As the war in Gaza enters its third month with no end of hostilities in sight, the death toll rises and the great disparity between Israeli and Palestinian casualties widens.
The Israeli Defense Forces have killed nearly 22,000 Palestinians (as many as 40 percent of them children) for the loss of approximately 173 of its soldiers. That’s a ratio of more than 120 to 1. According to the IDF, only 8,000 of the dead were Hamas operatives.
Why are Palestinian deaths so high and the disparity in casualties so great? Several factors have contributed to the carnage, but the best explanation may lie in an archaeological site near the Dead Sea.
Urban warfare against insurgents is very challenging for a conventional army. Enemy fighters operate out of uniform in small units amid the general population.
Israel rightly accuses Hamas of putting its own people at risk by operating in heavily populated areas.
Gruesome atrocities perpetrated during the Oct. 7 rampage that killed 1,200 Israelis contribute to demonizing Palestinians.
Israeli soldiers are understandably enraged by the sheer brutality of the attacks, which included the calculated use of sexual assault.
These factors have contributed to but do not adequately explain the IDF’s reliance on firepower, especially since they were shown a better way to wage war.
Before the invasion of Gaza, the U.S. sent military officers to Israel to advise the IDF on how to engage Hamas in Gaza. Based on experience gained in Iraq, they recommended a surgical approach, combining precision air strikes with a series of commando raids.
That approach would have saved Palestinian civilian lives, but it would probably have resulted in higher Israeli military casualties, which the Netanyahu government found unacceptable.
That aversion to casualties is the subject of Yagil Levy’s book, “Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy.” Levy argues that the reluctance of the Israeli public to accept losses in war has led the IDF to rely on excessive force.
Overreliance on firepower has characterized the Gaza campaign from the start. The IDF has relied heavily on “dumb” (non-precision guided) munitions, which account for 40-45 percent of the bombs dropped.
Contrary to U.S. advice, the IDF has also dropped hundreds of 2,000-pound bombs instead of lighter ones that would kill fewer civilians and destroy less property.
Aversion to casualties and reliance on massive firepower go a long way in explaining the death toll in Gaza, but they do not tell the whole story.
Oct. 7 and the mounting international criticism have revived a siege mentality present since the creation of Israel in 1948.
One of the country’s most iconic historical sites epitomizes that mentality: the fortress of Masada.
Located in the barren wasteland south of the Dead Sea, Masada was the last stronghold to fall to the Romans during the Zealot revolt from 66-73 A.D. After holding out for three years, the garrison committed suicide rather than be captured and sold into slavery.
When Zionists established modern Israel in 1948, Masada became a symbol of the new nation — a Jewish outpost surrounded by hostile Arab states.
Soldiers in the Israeli Army have often been sworn in at the site, repeating the pledge, “Masada shall not fall again.”
In the decades when Israel fought coalitions of surrounding states who vowed to “throw the Jews into the sea,” Masada seemed an appropriate symbol of resistance against overwhelming odds.
As one Arab state after another made peace with Israel, however, its suitability faded but never disappeared.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the conflict shifted from an international contest with Arab states to an internal struggle against militant Palestinians.
Oct. 7 and the subsequent war have brought the Masada complex back with a vengeance.
The Hamas terrorist attack shook the confidence of Israelis in their security and hardened a them-vs-us mentality.
A recent poll indicated that 80 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that in conducting military operations, the IDF should take the suffering of Gazans into consideration only to “a small extent.”
Support for a two-state solution has also declined. In 2012, 61 percent of Israelis supported it; now 65 percent oppose it.
International pressure for a ceasefire may be contributing to the siege mentality.
When a ceasefire resolution came before the United Nations General Assembly, 153 member states voted for it. Only 10, including the United States and Israel, voted “no,” and 23, including America’s close allies, Britain and Germany, abstained.
While the U.S. remains, Israel’s staunchest ally, the Biden administration is increasingly out of step with American voters, 3 in 5 of whom want a ceasefire.
The Israeli government remains defiant in the face of mounting pressure. “Israel will continue the war against Hamas, with or without international support,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen declared.
Prime Minister Netanyahu may be trying to exploit the Masada complex to stay in power, posing as a strong leader who will defy the world in defense of his country.
If that is his goal, it is not working. A poll conducted in mid-December revealed that only 31 percent of Israelis consider him “suitable for his position.”
The most disturbing statistic of all is a growing sense of hopelessness. Asked by a Gallup Poll, “Do you think that a permanent peace between Israel and Palestine will ever be achieved?” 74 percent of Israeli respondents said, “No.”
Without a change in how the war is being waged, that pessimistic view may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the death toll rises, so does the anger and bitterness among Palestinians. Defeating Hamas will accomplish nothing if the war inspires a new generation of terrorists.
Fortunately, the IDF may be shifting tactics to the more focused approach the U.S. has been advocating, withdrawing thousands of troops from Gaza during the past few days.
Whatever value Masada had as a symbol in the past, it does not point the way to the future. Peace in the Middle East can only be achieved by working with the international community, not defying it.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Conventional and Unconventional War: A History of Conflict in the Modern World.”
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