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Israeli soldiers are seen during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday. Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan Gaza City could be utterly destroyed as a result of Israel's attacks

The security analyst and senator says what is happening right now in Gaza is an obscenity and a ceasefire must happen.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Nov 2023

THE ISRAELI DEFENCE Forces (IDF) have saturated Gaza city with air strikes and artillery barrages for over a month since 7 October when Hamas launched its homicidal terror attacks on Israel. To date, almost 11,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been slaughtered in Israel’s military response to Hamas’ incursion into Israel and their ongoing missile attacks on civilian targets across southern Israel.

Over 4,000 Palestinian children have been murdered by the IDF since they began their operations in Gaza. I use the word ‘murdered’ deliberately. These children have not ‘died’ or simply been ‘killed’ in the fighting. These passive terms do not capture the fact that these children have been deliberately murdered as a consequence of war crimes committed by the Israeli military.

Israel has a right to defend itself from attacks by Hamas. Israel is a legitimate state with an absolute right to exist. It does not however have the right to commit war crimes in its response to Hamas. The Geneva Conventions and the laws of armed conflict are very explicit in the onus placed on parties to a conflict to protect civilians. Article 51 ‘Protection of the Civilian Population’ sets out the responsibilities of the IDF – and Hamas – toward the 2.2 million innocent civilians trapped in Gaza.

Sections 4 and 5 of Article 51 prohibit the use of weapon systems or a ‘method of attack’ that cannot be directed at or limited to a specific military objective, or where there is a ‘concentration of civilians or civilian objects’. The use of airstrikes and artillery fires on residential districts, refugee camps, hospitals and ambulances are war crimes. The IDF have deliberately targeted civilians in this manner – including thousands of children – and these actions, in my view, meet the threshold of mass murder.

To be clear, even in the event of the possibility of ‘accidental’ ‘collateral damage’ or unintentional civilian casualties, where an attack ‘could cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects, then the attack must be called off’.

There it is, in black and white. There must be an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza to protect the civilian population. President Biden has stated that there is no chance of such a ceasefire. Both the IDF and Hamas continue to commit war crimes. The principal victims of this criminal activity are innocent Palestinian men, women and children.

Hamas is in direct contravention of Article 51 of the Geneva Conventions. Their genocidal and indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians is compounded by the despicable act of hostage taking – 240 persons, including it is believed, an Irish Israeli girl, Emily Hand. Hamas is also using – contrary to the laws of armed conflict – Palestinians as de-facto human shields and are operating in the proximity and environs of protected civilian structures. Whilst this is the case, this does not remove the protected status of civilian objects. Israel’s attacks on the al-Shifa hospital, on the al-Rantisi pediatric hospital and the al-Nasr children’s hospital are despicable war crimes and wholly unjustifiable.

What next?

The next stage in the war in Gaza will be particularly brutal and problematic. The IDF has bisected the Gaza Strip and has surrounded Gaza City in the northern sector. In what are termed ‘MOUT’, or ‘Military Operations in Urban Terrain’, the strategy and tactics that will now be used by the IDF will lead to the complete destruction of the city.

According to the IDF’s own figures, approximately 200,000 Palestinian civilians remain trapped in this urban environment – including the thousands of civilians sheltering at hospitals such as al-Shifa and al-Rantisi.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior spokesperson Mark Regev has stated that the concept of operations for Israel’s stated aim of ‘destroying Hamas’ will resemble the destruction of Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul in Iraq. To this end, IDF units are now advancing, street by street, house by house toward the centre of Gaza City – on three axes of advance. They have deployed hundreds of Merkava main battle tanks (MBTs) to this end. They have also deployed their much-vaunted newly developed ‘Namer’ armoured personnel carrier (APC).

These are 70-ton monsters with layer upon layer of ceramic, steel and explosive reactive armour plating. The IDF also claims that these machines use artificial intelligence for the sensing, imaging and acquisition of human targets.

The main armament of the Merkava tank is a 120mm cannon that fires high explosive armour-piercing and anti-personnel rounds. There is no cover from such weapon systems in conventional homes, apartments and cellars. Nor is there protection from 12.7 mm heavy machine guns mounted on the Namer APCs and the IDF armoured fighting vehicles (IFVs) deployed in support of those tanks. Firing at a rate of up to 550 rounds per minute, such weapons fire a mix of armoured piercing, conventional and incendiary rounds – capable of penetrating up to 20mm of armoured plate.

Deploying such weapon systems in the civilian environment will have predictable and foreseeable outcomes for Palestinian men, women and children trapped in this environment. Irish troops – myself included – on peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and elsewhere have witnessed at first hand the impact of these weapons on civilians. Horrific soft tissue injuries, burns, limb separation, decapitation along with the shattering of bones and pulping of internal organs. Medical personnel operating with Medicine Sans Frontieres, the Red Crescent in Gaza, have reported such injuries among civilians – and particularly among children. They have also reported injuries arising from flechette rounds and the use of White Phosphorous in the direct fire role.

As the IDF tries to gain ground in Gaza City in the coming days and weeks, images of such injuries will be uploaded in real time, hour by hour, day by day and will likely lead to a wider, regional escalation of the war. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahain has stated that ‘due to the extension of the war against Gaza’s civilian residents, expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable’.

Israel’s plan

Israel’s stated aim to ‘destroy’ Hamas in the manner used to eliminate and disperse Islamic State will come at a very high cost to their own personnel. Their new Namer APCs are not as invulnerable as they had previously thought. One was destroyed on Tuesday of this week with the death of 9 IDF soldiers. Over two dozen Israeli soldiers have been killed in the insertion phase of their invasion. Over 260 have been seriously wounded.

As they move into the twisted wreckage of Gaza, Hamas will enjoy a slight tactical advantage, launching 360-degree attacks and ambushes on Israeli armour as they advance.

Ultimately – despite their technological superiority and AI-assisted weapon systems – Israeli soldiers will have to dismount from their vehicles and fight face to face with Hamas. Hamas, like Islamic State, has a suicide propensity and will inflict a level of casualties that the IDF and the Israeli public will begin to question.

Lessons learned by the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq have demonstrated that such operations require a much greater attacker to defender ratio. In conventional operations, this is normally a 3:1 ratio. In the urban environment, it rises to 8:1, which will involve tens of thousands of IDF troops required on the front line. Ammunition expenditure in this environment is also prohibitive at four times the conventional amount of joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) and precision guided munitions expended 24/7.

The war in Ukraine has already depleted the United States and NATO’s strategic stockpile of such weapons. Whilst Israel has its own domestic weapons industry, it relies on Western suppliers for much of its high-end ordnance.

Russia knows this and Putin will hope to benefit from the war in Gaza, hoping that it will dilute the West’s capabilities and willingness to support Ukraine indefinitely.

Russia’s principal ally in that war – Iran – is also watching the war in Gaza closely. If they instruct Hezbollah in Lebanon to open up a missile and ground campaign against northern Israel – the IDF will struggle to contain both fronts.

What is happening in Gaza is an obscenity. In scale and impact, Israel’s assault is defined in international law as ‘disproportionate’, involving collective punishment, ‘wanton destruction’ and ‘wilful killing’. Hamas is also committing war crimes and bears responsibility for these crimes. Criticising Hamas war crimes is not Islamaphobia. Criticising Israeli war crimes is not anti-Semitism. As our Taoiseach and Tánaiste have repeatedly stated, there needs to be an immediate ceasefire and end to the violence. With Irish troops in Lebanon and Syria, Ireland must use her independent, neutral voice – to call for an end to the killing of children and the avoidance of a catastrophic regional war.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.

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