A few days before he was killed trying to disarm an unexploded Israeli missile, Hazem Abu Murad, the head of Gaza’s bomb squad, estimated that Israel had dropped between eighteen to twenty thousand tons of explosives on Gaza since 7 July.
As I write, Israel has resumed its heavy bombardment after a nine-day truce ended without a long-term ceasefire agreement.
If Abu Murad’s estimate is right, then the explosive power Israel has fired on Gaza by land, sea and air so far is roughly equivalent to one of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in August 1945.
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was rated at 13 kilotons – the equivalent of thirteen thousand tons of high-explosive TNT – while the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was rated at 21 kilotons.
Abu Murad, who died along with five other people on 13 August, estimated that about one thousand tons of unexploded munitions remained. There are more than 1,900 people killed in the ongoing Israeli assault – that is more than one out of every thousand of Gaza’s nearly 1.8 million residents.
Israel constantly publishes claims about how many mortar shells or rockets have been fired from Gaza – it claims for instance that 3,360 rockets were fired from Gaza between 8 July and 6 August.
It is well known that the rockets have caused minimal damage and casualties, and most fall in so-called “open areas.”
But even the number, which is supposed to sound impressive and justify the attack on Gaza, is actually minuscule compared with the volume of ordnance Israel fires into Gaza.
Estimates based on partial information from Israeli sources indicate that Israel has fired tens of thousands of artillery shells into Gaza and dropped a bare minimum of six thousand tons of bombs from the air. Abu Murad’s on-the-ground estimate is certainly plausible.
And the evidence suggests that contrary to Israeli official propaganda about the care taken to protect civilians, the vast majority of Israeli munitions are inaccurate and indiscriminate in the context of densely-populated areas where they have been widely used in Gaza.
This probably explains why Israel is so coy about publicizing the number of missiles, bombs and shells it fires at Gaza.
What is not in doubt – given the vast scale of killing and destruction inflicted in Gaza, as documented in UN satellite images – is that it is indeed an enormous number.
The Israeli military itself states that between 8 July and 5 August, “aerial, naval and ground forces struck 4,762 terror sites across the Gaza Strip.”
Of course we know that Israel defines everything it bombs as a “terror site,” so this number includes thousands of civilian homes, mosques, businesses and other civilian objects and infrastructure.
We also know that Israeli munitions factories were “working in shifts, 24 hours a day” to provide enough ammunition and shells to forces attacking Gaza.
During the attack, the Obama administration also replenished Israeli stocks from a one billion dollar weapons stockpile the US keeps in Israel. This included 120 mm mortar rounds and 40 mm grenades.
Israeli sources provide some information that allows us to generate a more accurate picture of the quantity of explosives Israel fired, and why their impact was so lethal and indiscriminate.
Indiscriminate artillery fire
The easiest type of munition to estimate is artillery shells. On 14 August, Haaretz published the following information, sourced to a “senior official of the general staff” of the Israeli army (emphasis added):
The estimated cost of the total ammunition used in Gaza fighting is estimated at about 1.3 billion shekels [$370 million]. According to the army’s figures, 39,000 tank shells, 34,000 artillery shells, and 4.8 million bullets were supplied during the fighting. Senior military figures estimate that land forces alone used at least 60 percent of the 5,000 tons of ammunition given to them, but the IDF [Israeli army] cannot yet evaluate it accurately.
According to the same senior staff officer, most of the ammunition came from Israeli production lines. Some of the ammunition was purchased from the US during hostilities, within the “advance placement” program. Additional ammunition and fighting equipment, along with medical equipment, were also ordered during hostilities, using an expedited procedure via the Defense Ministry.
Israel expert Dena Shunra notes that the concern here is cost – this is a move in budget negotiations in which the army seeks more money – and that is the context in which the numbers are revealed.
If, as reported, 60 percent of the stores were used, that would mean 23,400 tank shells, 20,400 artillery shells and 2.9 million bullets. That is almost two bullets for every man, woman and child in Gaza.
But, by at least one account, this is a woeful underestimate. According to the website Israel Defense, citing military sources, the Israeli army fired “not fewer than 40,000 155 mm artillery shells” into Gaza.
