Gaza: The Human Toll—Episode 3

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on December 6, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Stephen Morrison: Welcome to this third episode of “Gaza: The Human Toll.” I’m J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., where I direct the Global Health Policy Center.

Today we’re joined by Seth Jones, a colleague here at CSIS, senior vice president, Harold Brown chair, director of our International Security Program and the Transnational Threats Project. Seth, thanks for being with us.

Seth G. Jones: Thanks, Steve.

Dr. Morrison: And our cosponsor Michelle Strucke, director of the Humanitarian Agenda here at CSIS. Michelle came to us just recently from her position as a deputy assistant secretary at DOD.

So we have with us today two experts on the Department of Defense in conflicts of this kind, and we really want to focus here on the conduct of the war and where it may be heading since fighting resumed last Friday, December 1st. We’re now in the sixth day of a resumed war.

Let me first give a quick update on some of the basic facts, and then I want to offer some quick remarks on things that really jump out at one when you look at this war, and then turn the – turn the table over to Seth to hear from him on some of his insights into the nature of this resumed war and this next phase that we’ve entered. And Michelle will join us after that and offer her thoughts, and we’ll continue the conversation over the course of the hour.

In terms of updates, as of today in Gaza 16,248 or more Palestinians reported killed. That includes at least 7,112 children and 4,885 women; 1,550 families with multiple fatalities. Around 43,616 Palestinians reported injured. More than 70 percent of the injured are children and women, and a very high proportion of severe injuries. At least 6,800 missing.

U.N. estimates are that 1.93 million of Gaza’s 2.2 million are displaced; over 200,000 displaced last Friday. That’s just under 80 percent of Gaza’s population now displaced, living somewhere other than their homes. Fifty thousand or more housing units destroyed in Gaza; 250,000 housing units partially damaged. That means over 60 percent of Gaza’s housing units are destroyed or damaged.

U.N. personnel have taken a great hit – 131 U.N. staff killed, 130 of those from UNRWA. This is the highest loss of U.N. personnel ever in the history of the U.N. Eighteen hospitals, 50 percent of the hospital base, are functioning at very limited capacity. We’ve gone from 3,500 beds to 1,500 beds.

In Israel, we did have October 7th, the massacre of 1,200-plus Israelis killed, the vast majority on October 7th. Around 5,431 Israelis reported injured. When war resumed last Friday, it was after the period of hostage and detainee releases and relaxation of the siege of Gaza. A hundred and thirty-eight hostages remain in Gaza, including soldiers.

A few remarks on the nature of this war, things that really jump out. This war started with the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. The humanitarian and health crisis inside Gaza scaled at a remarkable speed, and that was a function of the exceptional scale and speed of aerial bombardments followed by the ground campaign in the north. The siege imposed against food, fuel, electricity, and medicines, and the lack of discrimination and protection regarding civilian populations and the health infrastructure, that has generated the greatest humanitarian crisis experienced by the Palestinians in their history.

There is no place in Gaza – this theme keeps jumping out – there is no place in Gaza in which the civilians who have been displaced – and that’s now 80 percent of that population – can escape. Over a million have moved to the south. In the south, where the new war is concentrated, that population has more than doubled. So we have an intense density and trauma among that population as this new phase of the war is unfolding.

When you look at the parties to this war, what strikes you is the maximalist goals. The IDF is seeking to destroy Hamas’ fighting capacity and governing capacity. Hamas is – with great disregard for the status of its population, is attempting to achieve its maximalist goals of changing – of changing the entire way in which the Palestinian cause is seen and understood, with a – with a hope of somehow igniting much broader base of support and a broader war.

This is a war that we’ll hear more about that’s conducted both aboveground and belowground. Understanding what is happening underground is very difficult. This is – the system of tunnels, this metro underneath the soil, is a vital dimension of what is happening in this war, and the intersection of below and aboveground generates its own controversies as we’ve seen most recently with Al-Shifa Hospital, which it was alleged was tied into what was happening beneath the surface. We may see similar controversies surfacing in this phase around the Al-Nasser Hospital in the south.

The war also continues to be about winning the release of hostages. That creates, obviously, great dissonance in the thinking of both parties to this war. It’s generated most recently a period of intense diplomacy that delivered concrete results: 105 hostages released. And as we said earlier, the hostage challenge remains. In fact, it’s become more difficult as we move towards an older population and a population that includes those in military service. The negotiations will ultimately return, but there are tough – there are tough negotiations ahead.

As we’ll hear in this discussion, it’s difficult to know if the IDF is achieving its military objectives. It’s decimating what is aboveground and attempting to decimate what’s belowground, but it’s not clear yet – and I look forward to hearing from our guests here – is it – is it actually eliminating a significant share of Hamas fighting capability and governing capacity?

Another thing that’s jumped out recently is that while the U.S. is siding with the Israeli government, it’s becoming visibly ever more uncomfortable with the conduct of the war. Vice President Harris and Secretary of Defense Austin have each registered their concerns in a very public and dramatic fashion. It remains to be seen if this shift in U.S. posture and the appeal for a more discriminating and targeted approach by the IDF in the southern campaign bears fruit. That’s another thing that we will be talking about.

