The latest horror to take place amid weeks of Israeli bombardment of Gaza – Tuesday’s deadly strike by warplanes on Jabalia, the Palestinian enclave’s largest refugee camp, followed by a strike on Wednesday afternoon – underlines in the most violent way the critical need for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Jabalia embodies the reality that the Israeli military operation is killing far more civilians than militants.
Why is it so hard to reach a ceasefire when the death toll among non-combatants is so shockingly high? A chilling statistic from Save the Children this week revealed that 3,195 children killed in the past three weeks surpassed the annual number of children killed in conflict zones since 2019. According to the UN, at least 70 per cent of those killed are women and children. The death toll among civilians, including doctors, journalists and aid workers, continues to rise at an alarming rate.
Israel’s leadership is clearly not in listening mode, and the near-blanket political and military cover offered by the US enables Israeli forces to continue what they are doing in Gaza, knowing that a superpower is there to mitigate the threat of international action. This partly explains why calls for a ceasefire are not being heeded. But there are many strategic reasons to stop the fighting, aside from the self-evident moral and humanitarian imperative to do so.
Much of the world was rightly aghast at the Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israeli civilians on October 7. Since then, however, weeks of aerial bombardment by Israel’s military have in no small way eroded that sense of empathy in many capitals. Continuing to target hospitals, refugee camps and civilian residences further squanders most international goodwill. The need for a ceasefire is not only a moral imperative but in effect in Israel’s longer term interest.
There is no guarantee that continuing the operation will achieve its stated aim of destroying Hamas, which is reportedly well dug in for a ground offensive. It is also endangering hundreds of Israeli hostages still in Gaza and is fuelling unjust and unacceptable anti-Semitism around the world. In addition, the death and destruction in the blockaded enclave is creating a new generation of traumatised and enraged Palestinians, and further destabilising a region that was already in a state of near-permanent turmoil.
The air strikes and invasion of Gaza has also opened other fronts for Israel to contend with, including in Yemen, more than 2,000 kilometres away across the Arabian Peninsula, where Iran-backed Houthi militants are launching ballistic missiles and drones over other countries towards the conflict zone, increasing the risk of an uncontrollable regional escalation.
Politically, the civilian death toll so far undermines Israel’s self-proclaimed position as a state seeking to live in peace in its neighbourhood. The continuing violence in Gaza has also disrupted Israel’s progress towards achieving recognition among a number of Arab states.
Allies of Israel carry a particular responsibility to communicate these realities to the country’s leadership. On Tuesday, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin told the Senate appropriations committee that he had “repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who appeared beside Mr Austin on Tuesday, will be in Israel for high-level meetings tomorrow. He must be willing to call for a ceasefire, as all those who value Palestinian and Israeli lives should.