The most common artillery munition Israel employs is the 155 mm M107 high-explosive shell, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report titled “Indiscriminate Fire”:
M107 shells are extremely deadly weapons. The expected lethal radius for a 155 mm high explosive projectile is reportedly between 50 and 150 meters and the expected casualty radius is between 100 and 300 meters. IDF [Israeli army] officials have said that the error radius for a 155 mm shell is usually 25 meters. Therefore, if shells are lobbed as close as 100 meters to populated areas, as allowed under an IDF policy … or even closer, as sometimes happened, it greatly increases the likelihood of civilian casualties.
When the shells explode they can spread about 2,000 fragments in all directions. Sometimes they fail to explode and “become potentially explosive duds,” according to Human Rights Watch.
“Israel Military Industries, a state-owned arms producer and exporter, produces the M107 shell, although Israel has also imported 155 mm shells from the United States,” Human Rights Watch says.
What this means in practice is that Israeli shelling is indiscriminate because an “error radius” of 25 meters in a densely populated Gaza neighborhood like Shujaiya is as good as firing randomly into people’s houses.
Four times as many shells as during “Cast Lead”
And this is corroborated from Israeli sources, in particular a 15 August article in Haaretz by Gili Gohen, which explains that “artillery shells are considered ‘statistical shooting,’ which does not enable hitting targets accurately.”
Cohen adds: “155 mm shells are generally shot toward an area 50 by 50 meters; hitting anywhere within this area is considered by professionals hitting the target. In densely constructed areas like the Gaza Strip, such an area could include more than five buildings.”
Cohen also confirms the unprecedented amount of firepower Israel directed at Gaza (emphasis added):
The IDF employed an exceptional amount of firepower during combat in the Gaza Strip, including in densely built areas. According to partial data provided by the army on 29 July, after three weeks of combat (of which 12 days were in the course of ground operation) approximately 30,000 shells had been shot by that time. The ground operation continued for more than one additional week, so we can estimate that the final number of shells shot is significantly higher.
By comparison, during the 2009 Cast Lead operation, the IDF shot about 8,000 artillery shells. Of that number, some half (4,000) were smoke shells. About one thousand shells were illuminating shells and the remainder, some 3,000, were explosive shells. During that operation the forces had been instructed to refrain from shooting into constructed areas, excluding exceptional cases, where firepower was needed to rescue forces. Most of the shooting at that time was done into open spaces, or the margins around the constructed area. An estimate can be made that the total number of artillery shells shot during Protective Edge is more than four times as high as during Cast Lead.
Cohen explains that on 20 July alone, “some 600 explosive artillery shells were shot within one hour” into the eastern Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiya.
Such a barrage of indiscriminate fire can only have the effect it did: massive destruction and dozens of dead civilians.
When such immense and inaccurate firepower is used as part of the “Hannibal Directive” – a procedure meant to ostensibly thwart the capture of soldiers – there can only be one real intent: to kill the soldier and everyone else in his vicinity.
In this video, Israeli soldiers and mystics can be seen dancing and singing to bless M107 artillery shells before they are fired into Gaza:
Tank shells designed to kill over wide area
Tank guns are just another form of “statistical shooting,” so it can be expected that many of the estimated 23,400 tank shells fired at Gaza are also responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths, injuries and destruction even where Israel claims it was not specifically targeting homes, schools, hospitals and mosques.
But Israel has gone to great lengths to make its tank shells even more indiscriminate and lethal.
We know from Haaretz that the Israeli army was using Kalanit and Hatzav type tank shells in the attack on Gaza. Both were “used on a massive scale for the first time in Operation Protective Edge” – the name Israel has given its current assault on Gaza.
The Kalanit, manufactured by Israel Military Industries, “can explode in midair over terrorists hiding behind cover or alternatively breach concrete walls and explode inside buildings,” The Jerusalem Post reported in 2011.
For “terrorists” one can, of course, simply substitute the word “humans,” and for “cover” one can substitute words like “house,” “school,” or “mosque.”
