Israeli Officials Dispute Death Toll in Gaza Amid Onslaught

Anas Baba/Getty
Anas Baba/Getty

TEL AVIV, Israel—The Gaza Strip and Israel entered their second week of hostilities Monday with a surging death toll, primarily on the Palestinian side. International efforts to bring an end to the deadliest round of fighting in the region for years have so far failed to take hold, with Israel continuing to hammer Gaza with airstrikes and militant groups continuing to fire barrages of rockets into Israel.

According to Gazan health authorities, 200 Palestinians have so far been killed, including 59 children and 35 women. Ten Israelis have been killed, according to local authorities, including 2 children and one soldier.

Israeli military officials disputed the casualty count coming out of Gaza, stating conservatively that 130 enemy combatants had so far been killed.

“The Health Ministry is told not to report male military-age fatalities,” an Israeli officer told The Daily Beast. “Military casualties are obfuscated, while civilian casualties are inflated.”

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The Daily Beast could not independently verify either Palestinian or Israeli claims regarding the death count inside Gaza, and no evidence has yet been provided by the Israeli military to suggest an exaggerated toll.

The Israeli military did not deny that civilians had been killed in its operations, especially overnight during strikes on an extensive Hamas underground tunnel system—referred to by Israel as the Gaza “metro”—that reportedly killed 42 people as adjacent buildings collapsed.

“The buildings were not the target, and we didn’t assess they were going to collapse,” the Israeli officer said, expressing regret. “We try our best…to minimize collateral damage…we’ll adjust in future.”

Hostilities erupted last Monday amidst weeks of tensions around Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, as well as a pending Israeli court decision that may have evicted several Palestinian families from their homes in a nearby neighborhood. Hamas subsequently fired a barrage of rockets at the contested holy city, setting off reprisal Israel airstrikes in Gaza and the current cycle of violence.

The rising civilian death toll inside Gaza has drawn international condemnation towards Israel, including from significant parts of the Democratic party, and increased efforts—primarily on the part of the U.S. and Egypt—to broker a ceasefire between the two sides.

A senior U.S. diplomat is in the region for talks with Israeli officials, yet the Biden administration, while calling for the fighting to end, has not demanded an immediate cessation from Israel.

“Israel has the right to defend itself. There is no equivalence between a terrorist group indiscriminately firing rockets at civilians and a country defending its people from those attacks,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Monday. “But Israel as a democracy has an extra burden to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties even as it defends itself.”

Later on Monday, the U.S. again blocked a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for the hostilities.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear over the weekend that the military operation would continue “with full force,” he said Sunday—until Hamas capabilities were degraded and long-term deterrence against the group was restored.

In service of these aims, Israel said it was targeting militant operatives (including senior commanders and their homes), rocket production facilities, command and control centers (controversially including multi-story buildings), and, new to this round of fighting, the Gaza “metro” system: hundreds of kilometers of reinforced concrete tunnels built underneath the coastal enclave meant to move around fighters, store weapons, and attack Israeli forces during any ground incursion.

After three intense rounds of bombardment in recent days, the Israeli military assessed that one hundred kilometers of the system had been destroyed—with more in the offing.

“Hamas I can assess, Gaza has never felt this kind of force before,” Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said Sunday.

For their part, Hamas and its allies have fired over three thousand rockets at Israel in eight days, including barrages of hundreds, a rate of fire previously unseen. For comparison, during the last Israel-Gaza war, in 2014, militant groups fired 4800 rockets and mortars at Israel—in two months. Over the past week Hamas has been able to target Tel Aviv and its environs with regularity, on a scale never before witnessed.

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“Firing on Tel Aviv is like drinking water,” Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said last week, later boasting that the group could keep firing on Israel’s economic capital for the next six months. The group scored a major psychological victory this past Saturday night when it announced that it was “lifting the curfew” over Tel Aviv for two hours and would hold its fire; but after midnight, it added, the city should prepare for incoming attacks.

True to its word, sirens rang out in Tel Aviv nine minutes after midnight, followed by the familiar thuds and louder booms of the Iron Dome aerial defense system indicating rockets had been intercepted in the skies above.

Southern Israeli towns and cities have borne the brunt of the rocket and mortar fire coming from Hamas. At the height of the bombardment last week, sirens rang out every ten minutes in the region. A large proportion of the population has simply left for safer areas farther north. Schools have been closed for a week across half the country, much incoming commercial air traffic has been canceled, and natural gas platforms sitting in the Mediterranean have also needed to be defended due to the threat of rocket fire.

The only sliver of good news, perhaps, is that the intercommunal violence that erupted inside Israel last week—between Arab and Jewish citizens of the state—has seemingly been contained. The last two nights have seen a major reduction in the rioting, vandalism and attempted lynches by both Arab-Israeli youths and gangs of far-right Jewish vigilantes.

A massive police operation of fifteen thousand officers, and now including Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, has so far succeeded in tamping down what even Netanyahu termed “anarchy” on the streets. Nearly a thousand arrests have been made, although both Jewish and Arab communal leaders worry that the long-term damage will take years to repair.

Arab-Israeli parliamentarian Mansour Abbas, during a tour of the hard-hit city of Lod on Sunday, condemned the burning of both synagogues and mosques during the unrest.

“The red line is violence of any kind,” he said. “We must look forward and start rebuilding our holy sites and our relations.”

A major test is upcoming on Tuesday, with a planned general strike in both the Arab-Israeli community and adjacent Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Schools, businesses, and government offices will be shuttered, leading to fears of clashes with Israeli security forces. Eleven Palestinians were killed in just such violence across the West Bank last Friday, leading to fears it would, like Gaza, explode.

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Yet follow-on protests over the weekend only attracted several thousand Palestinian demonstrators across some two dozen flash points in the West Bank. An Israeli security official told The Daily Beast that, despite its harsh condemnations of Israel, the Palestinian Authority – which governs parts of the West Bank—had so far not actively joined the fray.

With the death count rising in Gaza and scenes of devastation beamed across the world, it’s an open question how long the PA can hold such a line – to say nothing of Israel.

Public figures from John Oliver to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasia-Ortez have blasted the Israeli operation in Gaza; mass demonstrations have taken place in various European capitals; and condemnations have even been issued by friendly Arab regimes in the Middle East.

Major General Eliezer Toledano, the Israeli officer actually running the operation, told Israel’s Channel 12 on Sunday that “we’re in the middle of the campaign…the longer we [the military] are given, the better our achievements will be.”

Most analysts in Israel believe it may be a matter of days until international patience, including that of the Biden administration, is exhausted—and the fighting brought to a close later this week. False comfort for all those caught in the crossfire until then.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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