The war in both the north and the south is now advancing. The displacement in the south involving ordered evacuation of civilians using leaflets and online maps is a new development, and we’ll hear more about that. It’s generated a certain confusion and continued escalating suffering. And international pressure continues to mount as the – as it becomes clear the magnitude of this humanitarian and health crisis.

I’m going to turn now to Seth Jones to lead off with his perspective. Ten minutes – eight or 10 minutes of remarks, whatever you feel you need in order to tell us your perspective on what’s happening now. Seth, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. Jones: Thank you so much, Steve, and it’s great to be here with Michelle as well. It’s a really important subject.

Let me just start off by saying, you know, one of the challenges with the current war is any warfare in an urban environment is difficult. So if one looks at the last decade or two, even three decades, there are a number of examples of urban warfare.

One might think, for example, of the Russians in Grozny, Chechnya. The implications were significant for those in Grozny. The before and after videos and photographs of the city are stark. The city was destroyed by the Russians.

If you fast-forward to the wars in Syria, what starts off as protests and then they become violent, when the Russians joined the war in 2015 – directly become involved in bombing and supporting Syrian offensive operations – there we saw examples of Aleppo, for example, the Russians plus the Syrians plus the Iranians and Iranian-trained forces including Hezbollah operating against resistance and insurgent groups in Aleppo and the outskirts of Damascus. And there was widespread destruction – combination of ground-based artillery as well as bombs dropped from aircraft, often dumb bombs but generally not precise; some cases punitive attacks against structures where individuals were based out of.

And then if you fast-forward even to nearby Iraq, the U.S. has been involved in various types or urban combat in Iraq, whether it was Mosul or Fallujah, or Raqqa on the Syrian side, or Ramadi. And I think in those cases the U.S. has been a little bit more careful in its use of violence and military operations. I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a second.

But the big picture here is warfare in an urban environment is generally destructive. That is the reality. The challenge, though – Steve, as you mentioned – as I get to Gaza here is unlike all of those wars that I mentioned, there is no place for those in Gaza to go. People left Mosul. People left Raqqa. People left Grozny and then came back after the fighting was done. That’s not a feasible option if you’re in Gaza, which makes this a very different situation in that respect and much more concerning for the civilian population.

But I think if we look at the – at the state of the war, having been somewhat recently to Israel, actually, to talk with the Israeli Defense Forces about their concerns before this war started in Gaza and the West Bank and then up north in Lebanon and Syria, one of the real challenges in Gaza is the density of the population and the terrain. It’s, at least when this war started, 20,000 per square mile, one of the highest population densities in the world. And the residents started off as no friends of the Israelis, so the Israelis were entering inhospitable territory for them. The environment is difficult to operate in if you’re soldiers. You’ve got narrow alleys. You’re got warrens. You’ve got concrete buildings of various types. You’ve got also the tunnel infrastructure underground. Hamas and some of the Palestinian groups have not just in this current war but also historically put some of their key command-and-control centers in and around civilian locations, or underneath them, or in some cases used things like ambulances to move weapons. So the challenge is knowing who is friend or foe is difficult. It’s an environment that is very stressful, particularly for a young Israeli Defense Force soldier. And I think when you put all of those things together, it is a – it’s an environment that is extremely difficult to operate in.

So I think that’s sort of how I want to lay this out.

Where the Israelis have gone – the IDF has gone since the war has started is encouraging most people in the north with no other place to go to move south and then, you know, to conduct pretty large-scale destruction not just with precision bombs, but we’ve seen them use 2,000-pound bombs, which really the reason you’d use those is to destroy infrastructure. So if you knew or you had information about individuals in a given area and you wanted to destroy the entire infrastructure, you’d drop that size bomb. The Israelis do have the capability to put weapons like missiles – Hellfire missiles through a window. So they have precision capabilities, but they are not using it in all cases.

I think the tradeoff – and this is – this is where it gets really difficult for me – is how you use some of these weapons. There’s a tradeoff on do you want to preserve the lives of your soldiers versus civilians in this case, because the more that an army and a military like the IDF have to think through costs and benefits, it puts its soldiers at risk; the more it puts them into difficult environments. But the tradeoff in those cases with the type of bombs it’s using is it is also now impacting and killing civilians. I mean, I don’t believe the Israelis are doing this on purpose, purposely doing it, but the type of war that they’re fighting now and the way they’re fighting it at the operational and tactical level is leading to large numbers of civilian deaths.

And this is particularly difficult now as the – as the combat moves into the south, because the mix of civilians and groups is much more intermixed than it was in the – in the north. The intelligence from – even, from what I’ve heard, from IDF folks that I’ve been in touch with is it’s much less clear where Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other operatives are, which means the chances of making mistakes are higher. So I think, you know, as – you ask where do I see this heading. Unfortunately, if the Israelis continue this campaign the way they’ve been fighting and they move and they – and they continue to operate along these lines in southern Gaza, then I think we should expect to see reasonably high levels of civilian casualties.

The U.S., you know, generally would not fight like this, to be clear. I think – I think my experience working particularly in the U.S. Special Operations community would be much more careful about – and we make mistakes, and we made mistakes in Afghanistan and Libya, in Iraq, and other locations. But I think much more concerned about the civilian implications of this.

So just one last thing that I’ll mention as we talk about sort of where is this heading, and that is that, you know, for the – for the most part this war has largely been contained to Gaza. We have not seen a lot of operations at this point yet in the West Bank. I mean, I was – when I was there a few months ago, the Israelis were conducting operations against Hamas in northern West Bank cities, including Jenin. So there is a possibility that this does spread.

There is also we’ve seen nearly 200 attacks against U.S. forces operating in Syria and Iraq. U.S. naval ships have shot down cruise missiles and drones coming from Yemen.

And then, obviously, Hezbollah has a presence in Lebanon as well.

So I say this to note that this war does have the potential for spreading. We certainly could see escalation. The worry that I have in addition to just Gaza is that cities like Beirut may well be targeted if this war expands into Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, even Yemen for that matter. So I don’t think we’re done seeing where this is headed.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you so much, Seth.

Michelle, thanks for being with us.

Michelle Strucke: And thank you for those comments, Seth.

A few points. I think it’s worth reminding everyone thinking about how the conflict is unfolding that, you know, basic services are still blocked from entering Gaza, so they still have no electricity. The population still has very limited access to water. There’s been a lot of talk of trucks. The president of the ICRC recently, in a trip to the region, urged everyone to stop focusing so much on trucks, especially because even if you increase the number of trucks – and I’ll make up a number, but you know, if – even if it were, you know, 1,500 a day, from what I’ve heard from operational humanitarian organizations that wouldn’t be enough to meet the catastrophic amount of needs that are happening. And the rippling effects that are occurring, where issues like the collapse of the health-care system, the advancement of disease, people’s inability to get treatment or to have their treatment interrupted if they’re having a treatment, all of these things are causing these compounding health effects on the population. So it’s more than about trucks.

I wanted to share, as well, that, to me, there are so important things to highlight that, you know, under the – one of the concerning elements of the conflict is that the approach to following kind of the basics of humanitarian law aimed at protecting civilians, I’m now thinking of it as almost a Swiss-cheese approach that the – it seems as if the Israelis are taking, because they are doing parts of what is required – such as, you know, telling civilians in advance to evacuate, giving them that precaution; that’s certainly part of international humanitarian law, to give advance warning of an attack so that civilians can evacuate. Sometimes it’s as little as an hour; they’re giving a very short period of time. But then there’s other parts of humanitarian law that they’re – from my observation and what humanitarian organizations are saying, that they’re not following, such as providing civilians adequate time to leave when you tell them to evacuate or providing them a safe route and a place to go. You know, one – some of the language of international humanitarian law says that all possible measures must be adopted to ensure that civilians displaced can have satisfactory conditions of safety, shelter, nutrition, and hygiene, and ensure their family members are not separated. These things – the reason I say “Swiss cheese” is because there are so many holes in what is happening that it’s very concerning, and this is what you hear coming from humanitarian organizations when they’re talking – when they’re making increasingly desperate statements basically saying that they’re not able to continue to conduct their operations to be able to discharge their responsibilities for the populations that they’re taking care of because they don’t have good answers to these questions when people are asking them.

So, for example, one thing to highlight is the – you know, as the rhetoric has improved significantly – I’ll give, you know, the IDF that; they are certainly improving their rhetoric around and their precautions that they are taking around mitigating civilian harm, and that’s welcomed. But there are some issues with the way it’s happening right now.

So, for example, the recent map that they released, the online map that you referred to, it divides Gaza into, you know, 2,400 blocks. And the – what I’ve heard about it is that it’s accessed via a QR code so that people can go online and look at it. To me, it’s a difficult position to put someone in to – in a place where there, again, as a reminder, there’s no electricity, and the fuel going in is not sufficient to power what generators that are needed to power all the civilians that are crowding and not having access to electricity. And again, as a reminder, you know, we heard on our last episode of this that about, you know, 400 people were sharing one toilet. To think about where they would find places in these inadequate shelters, overcrowded shelters to also charge their phones, and then use their phones to access a map that is supposed to provide them with lifesaving information about where to evacuate to, is difficult. So the kind of overreliance on a technological solution that requires power in a place where they’re also denying electricity, that is, I think, putting humanitarians in a really difficult situation. Because when they’re asked by civilians: Where can we go? We see on this map – if they can see the map – that certain areas are likely to have military operations and they should not go there, so they can see what is not safe. They’re being told by the IDF that there are certain areas that are safer, but they’re not being given security guarantees to say: These are safe routes. You have a place where you can go. This will be safe and you will not be, you know, in the middle of ground operations, and you will not be subject to aerial bombardment.

So without these guarantees, humanitarians are put in a very difficult situation. And you know, granted, over the past several years in conflicts around the world, such as in Afghanistan, we’ve seen there be an increasing risk placed on humanitarian organizations, especially as, you know, respect for humanitarian law has really diminished in conflicts around the world. And I know you’ve covered that to some degree, Steve, in your – in your work. The idea that humanitarians will now operate at their own risk, this approach is a real challenge for organizations. And I think it’s kind of extremely – it’s sort of an extreme version of it right now that we’re seeing in Gaza, where humanitarian organizations are not being – really not able to do their lifesaving work because the conditions around it, the safety guarantees that they should be getting, are not happening.

