Home Mel Gurtov: The bombing of Gaza brings disturbing comparisons with Vietnam

Mel Gurtov: The bombing of Gaza brings disturbing comparisons with Vietnam

Mel Gurtov
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Investigations into Israel’s use of 2000-pound bombs in its Gaza campaign have determined that you have to go back to Vietnam to compare the brutality and mindlessness of what Israel is doing. These bombs, many supplied by the US, are being dropped in densely populated areas.

Both the New York Times and CNN have provided videos of the craters those bombs create on the ground. It is little wonder that the civilian death toll in Gaza is over 20,000 now.

As CNN reports, the bombs being dropped by Israel “are four times heavier than the largest bombs the United States dropped on ISIS in Mosul, Iraq,” during that war:

“Weapons and warfare experts blame the extensive use of heavy munitions such as the 2,000-pound bomb for the soaring death toll. The population of Gaza is packed together much more tightly than almost anywhere else on earth, so the use of such heavy munitions has a profound effect.”

The Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) response? “In stark contrast to Hamas’ intentional attacks on Israeli men, women and children, the IDF follows international law and takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.” But intelligence experts consulted by CNN say they haven’t seen such intense bombing since the Vietnam War.

The Washington Post also investigated the Israeli air strikes, using (it reports) “satellite imagery, airstrike data and U.N. damage assessments,” as well as interviews of people on the ground and “experts in munitions and aerial warfare.” The Post’s report says:

“The evidence shows that Israel has carried out its war in Gaza at a pace and level of devastation that likely exceeds any recent conflict, destroying more buildings, in far less time, than were destroyed during the Syrian regime’s battle for Aleppo from 2013 to 2016 and the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in 2017.”

Israel’s Plan

The IDF seems to be doing very little to protect civilian populations from the bombing. In southern Gaza, the IDF’s instructions to civilians on where to move to safety have either been murky, insufficient, or at worst wrong.

As a result, civilians are being bombed and shot in areas they were instructed to be. (Thomas White, the director of UN Relief Works Agency affairs in Gaza, tweeted Saturday on this forced displacement: “The Israeli Army just orders people to move into areas where there are ongoing airstrikes. No place is safe, nowhere to go.”)

Providing no safe place for fleeing Palestinians may be part of a larger strategy: the “voluntary removal” of the Gaza population as far south toward Egypt as possible. That objective would fulfill a longstanding ambition of the Israeli far right.

This so-called “ethnic transfer” amounts to ethnic cleansing. The only obstacle to the strategy is that neither Egypt nor any other nearby country is willing to accept two million Gaza refugees.

A Vietnam War Comparison

The Israeli government should not be surprised to find, as I reported based on recent polling, that the Gaza population’s support of Hamas is actually growing as IDF operations expand. Confirmation comes from US intelligence which, as reported by CNN December 22, believes the Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank see Hamas as a defender of their cause based not just on its October 7 attack but also its success in freeing prisoners in exchange for hostages.

My own research during the Vietnam War lends plausibility to that intelligence finding. Villagers invariably blamed the US when it bombed or napalmed in order to flush out Vietcong (VC) soldiers. At the RAND Corporation where I worked, I read numerous interviews of villagers and captured VC soldiers to assess (as the research project was called) the “motivation and morale” of enemy forces.

It was clear that the more villages were destroyed, killing innocent people and driving away others, the greater the support of the VC and the stronger the resentment of the US and the South Vietnamese government it supported. In turn, those US actions enabled recruitment by the VC, just as Israeli bombing will enable recruitment by Hamas.

There is a case to be made that Israel is violating international law by indiscriminately bombing civilian populations, forcibly moving them, and using outsize weapons that increase casualties. (Yes, Hamas’ terrorist assault of Oct. 7 and its treatment of hostages also violate international law.)

There is also a case to be made that the Biden administration’s message to Israel to limit civilian casualties is absurd on its face, not to mention contradicting its continued arming of Israel with weapons that increase casualties. There are no heroes here, only leaders blinded by aggressive ambitions and refusing to recognize the human interest, which in short involves putting an end to the violence and investing in peace.

Fulfilling those aims starts with a cease-fire; massive food, energy, and housing assistance to Gaza’s people; and movement toward a two-state, mutual security solution.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.