Israel is so proud of this shell that it won “Israel’s prestigious Defense Prize for 2011,” the Post says.
One of the features of the Kalanit tank shell is precisely that it kills people over a very wide area, as the Israeli army’s “Lt.-Col. M.” told the Post: “Until now, a tank would fire traditional shells at cells which would have to be extremely accurate, but now due to the dispersion, it can hit cells even if the shell does not detonate exactly over where they are.”
Danny Peretz, the head of the team that developed the shell, “explained that the need for the Kalanit came up because of the change in the type of warfare Israel faced on the modern battlefield, particularly asymmetric conflicts.”
“We are no longer speaking about just tanks against tanks, but you need to be able to hit people inside buildings and people outside where they are approximately hiding,” he told the Post. “The Kalanit can do both of these missions with the same shell.”
The Hatzav is another type of tank shell that “penetrates the target, such as a building, to explode inside.”
It is unclear if the number of mortar shells Israel fired is included in the overall estimate for artillery – I was unable to find a separate estimate for mortars. A mortar is a type of artillery.
It is typically much shorter range than, say, a tank gun or a 155 mm artillery piece, and the explosive shell is lobbed on a high trajectory. It is definitely another form of “statistical shooting” but generally far less accurate than other weapons.
Yet this lethal and indiscriminate weapon was used on a huge scale. This video, originally broadcast on Israeli television, in a report on female gunners, shows one artillery unit made up of four vehicle-mounted large caliber mortars firing shells towards Gaza at a regular rhythm of four shells every two minutes.
At first the soldiers are firing smoke shells but then they are asked to use explosives, sending “rescuing fire” towards “two targets near a built up area.”
The female gunners can be seen scrawling birthday greetings to friends and such messages as “To Adi, Good luck with the new job!” on the mortar shells before blasting them into Gaza.
In between volleys, the gunners take breaks to eat meals of sushi.
Bombs dropped from the air
Israeli military sources have been less forthcoming about the number of bombs dropped from the air, but there have been some important clues.
On 10 July, the fourth day of Israel’s current assault on Gaza, The Jerusalem Post reported, citing a “senior military source”:
Around 800 tons of explosives have been fired by air force jets on targets this week, the source said. The IAF’s [Israel Air Force] current rate of fire is double that of Operation Pillar of Defense, launched in 2012 to stop Hamas rocket fire from Gaza. “We’ll see this trend increasing, as part of our firepower policy,” he said.
At that rate – not accounting for the promised increase – the tonnage of bombs could easily exceed six thousand tons over the course of a month.
And there was almost certainly an increase. On 20 July in Shujaiya, for example, according to Haaretz, Israeli warplanes carried out “a broad aerial attack that included about 100 one-ton bombs.” That was only in one location; Israeli warplanes were bombing all over Gaza as well.
Gaza residents and journalists consistently reported that the bombing got heavier as Israel’s campaign progressed.
Israel uses a broad range of air-dropped munitions, many, if not most, US-made.
It would take major on-the-ground research to identify them all, although Hazem Abu Murad and his team identified some of the types: the one-ton MK84 bombs that have a destructive radius of 300 meters and GBU laser-guided bombs, which have been photographed just before they struck buildings in Gaza.
These details of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza are important: if human rights researchers can collect the evidence of the weapons and equipment used in Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity, it can help to make accountable not just those who ordered the weapons fired but also those who supplied them.
The staggering amount of weapons Israel has used to inflict so much indiscriminate harm underscores the urgency of calls for an arms embargo on Israel. It also highlights that Israel, an undeclared possessor of nuclear weapons, must urgently be brought under international control and monitoring.
But it is important not to lose sight of the big picture: no claim of “self-defense” could ever justify dropping this much explosives so indiscriminately and so deliberately on a captive civilian population.
Those who justify it as “self-defense” are complicit in mass murder.
It is also a mistake to look for a “military” explanation for Israel’s actions.
This massacre, this dropping of what plausibly approximates to a “small” atomic bomb on Gaza, can only be explained in political terms. As I have argued previously, it is the price of maintaining a “Jewish state” in Palestine.
With thanks to Dena Shunra for assistance with research and translation.