And I will say another thing, is that these organizations operate under humanitarian principles. That means that they are expecting the same, you know, security guarantees from both parties, and Hamas is certainly not following this either. And so to say that the organizations are being put in a – in a really impossible situation, where their staff are not safe; and then the civilians that they are meant to help provide assistance to, not only do they not have enough, you know, material goods to provide them, they don’t have places to be able to go.

So right now, you know, the continued evacuation orders that are going out in the south around Khan Younis, about 22 percent of Khan Younis in total now, they have been told to evacuate. And, sorry, it’s about – it’s more than – it’s 22 percent of the territory of Gaza and it’s two major areas of Khan Younis, which is the second-largest city in Gaza. There’s about half-a-million people that are – were sheltering in that area. And so if you think of that, that’s like, you know, two of – two major cities, basically, worth of people in one place, already overcrowded and, as you mentioned, in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

So to crowd and corner all of those people into that area is really creating, I think, a set of conditions that are going to have ripple effects. So the ripple effects will be, again, increased diseases, stress on an already burdened and barely functioning health-care system, and lots of essentially preventable deaths that are not even combat-related deaths. They’re deaths that are happening because of these specific conditions.

So I’m questioning as a humanitarian: What are we expecting of these organizations? What message is being sent to humanitarian organizations about what their role should be? Because they are really trapped in a place with nowhere to go and they are not able to provide the kind of assistance that they are – they are setting out to do.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.

Seth, any thoughts on that?

 Dr. Jones: No, I think it’s – I mean, I think there are some broad strategic questions in the use of force from the Israeli side that I think need to be asked and have – and these are difficult questions to answer. But with the – with the impact on civilians right now, the military objective of the Israelis has been to destroy, or by some Israeli officials was especially initially to destroy Hamas. I mean, that, in my view, is – but that’s not an achievable objective. If you go back to 2001 and the years after it, there were a number of U.S. officials who stated that the U.S. objective at that point was to destroy al-Qaida. Well, you know, guess what? The organization is still operating in multiple places. The issue with Hamas is it’s a resistance organization and it’s, you know, partly an idea. And so you don’t destroy an idea along those lines.

My worry at the strategic level is the impact on civilians is and already has created individuals that are supportive of Hamas. So the very act of violence and the way it’s being prosecuted has a second- and third-order impact on what the Israelis are trying to achieve. So that’s – one issue is, are you creating or are they creating just as many individuals willing to strike against Israel as they’re killing right now, so – possibly even more? So I think that’s one.

A second is, what’s the Israeli strategy not just on the humanitarian side, but for the governance side? What comes next? Because I think what I would say a lesson that comes out of some of the U.S. cases where it’s been involved in urban combat is what becomes critical is what is your follow-on governance structure. Whether it was some of the nonstate actors that the U.S. worked with in Syria, in Raqqa – these were largely Kurdish forces – or whether it was the Iraqi government that went in and provided basic services and law and order, what’s – where is this going in Gaza? The Israeli – some in the Israeli National Security Council, including Netanyahu, have said publicly that they don’t want the Palestinian Authority to play that role. They don’t trust the Palestinian Authority. Well, then my question is, who? Then what is the strategy for replacing Hamas?

And you know, that’s not – these are all very important questions to ask that impact where this is going, that take this from purely tactics or at the operational level to strategic. I see a lot of tactical steps taken right now, but I’m not seeing a lot of thoughtful strategic ones that are going to impact this war and its length.

Ms. Strucke: That, you know, echoes a little bit of what Secretary Austin recently said about that they might achieve tactical wins but they might lose strategically.

I was curious, when I was at DOD I heard that in reference to, you know, discussions around the conduct of Russia, about how they were treating civilians – and you mentioned some of that – the idea that the conduct that a country might use when they are waging war has long-term effects on their legitimacy, the trust they have, and how the population sees them. So I was wondering if you were thinking of that in terms of the civilian harms specifically, or if it was broader?

Dr. Jones: I was thinking predominantly on the impact of civilians. I mean, there is a part of the Palestinian – and they’re not the only culture along these lines – that’s an honor/shame society. So when you have a family member that’s killed, whether it’s a father or a mother or a son or a daughter or a cousin, that’s not forgotten. And so I think the impact there of these numbers of civilian casualties has a mid- to long-term impact on how people are going to feel about the – about Israel.

So that is the – look, what Israel has gone through and the casualties and the fatalities that the Israelis suffered was extraordinary. I don’t think anybody’s questioning that at all. They suffered enormously, and on a per capita basis, you know, the 9/11 attacks looks actually quite small to what the Israelis suffered in the first day or two of this conflict. So not minimizing that.

But you know, when you look at long-term implications, I think that’s where – the war in Chechnya – so this goes to one of your questions – the way the Russians prosecuted that war meant that it dragged on from 1994 to ’96, then there was a slight pause, picked back up again in 1999, and then went 10 more years. And you use that kind of violence, it has an impact on the population and its willingness, then, to resort to a range of methods against the state in that case.

Dr. Morrison: I’m assuming that the IDF is not going to have the same liberties that Putin had in decimating Grozny and the Chechen resistance; that there’s enormous international pressure, there’s enormous visibility into what’s happening from social media and the like. So then the question is, when do they get – you said the goal of destruction of its military capability and its functioning as an idea and a movement is not achievable, but there will be an effort to do significant damage to Hamas beyond earlier confrontations. They’ve gone back to war several times since ’06-’07. They’re claiming – the Israelis are suggesting that up to 5,000 Hamas soldiers have been killed. That number, we don’t – that’s not verified. We think they have between 27(,000) and 40,000, but as you say, they can be replenishing their numbers with new ranks and new folks that are motivated. So when you look at these other cases that we’ve talked about, when do we reach a point where enough has been achieved to give cover or comfort or whatever the term is to the Israelis to think again about the strategy?

Dr. Jones: Yeah. I think that the Israelis probably will start getting to that point when they have successfully killed or captured Hamas’ political and military leadership in Gaza. I suspect the Israelis, frankly, based on their past experience – and we saw this, for example, after the Munich Olympics; they hunted down members of Black September across the globe that were involved in training individuals and the plot itself.

So I’m setting all that stuff aside and just saying when it comes to the use of force in Gaza, I think probably a much more achievable military objective is a, you know, pretty significant destruction of the leadership of Hamas. So, you know, the leader and the way Hamas is structured – and frankly, some of the other organizations, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is they are structured based on cells. So targeting the leadership and – I think will give them an ability to say we have achieved – largely achieved our objective if they can do that, they have taken out most of the leadership of Hamas in Gaza.

Now, you know, Hamas may very well be able to replace some of its lower ranks. One of the concerns I’ve had and we’ve been looking at to some degree is how this is impacting ranks among Palestinian groups operating in the West Bank. There appears to be an uptick in recruitment for Hezbollah in Lebanon and groups operating in Syria and Iraq, possibly in Africa with some of the al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked groups that are using it as a recruitment tool for their populations. So, you know, there is a much bigger question that’s outside of Gaza. But I think with Gaza specifically, Israel may get to the point where it has decimated enough of its leadership that it can try to call this a victory.

Dr. Morrison: But what we’re likely –

Dr. Jones: Military victory.

Dr. Morrison: Yes. But what we’re likely to see is a situation where when they reach that point, the civilian infrastructure has been decimated; the international NGOs and international organizations – the U.N., the ICRC, groups like MSF, and others – are finding it increasingly difficult – as Michelle suggested, increasingly difficult to operate in this environment. Their own people are getting killed and injured. They cannot meet their own internal standards about being able to protect and evacuate the injured among their own staff, so they have to worry about – they have to worry about that. They worry about their – they have to – they rely on fuel and supplies and medicine and the ability to move and communicate and know where their staff is and be able to monitor. All of those conditions are deteriorating, which leaves a vacuum – leaves a vacuum as this infrastructure’s getting destroyed.

So if we reach that moment of reconsideration, the question isn’t just who governs and how do you govern and how do you – you’re going to have a highly still militarized situation among the Gazans. But you’re going to have devastation and very limited capability to sort of deal with this in a population of over 2 million in a very desperate condition. And does that suggest that we need to be thinking about what it’s going to take to scale an effort to meet that requirement? Because, you know, in other comparable situations it’s been – it’s been the U.S. military that’s come in or it’s been blue-helmeted U.N. forces or others that provide some measure of security and also some measure of lift capacity and able to navigate these difficult environments. Michelle, your thoughts?

Ms. Strucke: I think my face is probably expressing my worries, which is that, you know, in the – in the past experience I had leading humanitarian aid at DOD, you know, USAID is the lead federal agency for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, HADR. They, in about 10 percent of conflicts – or, sorry, 10 percent of disasters that they respond to around the world they will request DOD support. But one of the places that they do not typically request DOD support is in an active conflict zone, and the reason is because of escalation. We do not want – or the U.S. government, I’m sorry, does not want, you know, troops, military forces from the United States to be embroiled, you know in a conflict, you know, it could be by accident. It could be that they are, you know, boots on the ground in a situation just trying to deliver aid, but then they accidentally get pulled in. And so there’s a real concern about force protection. There’s a concern about escalation. There’s a concern about the appearance of being actively involved.

And also, really, I think on the humanitarian side – and this is why, again, USAID is the lead – is that there’s concerns about the militarization of humanitarian assistance. And that’s something that – you know, humanitarians operate on these principles, which are really a lifeline for them because principles of, you know, impartiality, that they’ll give aid to everyone in need; principles of, you know, working with all parties in a conflict to ensure that that safety and that safeguarding of their routes, that safe passage is allowed. And that requires negotiating across battle lines and across parties. When a military actor gets involved, if another government gets involved, quickly you can see accusations of politicization and of militarization, to have that be the face of a response. So it’s a real hesitancy to deploy, you know, DOD assets into places of active combat.

And also, I think that people would argue a misuse of military resources, because they’re not built to be humanitarian supplies. They’re not trained to be used for humanitarian purposes. They are used that way when needed, when it’s appropriate, you know. But it’s really – people have used the phrase in civ-mil – civilian-military relations and coordination of this idea that the military comes in as really a last resort, not as a first resort, when it – when they’re providing assistance. So ideas about, you know, having boots on the ground or providing protection I think are really very discouraged and probably would not be welcome.

When it comes to what, you know, the Department of Defense has already done, they have already been assisting USAID in, I think, an appropriate way by using their aircraft to transport supplies more expeditiously to Al-Arish in Egypt. And that’s been, you know, efforts that are led by USAID, but just really kind of borrowing the DOD assets. But I do worry quite a bit about escalation and I worry about what would happen if kind of a military apparatus that’s not really built for this is brought in to enable – to enable assistance.

Dr. Morrison: Seth?

Dr. Jones: I agree. The precedence as well, including by the U.S., is probably going to be very careful about putting forces in there. I mean, there are a couple of very clear cases historically where, for I think what were very good, well-intentioned reasons, the U.S. put military forces on the ground in Lebanon in the 1980s, got itself in the middle of a civil war, and lo and behold you had truck bombs against Marine barracks that killed large numbers of –

Dr. Morrison: 

 That was in ’82.

Dr. Jones: It was – or the U.S. efforts to provide armed humanitarian assistance into cities like Mogadishu in Somalia, and out of that came the famous “Black Hawk Down” that many people have seen the movie for. These are cases where very well-intentioned reasons to provide assistance, including in the case of Somalia, to a starving population in a complicated environment that is still an active area of hostilities is – it puts forces in a very difficult position.

Because the reality on the ground is I think once the Israelis withdraw most of their ground forces, there may very well be Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence and some competition among Palestinians for control of the area. I mean, we’ve seen Palestinian groups fight each other in camps in Lebanon. I was there just before COVID. Those camps are quite violent in many ways. But I would say, you know, what – so I don’t think there’s really an international military option to help provide assistance.

What I think I would say is more likely are two kinds of things.

One is to have countries like the United States push hard for pauses and ceasefires to get in humanitarian assistance. The U.S. needs to be adamant to the Israelis that it has to get in humanitarian assistance; that this cannot continue to happen day after day without humanitarian pauses. And –

Dr. Morrison: That’s the message that’s coming from the leadership of the U.N. and the international organizations.

Dr. Jones: Yes, and it needs to continue.

Dr. Morrison: That is the message.

Dr. Jones: And I actually think the U.S. has to start conditioning its military assistance to Israel on some of these actions because the U.S. has provided not just small-diameter, but large-diameter bombs and munitions for Israeli aircraft. But it has to be done in a way that’s also being seen as helping on the humanitarian side.

Dr. Morrison: What would that look like, applying conditions, like, on security assistance?

Dr. Jones: Well, I think it has to be – I mean, I think in order to continue to provide – I mean, the – look, if this war expands northward, the Israelis are going to be overwhelmed with over 150,000-plus rockets coming from Syria and Lebanon; probably from Iraq, although that’s a little bit longer distance, with some of the Hashed al-Shaabi, the popular mobilization units. But I think the discussion really has to be that the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to the Israelis, but in exchange they have to be willing to negotiate ceasefires so that humanitarian assistance can come in to the Palestinian population.

When the – this phase of the ground war starts to subside, I think that is where there really needs to be thoughtful focus – and it needs to be happening now – about reconstruction. And you know, that’s where there was – there was a lot of thought for Mosul, for example, or Fallujah, or Ramadi when the fighting stopped or at least subsided, because fighting may continue in various ways. The Israelis may conduct some drone strikes, may put special operations forces periodically on the ground for some snatch-and-grab operations or others. But when most of the ground phase of combat is – starts to subside, I think that effort needs to kick in on rebuilding infrastructure that’s been destroyed, the rebuilding of the health-care facilities and immediate health assistance into the Palestinian population, the rebuilding of schools. These are all key parts of getting a society back up and functioning, and that needs to be critical because those steps, I think, start to ameliorate the possibility of longer-term conflict.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.

Ms. Strucke: I couldn’t agree more on the pauses. You know, I think that it’s essential for the ability of aid to get in to have, you know, not unilateral pauses, but negotiated pauses between both parties to allow people to get assistance in is really essential.

On the conditionality point, I think it’s interesting. I think that, you know, DOD right now, the U.S. government has an opening in that they just released their CHMR-AP – their Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. And in that there is a section on allies and partners, and there’s actually a phrase of looking at tailored conditionality.

And I think one of the motivations behind that is really important. It’s that when the U.S. is supporting military partners around the world in building their capabilities and supporting allies, they have an interest – a strategic interest in ensuring that the partner militaries are professional, they are deploying those capabilities in a responsible manner, and that reflects upon the U.S. particularly when the U.S. has knowledge that the partner is or evidence that they are not taking the appropriate precautions or using them for the appropriate ways.

So I think they have a hook already in terms of recent reforms that the department could be looking at, and they have existing laws, too. Once reports of human rights violations are made by security forces, they have the Leahy laws and other measures that could already be deployed. So I think it’s really a question of political will and of – a question of understanding what that might look like in some of these concepts like the conditionality that’s referred to in the CHMR-AP, because I think that’s an open area that has not yet been fleshed out.

Dr. Morrison: What we’re seeing now is elevated U.S. action in Egypt to try and up the flow of goods in and to, you know – Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID, is visiting, trying, I expect, to accelerate the inspection processes around the truck flows, get higher volumes faster. As you indicate, the U.S. military air delivery, the second arrived yesterday with some 36,000 pounds of material there. So what you’re seeing is an enlarged effort on the boundaries, on the perimeter of Gaza to try to create a greater – a stronger infrastructure to support what goes across. That doesn’t address the dire conditions that the U.N. agencies, international NGOs, and others face trying to operate inside.

Are there precedents about partnering with – I mean, I know there’s a lot of dialogue going on right now between the U.S. and those U.N. agencies and international organizations and others that are saying we simply cannot expand our staff and we’re not sure we can keep our staff. And until there is a ceasefire, until we see a change in the way the war is conducted, are there precedents for getting that kind of dialogue advancing into the next phase of greater specificity around what it’s going to take to preserve and strengthen the capacities of those organizations? Because what you’re saying is I – is quite true that there is no external international armed component element that’s going to come in. The U.S. is not going to do that. We’re going to have to have a different strategy here for avoiding catastrophe getting worse.

Dr. Jones: Yeah. I think, you know, what’s interesting is the clocks right now that are ticking are very different if one is sitting in Washington or several other capitals and if you’re sitting in Israel right now. The U.S., increasingly I think the administration is under pressure from not just members of its own – of the president’s own party, but also a range of partners and allies that the – this current phase of the war has to be done sooner rather than later. I think the Israelis in many ways see this as existential, so probably are willing to be patient to some degree, and so may have a longer clock. But I think the message to Israel’s leadership is this phase of the conflict has got to be done sooner rather than later, because I just don’t see many options for getting that kind of assistance into Gaza with ground forces operating the way they are right now.

So the sooner the Israelis finish this phase with ground forces in, I think that’s really your chance to increase the humanitarian assistance. But as long as there are ground forces in southern Gaza in particular, and the Israelis are striking targets from fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and drones across Gaza, it puts humanitarian organizations in an untenable situation. So I think the issue is that the clock is ticking fast for the rest of the world, and I think the Israelis have to – have to understand that.

Ms. Strucke: I think the clock is a really important point, and I think that, you know, as we – as we speak people are being killed in the middle of this conflict. It is a big strategic question about speed. Obviously, I’m not a military expert, so I don’t pretend to be. But when you think about humanitarian aims of preserving and protecting civilians, this question of the speed of how operations are conducted, I feel like our past, at least with the U.S., has shown that it’s a myth to think that you can just – a military can come in fast and furious, destroy an area, and then that’s the end of a war.

Really, I think there’s been many lessons that have been learned about the harm done to civilians. And the fact that the civilians in this conflict are being killed at an unprecedented rate, and the proportions that we’ve talked about a few times on different episodes of this series of women and children are strikingly high. You talked about the types of bombs being used and how those are used to level buildings – you know, buildings full of civilians.

There’s some reporting that I’m interested in as you later look into it – perhaps maybe not now – but on how the IDF is looking at proportionality and particularly the equation of how many civilians are expected to be in an area, how they’re calculating how many are crowding into an area as a result of kind of continued rapid-fire operations, and then how they after that, you know, determine what’s acceptable in terms of civilian loss. That proportion, that’s a – that’s a terrifying proportion, I think, for people that don’t look at warfare and for those that are killed during it.

But really, I think the clock is the question.

And another question I would add onto that is just how are – people that are watching this conflict and have influence over the parties, how are they looking at the lessons of past wars to determine, you know, what the acceptable risk is? And I say that, really, you know, with difficulty, because from a humanitarian standpoint all life should be protected. Civilian life must be protected. And the fact that – the fact that it’s ever in an equation is terrible, but it is a reality that that is the calculation that militaries make, but that there are rules that are thorough that needs to be followed.

And I will make one more point on that, which is just that the rules of humanitarian law really are minimum. You know, militaries can go far above that minimum. They can decide that they’re going to have greater protection, greater precision, greater precaution, more concern for a population. They can actively support and help that population that is not engaged actively in hostilities. They can help them, you know, find places that are safe – not safer, but actually safe. And so, you know, it is – it’s a difficult proposition, but I think, you know, it is a choice to be made to either follow the minimum or less than the minimum of IHL, just like it’s a choice to go above it.

And I think the U.S., at least, tries to distinguish itself, at least rhetorically if not in practice – the hard-earned practice – of thinking that values matter. You know, the way that a country shows its values through the way it does the most horrible things, which is achieve its means through force, really matters, and it matters for a long time. So I think that choice is something that is really significant.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you. In the time that remains, I want to raise two other issues that are pertinent to this debate.

One is, where does the Israeli economy fit in this equation, right? The economy has been on hold now for nine weeks. This is – you know, how affordable – how much – how indefinitely can Israel – you’ve said this is existential. It is existential, and it if widens it becomes even more existential, but it’s also something that this country has to be able to support itself economically. The United States accounts for about 20 percent of the security budget of Israel, right? It’s the Israeli economy and fisc that supports the balance of that. So that’s one issue.

