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Friendly fire and accidents have killed a lot of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Here's why

An Israeli army tank rolls in southern Israel along the border with Gaza on January 24.
Jack Guez
AFP via Getty Images
An Israeli army tank rolls in southern Israel along the border with Gaza on January 24.

Israeli soldiers have been killed in airstrikes by Israeli planes and by shrapnel from their own explosives. Some were run over by Israeli armored vehicles or mistakenly identified and hit by tank fire, shelling and guns, according to a report released by the IDF earlier this month.

Nearly a fifth of Israeli fatalities since the invasion of Gaza in late October were caused by friendly fire or accidents, accounting for 36 of the 188 soldiers killed at the time of the report. Experts say it's one of the highest such percentages in recent military history.

There have been injuries, too, which are not included in the report, as Israel fights its most complex war, with two million Palestinians and tens of thousands of soldiers packed into the tiny coastal enclave of Gaza.

Military experts say there are several factors as to why the number of such incidents has been high. First is the reality of urban combat in a highly dense area like Gaza.

"There's really no limit to the procedural steps that you can take to minimize those kinds of casualties. And even with that, there are going to be breakdowns, miscommunication and tragic outcomes as a result," said retired U.S. Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland.

MacFarland was a brigade commander during the Iraq war and also commanded the coalition forces against ISIS. Battles in Ramadi, Fallujah and later Mosul are said to most resemble war conditions in Gaza.

"What we were able to do in Fallujah and some other places is at least a partial evacuation of the city before the attack began," he said.

Israeli troops carry the coffin of a fellow soldier in Jerusalem on January 23, a day after he was killed in combat in Gaza.
Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli troops carry the coffin of a fellow soldier in Jerusalem on January 23, a day after he was killed in combat in Gaza.

That helped minimize friendly fire incidents as well as civilian casualties. But Israel is essentially fighting it out amongst the civilian population who have not been allowed to leave Gaza by Israel and Egypt.

While Israel has used leaflets dropped from planes as a way to warn civilians to leave areas, critics say it hasn't been very effective. Avner Gvaryahu, who is the executive director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who oppose the occupation of Palestinian territories, said it showed signs of a policy of "very loose rules of engagement."

"We see that when you treat an area like a free-fire zone, then you definitely might have civilian casualties. You definitely might have friendly fire cases. And as we saw, you definitely might have cases of shooting and killing hostages," he said.

The low quality of buildings in Gaza, which had been under an Israeli blockade for 16 years that made it difficult to import construction materials, have also created a 360-degree type of fight.

"It's very easy with modern weapons to shoot right through walls that you think are potentially going to stop a round. But it will travel through the building and beyond. And in an urban environment like that, it really lends itself to friendly casualties," MacFarland said.

And as Hamas militants jump out of the hundreds of miles of tunnel networks and fire at Israeli soldiers who are tense and ready to squeeze a trigger, it has all led to a highly kinetic environment that has tested Israel's military structure and the limits of its technological prowess.

"Urban combat really strips away a lot of the technological advantages that any force holds over any other force. Fighting inside of buildings is very, very difficult," MacFarland said. "It kind of comes back to training and less about technology."

Israeli soldiers take up positions next to a destroyed building during a ground operation in Khan Younis, Gaza on January 10.
Ohad Zwigenberg / AP
Israeli soldiers take up positions next to a destroyed building during a ground operation in Khan Younis, Gaza on January 10.

Israel brought nearly 300,000 reservists back to active duty — many of whom went from their regular day jobs to urban combat in Gaza with very limited training — as Israeli officials rushed to respond to the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

And there's more to it than the environment of urban warfare or lack of training, according to Rafael Cohen, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation. It also has to do with the unique structure of the IDF, a draft military. Most of the soldiers fighting in Gaza are in their late teens to mid-20s, and because Israel tends to promote quickly, there are very young people in more senior positions.

"If you also look at who Israel is losing in Gaza, they've lost a lot of junior officers. So, lieutenants, captains, majors and senior non-commissioned officers. And if you begin losing senior leaders out of tactical units, that also increases the risk of friendly fire incidents," Cohen said.

These incidents, along with the shooting of three hostages by Israeli soldiers — and the more than 25,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza — have raised questions about how Israel is conducting its war tactically and strategically.

U.S. officials have been urging Israeli leaders to be slower and more restrained and methodical in Gaza, suggestions that haven't been acted upon, according to Cohen, because it's fundamentally antithetical to how the IDF functions.

"Israeli military culture tends to be very sort of short term and tactical," Cohen said.

Which means that the priority is generally on military force. Israel still has no "day after" plan in Gaza, which has also worried U.S. officials who fear that Israel could be headed toward strategic defeat. And beyond that, there's also a lack of shorter-term tactical strategy, according to Cohen, such as helping to pass out aid and food to civilians, even toys to children — something that's been drilled into American military officers.

"Thinking of what we can do to mitigate the harm to civilians both for moral grounds, but for security grounds as well," Cohen said. "Because hopefully that kid you gave the soccer ball to, they'll probably still hate you, but maybe they'll hate you a little bit less is what you're aiming for. And that's just not there."

As Israeli military leaders signaled they will keep fighting in Gaza through 2024, Cohen expects to see policy shifts that may translate into more careful behavior on the ground, as time passes from October 7 and with it, the emotional sense of failure, anger and revenge that it brought to Israeli forces.

"We'll see an increasingly thoughtful military operation that started off in clearly defined ham-fisted ways. And it's sort of been ratcheted back somewhat," Cohen said.

And as more Israelis grow frustrated with the lack of results from the military invasion of Gaza, with at least 100 hostages remaining and 210 soldiers killed overall, Avner Gvaryahu says Israel's leaders need to learn some lessons here. In particular, that in the nearly three months since Israel's invasion of Gaza, only one hostage was returned by the military — the others were brought back through a deal.

"I think that that does expose some of the weakness in this idea that we can just use force to solve our problems," he said.

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