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Numbers of civilian deaths per airstrike in 2023 Gaza far higher than previous Israeli bombings, but half that of Russian/Syrian attacks in Mosul and Aleppo. Under-reporting of the dead or less lethal tactics?

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Executive Summary

This report analyses civilian casualties from military air strikes, spotlighting “Operation Swords of Iron” in Gaza, October 2023, which has resulted in a dramatic spike in civilian deaths compared to previous Israeli air strikes, with an average of 10.1 fatalities per casualty-causing strike. This significantly surpasses previous Gaza operations and exceeds the global average of 7.4.

Comparatively, in conflict zones like Mosul and Aleppo, individual air strikes there were recorded as even more lethal, suggesting either an under-counting of deaths in Gaza, or possible differences in operational tactics or precision between the regions.

Escalating death tolls from airstrikes over different Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Operations in Gaza point to intensifying Israeli military tactics or targeting policies in 2023, leading to far higher civilian death rates.

This raises serious concerns over the adherence to international humanitarian law and the urgent need for international intervention to safeguard civilian lives amidst ongoing conflict.

Methodology

The data below is based on captured reliable English-language media reports (BBC, CNN etc.) by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). It is solely an analysis of airstrikes where casualties (killed or injured) were reported and recorded (non-injurious air strikes are not captured). The nature of conflict means that as the scale of conflict grows, less injurious strikes may not go reported by English language media, meaning only the most catastrophic events get captured. The data is not intended to capture all harm and is not indicative of total numbers killed or injured. All air strikes recorded within the time frame are listed, but some air strikes only harmed armed actors. These are not included in the civilian harm analysis.

Operation Swords of Iron – Gaza, October 2023

In October 2023, “Operation Swords of Iron” resulted in an unprecedented number of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Gaza:

  • Total recorded air strikes: 299
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 276
  • Civilian casualties: 4,104 (2,798 killed, 1,306 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 10.1

This operation has led to a substantial human cost, with the average number of civilians killed per casualty-causing air strike being the highest in recent Gaza operations. The total number of killed is higher, but not all individual airstrike deaths are captured by reliable media reporting.

Historical Context: Previous Gaza Operations

For context, here are the statistics from other deadly Israeli-led air operations in Gaza:

Operation Pillar of Defense – November 2012

  • Total recorded air strikes: 82
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 67
  • Civilian casualties: 436 (85 killed, 351 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 1.3

Operation Protective Edge – July – August 2014

  • Total recorded air strikes: 328
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 278
  • Civilian casualties: 1,992 (701 killed, 1,291 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 2.5

Operation Wall Guardian – May 2021

  • Total recorded air strikes: 124
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 121
  • Civilian casualties: 1,230 (202 killed, 1,028 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 1.7

These figures show a significant escalation in the recent “Operation Swords of Iron” relative to past incidents in the same region.

Global Perspective

The report also examines the average death rate in other conflict zones:

Global Average (2013-2022)

  • Total recorded air strikes: 7,475
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 4,534
  • Civilian casualties: 61,272 (33,639 killed, 27,633 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 7.4

Mosul – March 2017 (Battle of Mosul)

  • Total recorded air strikes: 35
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 29
  • Civilian casualties: 856 (600 killed, 256 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 20.7

Aleppo – September 2016 (Aleppo offensive)

  • Total recorded air strikes: 19
  • Air strikes causing civilian harm: 18
  • Civilian casualties: 1,182 (412 killed, 770 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 22.9

Raqqa – August 2017 (Battle to regain Raqqa)

  • Total air strikes: 40
  • Air strikes causing civilian casualties: 40
  • Civilian casualties: 672 (448 killed, 224 injured)
  • Average deaths per civilian casualty-causing air strike: 11.2

Analysis

The “Operation Swords of Iron” marks a stark increase in both the frequency and lethality of airstrikes in Gaza. The average deaths per civilian casualty-causing airstrike are markedly higher than in previous operations.

This surge points to a potential escalation in military tactics, payload capacity, or a shift in targeting policies that appear to have disregarded the safety and lives of the civilian population to a greater extent than in previous operations.

Also, the fact that the numbers of civilians reported killed in Gaza in 2023 is about half that of Aleppo and Mosul raises questions as to whether the true numbers of people killed in Gaza has been settled upon, or whether the Israeli airstrikes are more targeted than Russia/Syrian airstrikes in Syria. Once the rubble has been cleared and all the dead counted, this question can be answered.

Comparative Historical Context: Gaza Operations

Previous Operations Analysis

  • Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) showed restraint in comparison, with a much lower casualty rate per air strike.
  • Operation Protective Edge (2014) saw a rise in civilian casualties, indicating either an intensification of conflict or a degradation of targeted engagement strategies.
  • Operation Wall Guardian (2021) continued on a similar trajectory but with fewer casualties than the operation in 2014, possibly due to international pressure or changes in engagement protocols.

Escalation Indicators

The progressive increase in the average number of deaths over the years suggests an alarming trend of rising fatalities and indicates potential changes in engagement rules, weaponry used, or a combination of both. The absence of a decrease in these numbers also points to a persistent challenge in balancing military objectives with the duty to protect civilian lives.

Global Context and Comparison

Global Trends

  • The global average death rate from air strikes that caused civilian casualties over the past decade stands at 7.4, which is lower than the figure from “Operation Swords of Iron.” This highlights the particular severity of the recent operation in Gaza.

Syrian Case Studies

  • Mosul (March 2017): The death rate was extremely high, suggesting intense urban combat with little room for precision, a heavy presence of combatants among civilians, or both. The reported death rate was around twice that of Gaza in 2023.
  • Aleppo (September 2016): The highest average death rate among the presented cases indicates an exceptionally lethal campaign where civilian populations were greatly affected. The reported death rate was around twice that of Gaza in 2023.
  • Raqqa (August 2017): Similar to Mosul, a high death rate, though lower than Mosul’s and Aleppo’s, reflecting the challenges of urban warfare and potential issues with intelligence and discrimination between combatants and civilians.

In-Depth Analysis

Factors Contributing to High Casualty Rates

Tactical Changes

The high death rate in “Operation Swords of Iron” compared to previous Gaza operations could be attributed to possible changes in military tactics, such as the use of larger bombs, dense bombardment patterns, or shifts in engagement protocols that allowed for strikes in more densely populated areas.

Intelligence and Identification Failures

Failures in intelligence gathering, processing, and rapid identification of threats may have led to misidentification of targets, contributing to the high civilian death toll.

Urban Warfare Complexity

Operations conducted in urban settings invariably increase the risk to civilians. Buildings used for civilian purposes can be mistaken for militant strongholds, especially when combatants operate within populated areas.

Escalation of Hostilities

A possible escalation in hostilities can lead to an increase in the intensity and frequency of air strikes, compounding the risk to civilians.

Humanitarian and Legal Implications

The significant civilian casualties raise questions regarding the compliance of the IDF with international humanitarian law, particularly the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack. The high fatality rates suggest that these principles may not have been adequately observed.

Conclusion

The analysis underscores a critical humanitarian crisis stemming from “Operation Swords of Iron” with severe implications for civilian populations. The increase in the death rate in Gaza reflects a deteriorating situation that requires urgent attention from the international community to prevent further loss of innocent lives and to ensure adherence to international laws regarding the protection of civilians in conflict zones.

In response to this report, Dr. Iain Overton, the Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, said: “The data from ‘Operation Swords of Iron’ in Gaza shows a troubling increase in civilian deaths per airstrike. This isn’t just a statistical concern; it’s a human one. The numbers suggest a potential shift in military strategy that has had devastating consequences for non-combatants. They also raise a concern that the total number of the dead in Gaza has yet to come out, unless it is shown Israeli are superior to the Russians and Syrians.”

“Either way, it seems increasingly clear that, as in Syria, international humanitarian law has been breached. We must take immediate steps to address these violations and prevent further unnecessary loss of civilian life.”

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