The other is we haven’t talked about hostages. We still have around 135 hostages. We still have a mobilized constituency – a very loud and well-organized and mobilized constituency – behind those hostages arguing for that this should not disappear as a top priority. How do these two issues play into the calculus in this period?


Dr. Jones: So two quick responses, Steve.

On the economy, my sense is that the economy is – it’s not the priority right now for the Israeli population and it’s not the priority for the Netanyahu government. So the priority is to degrade – I’ll use the term “degrade” – Hamas, particularly in Gaza, and deter as much as possible these kinds of actions from happening again. So I think there’s not going to be domestic political pressure on – from the Israeli population on economic issues.

Dr. Morrison: On that front, mmm hmm.

Dr. Jones: No, not after what happened in Israel. This is about security issues first and foremost, and I think that also pertains to the potential for escalation in areas outside of Gaza as well. So I think that sits first and foremost, and economic issues now are secondary or tertiary.

On the hostages, I think from day one the Israelis were – from a hostage perspective, I think, you know, they wanted to, as did every government that had their own civilians in there, including the U.S., get out the hostages, all of the hostages. This was a terrible decision by Hamas not just to massacre Israelis, but also to take innocent people hostage and to have dragged them through this conflict so far.

So, you know, I think what we’ve already seen is that it hasn’t impacted Israel’s willingness to use force right now. What it has contributed to is some ceasefire discussions which we’ve seen and the exchange of hostages. It also, I think, may impact where the Israelis are operating. So they may be and I think have been cautious in some areas, including in some of the tunnel complexes, where there are hostages believed to have been. You don’t generally bomb those areas. So it’s impacted military operations and tactics in some areas. But it would be great to see some additional ceasefires where there are more hostages that are released by both sides, and particularly ones that Hamas is holding right now. It’s just unfair. I mean, these are innocent people that Hamas is holding, so the quicker they can release them the better off.

Dr. Morrison: Michelle?

Ms. Strucke: I’d echo all of that. I think, you know, on the – on the hostages, they should not have been taken, obviously; innocent people. The stories that we’ve heard from people who have been released, and some who have been killed, it’s terrible.

One humanitarian element of that is that, you know, the ICRC is not permitted to actually visit the hostages, and that’s also a huge problem. Part of their job is that they, on the international stage, are the ones that visit detainees all around the world. Parties to the conflict allow them to do that. So there’s not really any way of knowing the condition – kind of the humanitarian conditions that they’re in. So I think there is kind of many layers to this, but that’s just one layer of the, you know, atrocity that is taking place as we see these hostages being caught in the middle.

And you know, in Israel, definitely the families of the hostages have worked to try to petition the government to get them to make the hostages the first priority, the release of the hostages the first priority. I’m interested to see, as the Israeli public continues to pressure the government, where that goes in terms of their ranking as the conflict continues to move on.

Dr. Morrison: Last question. You know, the Qatari government stepped forward to lead the negotiations during this period of the pause around hostage and political detainee and prisoner releases on the two sides and the relaxation of the siege on the food and fuel and medicines. The Qataris proved something. They created a capability in which senior ranks of the U.S. government, senior ranks of the Israeli government were there. There were indirect talks with senior ranks of Hamas. Does that give us – just to close on a more positive, does that – does that signal something that could be built upon as we look forward into the future?

Dr. Jones: Yeah. One of the travesties for the Palestinian population is that the support among a number of governments in the region has not been as strong as it should be. I mean, I’m not just talking about this year and this war, but few have really wanted to bring in additional Palestinians into their area or even get that engaged in their very terrible situation.

So I think the Qataris have shown a willingness to step up. I think we’ve seen some action by the Egyptians. There apparently have been a lot of discussions privately, including involving intelligence chiefs, about hostages that’s pulled in the Jordanians and the Saudis.

What gives me hope is that these countries are going to be essential in the next phase of this current crisis. They’re going to be essential for helping think through: What does governance look like? How do you provide the funding for humanitarian activity in and around Gaza? What does law and order look like? Just broader strategic-level questions, they’re not going to be solved, in my view, by just the Israelis or the U.S. or the Palestinians. But countries like Qatar and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and others I think have an important role to play in the next phase of this.

Dr. Morrison: Michelle, last word. What gives you some hope?

Ms. Strucke: It’s certainly hard to have hope. I mean, I think that, really, hoping that there are more pauses in the fighting, that they can agree on that to give people ability to get more aid. And I hope that there is a much faster and greater push for a political resolution to the conflict, not a military resolution, so that Palestinian aspirations and rights can be realized and they can have some, you know, country to call their own, a solution – a two-state solution is what the U.S. continues to call for – and that Israelis can be side by side with them. It’s hard to see that vision, but if there can be any push toward moving back to political negotiations instead of military action, I think that’s the only thing that – one of the only things that gives me hope when you reference the kind of diplomatic circumstances.

Dr. Morrison: Thank you.

I want to thank everyone who’s joined us here today. I want to thank my colleagues who made this production possible. My colleague Sophia Hirshfield worked assiduously to pull all the pieces together. And our production staff here – Dwayne Gladden and Dhanesh Mahtani – were extremely helpful in making this all possible for us. And I want to thank my colleagues Michelle and Seth for taking the time out of your schedules to share all of your insights with us. Thank you.