does nothing for political inclination for these young people."

Historically, many Palestinians who have taken up arms against Israelis "have been victims of these sorts of violence," Mustafa said. "Never mind the deep psychological trauma and physical pain. Politically, this serves neither side."

Abandoning 'roof knocks'

During past Gaza offensives, Israel sometimes warned civilians inside targeted buildings with phone calls, leaflets, or by deploying low-yield munitions on buildings in advance of a major strike, a practice known as "roof knocking." An IDF officer told The New York Times that the Israeli Air Force was too busy dropping bombs on targets to use the tactic this time. Instead of roof knocks, Israel is issuing mass evacuation orders and flyers stating that "anyone who is near Hamas fighters will put their lives in danger."

The volume of the current bombing campaign, combined with the lack of specific warnings, has killed far more children and at a much faster rate than previous Israeli offensives in Gaza. During Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, 521 out of the 1,483 civilians killed were children — 35% — according to the United Nations. That campaign went on for 50 days. Already, operating on the same terrain, the current Israeli offensive is believed to have killed more than six times the number of children in roughly half the time.


Lila Hassan is a freelance investigative reporter covering extremism and immigration. She can be reached at Lila@lila-hassan.com

Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Insider. He can be reached at schwartz79@protonmail.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider