Three weeks on, Israel-Gaza war has brought unprecedented death and destruction

Millions of people in Gaza face a humanitarian disaster while the rest of the region braces for a potential wider war

Rescuers search for survivors and bodies of victims in the rubble of buildings destroyed by Israel's bombardment of Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, on October 26. AFP
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The Israel-Gaza war enters its fourth week on Saturday, with no end in sight despite calls for an immediate ceasefire and a seemingly imminent Israeli ground invasion of the coastal enclave.

The scale of death and destruction in such a short period is unparalleled in the decades-long history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In only three weeks, about 9,000 people have been killed, including 1,400 people in Israel and at least 7,000 Palestinians.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health data shows almost continual spikes in deaths amid heavy bombing in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.

For context, about 14,000 people in total were killed in the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict between 1987 and 2021. In the major war of 2014, in which Israeli forces launched a ground attack in Gaza that lasted 50 days, 2,000 people died.

The war began with Hamas launching a deadly attack into southern Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,000 civilians and 300 soldiers, and taking at least 200 Israeli and foreign citizens hostage.

Israeli forces retaliated by imposing a total siege on Gaza and have bombarded the Gaza Strip every day since.

The world is now bracing for an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and potential escalation across the region.

Here is a breakdown of what you need to know, three weeks on.

Gaza ground invasion fears

Israel’s assault began on the evening of October 7 with massive retaliatory air strikes in Gaza, hitting Hamas rocket positions but also dropping massive bomb loads in built-up urban areas.

Israel’s Air Force said it had dropped 6,000 bombs in the first five days of the war – close to the number of bombs dropped by the US in Afghanistan in all of 2019, which was a record for that conflict.

Palestinian casualties soared while Israeli and Hamas spokesmen blamed each side for the deaths. Particularly contentious was a strike at Al Ahli hospital thought to have killed up to 500 people on October 17, which drew widespread international outrage.

Hamas said the strike was caused by an Israeli missile, with several governments across the Middle East as well as some further afield strongly condemning Israel for it.

The US, UK and France later said they had determined the cause of the blast to be a failed rocket belonging to Hamas or an allied group, backing Israel’s version of events.

Whoever was to blame for the strike, civilians in Gaza are dying in the hundreds every day as Israel’s bombardment continues.

Israel however, says its strikes are taking a heavy toll on Hamas, with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant saying on October 26 that five senior Hamas commanders had been killed.

Israel was said by analysts to be engaged in “shaping operations” against Hamas defences, knocking the group off balance by killing commanders ahead of a full-scale ground invasion.

Israel has amassed about 300,000 soldiers in southern Israel. Based on a 2019 study of the Israeli army, about 60 per cent would be available for combat, or roughly 180,000, with the rest in supporting roles, a ratio military experts call “tooth to tail”.

Facing them are about 30,000 Hamas militants and their allies, who have heavily fortified parts of Gaza and built a tunnel complex network by some estimates 500 kilometres long, sometimes called the “Gaza metro.”

Experts fear it could take months of heavy fighting, with massive casualties on all sides, for the Israelis to kill or capture most of the militants, who can use the tunnels to hide and re-emerge elsewhere on the battlefield.

Complicating this effort for the Israelis will be the presence of about 230 hostages – half of whom are Israeli – taken by Hamas.

Israel is receiving military advice both on the urban battle from senior US commanders, but is also working with foreign militaries on the prospect of a hostage rescue.

Humanitarian disaster

In Gaza, the situation quickly deteriorated after October 7 when Israel imposed a complete blockade.

The UN said its humanitarian operations are now almost impossible due to the small amounts of aid that have made it across the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border in convoys of fewer than 20 lorries per day, starting on October 21. Israel has demanded that all lorries be inspected before entry.

The UN said at least 100 lorries carrying aid would be needed per day.

Aid operations have also been jeopardised by the deaths of 57 staff members during the bombardments.

Excavators to rescue those trapped under rubble are difficult to come by, and as diesel and fuel run out, 12 hospitals and 32 primary healthcare units have gone out of service either because of a lack of resources or destruction by air strikes.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says about 1,700 people are still missing, including 940 children, feared trapped under rubble.

At least 688 families have lost members and more than one million people out of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million have been displaced.

Most of the major bakeries have shut down, with those that remain relying on fuel being distributed by UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, which has said it is having to make a choice between supplying hospitals to keep incubators running or bakeries to feed a lucky few.

Even UN schools have turned into shelters housing hundreds of thousands and have also been affected by air strikes. Other people have refused to leave their homes, some for a second time after being displaced in 1948.

“We are dead either way,” one person said.

Fear of wider regional war

The conflict has not escalated into a major regional war, but tension is high.

Iran and its allied groups in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have threatened to attack Israel if it continues to bombard Gaza, while the US has moved forces to the region – including two powerful aircraft carrier strike groups.

Washington has warned Tehran it will defend its ally Israel.

The Israel-Lebanon border is a key flashpoint. Dozens have been killed in cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Iran-backed Hezbollah since October 7.

The fighting has been limited to skirmishes and has so far avoided a repeat of the full-blown 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, but many in Lebanon are preparing for the worst.

Elsewhere, Israel and the US have struck Syria, taking out major airports and hitting Iran-linked sites. US troops have come under attack by Iran-backed groups in both Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

The Iran-allied Houthi rebel group has also attempted to hit Israel with long-range missiles launched from Yemen.

Despite fiery statements from Iranian officials threatening escalation, experts suggest that Tehran does not want a major war.

“Almost all governments across the region are in a consensus that they would like to contain this conflict. At this stage, I even think that it seems like Iran is in that consensus, too,” said Dr Tobias Borck, an expert on Middle East security at the Royal United Services Institute.

However, he said Hezbollah and the Houthis are not “sitting by the phone waiting for Tehran to ring to tell them what to do”.

“We could see an escalation, for example, from Hezbollah without Tehran wanting Hezbollah to escalate. That is possible,” he said.

“If Hezbollah comes to the conclusion that it has to act in order to retain its legitimacy within its specific context then it will, regardless of what Tehran says.”

Gaza strikes intensify as expected invasion nears

Gaza strikes intensify as expected invasion nears

Hamas’s hostages

Negotiation efforts are ongoing to free more hostages: four have already been released, including two elderly Israelis freed by Hamas on humanitarian grounds, but the fate of the rest is uncertain.

Israeli citizen Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, who was freed on October 23, said the hostages were being treated well and were being held in a “spider’s web” of tunnels.

Talks so far have involved Qatar, confirmed by Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Turkey. Qatar has long been an interlocutor between Hamas and the wider world, also paying salaries for Gaza’s public sector workers prior to the complete October 7 siege.

In a nod to Doha’s hostage talks, Israel's National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi thanked Qatar for being “an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions”.

If talks break down – Hamas has made various demands including an Israeli ceasefire, an end to the siege and the release of prisoners in Israel – a rescue operation will be complicated by the tunnel complexes.

Israel could face an operation more difficult than its most well-known rescue effort, the 1976 Entebbe raid in Uganda, when Israeli commandos freed about 248 hostages taken on a plane hijacked by the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine.

Updated: October 28, 2023, 8:46 AM