Five Qs: Understanding the tragedy unfolding in Gaza

Posted on : 2023-11-13 16:44 KST Modified on : 2023-11-13 16:44 KST
Looking at how the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas started, and what’s to come
Palestinians stand around a crater left by the impact of an Israeli Defense Force airstrike on the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza on Oct. 31. The blast killed 50 residents of the camp. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Palestinians stand around a crater left by the impact of an Israeli Defense Force airstrike on the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza on Oct. 31. The blast killed 50 residents of the camp. (Reuters/Yonhap)

It’s been a little over a month since a devastating war broke out in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. It started with a surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, when they crossed the Israeli-built barrier that segregates Gaza from Israel and killed more than 1,400 Israeli citizens before returning with 240 hostages.

Since then, Israel has been carrying out operations “slice by slice,” slowly taking over areas and razing them. Israel’s assault has killed more than 10,000 Gazans already, nearly 70% of them children and women. What are the real causes of this tragedy? And why is the civilian death toll so high? We asked Jung E-gil, a senior staff writer on our international affairs team.

Q1: What are the fundamental causes of this recent tragedy?

Jung: I’d have to say that it all is tied back to the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 and Israel’s ensuing retaliation. Before saying anything else, we should recognize that the attack carried out by Hamas was clearly an act of terror.

But we shouldn’t forget that Israel has been blockading Gaza since 2005 and managing the region with its strategy of “mowing the grass” — that is, attacking Hamas on a regular basis. In the meantime, Gaza has become a prison in all but name, with water, electricity and other basic necessities controlled by Israel.

More recently, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have begun to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and crucially, in early August, Saudi Arabia, an Islamic monarchy, sought to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

It seems that Hamas believed that a US-Saudi-Israeli alliance would effectively cut the group off from the world. By the end of August, Israel had tightened its control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, an Islamic holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City, and Hamas’ anger had reached a critical threshold. In fact, the name Hamas came up with for its October attack was “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.”

Q2: One month into the war, why is the civilian casualty rate so high?

Jung: Imagine the Gaza Strip in your mind. It’s 10 kilometers across and 40 kilometers long: about one-third the size of Seoul. Within it, people are further crammed into Gaza City, which constitutes less than one-third of the total strip. Gaza is the most densely populated place in the world, and they have nowhere to go because Israel has built a 6-meter-high wall around it. This is the area that Israel is concentratedly bombing.

Of the 10,000 dead in Gaza, 4,237 are children. Over 2,500 women have also been killed. No matter how Israel tries to justify it, there’s a principle of proportionality in warfare. This principle prohibits attacks that cause more civilian casualties than the expected military benefit.

At this point, it no longer matters who started this conflict. If Hamas fighters are said to be in a specific building or house, Israel bombs it, regardless of whether the location is also sheltering children.

This is not a war, but a slaughter. It’s a hunt. Israel is calling civilian casualties “collateral damage.”

Locals in Rafah, in southern Gaza, survey the damage to buildings caused by Israeli air strikes on Oct. 12. (AFP/Yonhap)
Locals in Rafah, in southern Gaza, survey the damage to buildings caused by Israeli air strikes on Oct. 12. (AFP/Yonhap)
Q3: Why is Israel doing this?

Jung: First, Israel is retaliating after Hamas’ attack. The fact that the current Israeli administration is aligned with the far right also has had a bearing on the conflict. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was already in the midst of a political crisis even before Hamas’ attack, so we should also suspect that he felt his hand was forced to retaliate excessively.

This is not the first time we’ve seen a ground war in the region. Israel has sent ground troops into Gaza four times since 2005, and there have been air strikes once a month since then. Over the course of 18 years, Israel has killed 3,550 people in Gaza. But back then, it was about control. The focus was on a specific target, and once Israeli forces waged their attack, they swiftly withdrew. This time, the nature of the military operation is completely different. The goal is annihilation.

Q4: Why can’t the international community stop Israel?

Jung: It seems to be that the collective intelligence of the international community has reached its limit. Even if we compare it to the ongoing war caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the attitude towards the massacre of civilians is very different. The US has its back up against a wall after lending nearly unconditional support to Israel over the years. With next year’s presidential election approaching, Biden is also likely wary of alienating pro-Israel voters.

South Korea is no better. South Korea abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a ceasefire late last month. Seoul supports not a ceasefire, but what the US calls a “humanitarian pause.”

Q5: Does that leave us to simply watch helplessly?

Jung: That’s what makes this a tragedy. What’s more important than ever is that we keep our wits sharp. As the late President Kim Dae-jung once said, “If you can’t do anything, at least shout at the wall.” We shouldn’t forget that there are other stories, other perspectives, not just the ones that come from the mainstream Western media, not just the ones that come from our textbooks. We should all be demanding that our governments, many of which are keeping silent within the international community, take a clear stand.

Palestinian children flee Israeli air raids on Rafah, southern Gaza, on Nov. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)
Palestinian children flee Israeli air raids on Rafah, southern Gaza, on Nov. 6. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Ha Eo-young, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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