Israel's attacks on Gaza: The weapons and scale of destruction

For over a month, Gaza’s night sky has been lit by the red glow of missile flashes, delivering death and destruction to its 2.3 million residents. It is the same during the day, except the colours are different, as Gaza’s blue skies are blackened with plumes of smoke rising from newly levelled homes.

Since the start of Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip, following Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7, its military has killed more than 10,500 people, at least 4,300 of whom are children. Thousands more are missing or entombed under the rubble.

Israel says it has struck at least 12,000 targets across the besieged Palestinian territory from October 7 to November 1, marking one of the most intense bombing campaigns in recent history.

The Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli side of the border with the besieged enclave [Fadel Senna/AFP]

Destruction equivalent of two nuclear bombs

According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, Israel has dropped more than 25,000 tonnes of explosives on the Gaza Strip since October 7, equivalent to two nuclear bombs.

In comparison, the Little Boy nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima during World War II yielded 15,000 tonnes of high explosives and destroyed everything within a one-mile (1.6km) radius.

The graphic below compares the cumulative explosive power of Israel’s bombs dropped on Gaza to other powerful explosions.

Destruction as far as the eye can see

Satellite imagery and photographs show entire neighbourhoods have been levelled with many hospitals, schools, places of worship and homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli land, sea and air attacks. Entire communication systems and water treatment plants have also been disabled.

According to the latest data from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Health Organization (WHO) and the Palestinian government, and as of November 7, Israeli attacks have damaged at least:

  • Half of Gaza’s homes – 222,000 residential units damaged with more than 40,000 completely destroyed
  • 278 educational facilities damaged
  • 270 healthcare facilities attacked
  • 69 places of worship damaged, including mosques and churches
  • 45 ambulances damaged
  • 11 bakeries destroyed

“Israel’s use of ‘smart bombs’ in Gaza is part of a broader military strategy aimed at accurately targeting militant infrastructure to achieve military objectives, with no attempt to limit civilian casualties and infrastructure damage,” Elijah Magnier, a military analyst covering conflicts in the Middle East told Al Jazeera.

“The effectiveness of these weapons in achieving strategic objectives without causing disproportionate harm is impossible”, Magnier added.

The remains of Gaza’s Rimal neighbourhood [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]
Gaza is home to some 1.7 million refugees who were ethnically cleansed from areas that now form part of Israel. Most refugees live in or near Gaza’s eight densely populated refugee camps.

In the north of Gaza is one of the largest camps, Jabalia. The Israeli military has repeatedly hit the camp of some 116,000 registered refugees, on at least eight occasions – October 9, 12, 19, 22 and 31; November 1, 2 and 4 –  killing several hundred people. The camp houses three United Nations-run schools, which have been converted into shelters for hundreds of displaced families.

The Israeli military said that the attacks on Jabalia on November 1 had killed Hamas commander Ibrahim Biari whom they believe played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of the October 7 attacks on Israel.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, said seven civilian hostages were killed in the attack, including three foreign passport holders.

Palestinians search for casualties a day after Israeli strikes on houses in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, November 1, 2023 [Mohammed Al-Masri/Reuters]
Following the strikes on the Jabalia camp, a young Palestinian boy described how he pulled a headless body from the rubble, while another man asked, “Since when has it become okay to strike shelters? This is so unfair.”

Nowhere is safe

Palestinian children flee Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 6, 2023 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]
Palestinian children flee Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 6, 2023 [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

While most of the destruction has been centred in northern Gaza, even its south, which Israel had declared a safe zone, has not been spared.

It is estimated that between 800,000 to a million people have moved to the south of the Gaza Strip, while 350,000-400,000 remain in the north of the enclave.

The reality on the ground is that those in hospitals, the disabled and the elderly are unable to move. Air strikes have been indiscriminate, targeting UN-marked schools, hospitals and declared “safe zones”.

Israeli strikes have hit the main roads being used by civilians heading south to escape, as well as areas in southern Gaza including Deir el-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah.

Israel’s impetus has been to “completely eliminate” Hamas, however, the reality on the ground has been the elimination of entire neighbourhoods, generations of Palestinians and their means of survival.

According to satellite image analysis based on Sentinel-1 radar data by researchers Corey Scher of CUNY Graduate Center and Jamon Van Den Hoek of Oregon State University, up to 18 percent of buildings in the Gaza Strip have been damaged between October 7 to November 5, including:

  • 30-40 percent in North Gaza
  • 24-32 percent in Gaza City
  • 6-9 percent in Deir el-Balah
  • 5-8 percent in Khan Younis
  • 3-5 percent in Rafah

Forty-feet craters: Funding 'precision warfare'

Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023 [Anas al-Shareef/Reuters]
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023 [Anas al-Shareef/Reuters]

Israel’s deployment of precision-guided missiles (PGMs) casts doubt on the claim that these “smart” bombs reduce collateral damage.

“Militaries around the world often justify the use of smart bombs on the grounds that they are more accurate and, therefore, more humane and legal under international humanitarian law. The principle of distinction, a cornerstone of this law, requires the invading Israeli army to always distinguish between combatants and military targets on the one hand and civilians and civilian objects on the other and to target only the former,” Magnier tells Al Jazeera.

“Above all, it requires Israel to respect international law to ensure that no crimes against humanity are committed and that no military target is hit next to a civilian target known to contain large numbers of internally displaced persons. All of these principles, including the Geneva Convention, were not respected in many places in Gaza.”

This is why Israel uses smart bombs to further its plans, which are not limited to military objectives but to cause maximum civilian casualties and to terrorise the Palestinians in Gaza in order to trigger a general exodus.

by Elijah Magnier

According to visual analysis by The New York Times, The Guardian and experts, Israeli forces used 2,000-pound (900kg) bombs on the Jabalia refugee camp on October 31. Two impact craters estimated to be 40 feet (12 metres) wide were identified.

A man gestures as Palestinians search for casualties a day after Israeli strikes on houses in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, November 1, 2023 [Mohammed Al-Masri/Reuters]

How much damage can a 500-pound bomb do?

According to the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), which conducts defence policy research and analysis, a 500-pound blast will severely damage, injure or kill everything or anyone within 20 metres (65 feet). A 2,000-pound blast will increase the destruction radius to 35 metres (115 feet).

Averaged across different types of surfaces, a 500-pound bomb can create a crater of 25 feet (7.6 metres) across and 8.5 feet (2.6 metres) deep while a 2000-pound bomb will carve out a crater 50 feet (15 metres) across and 16 feet (5 metres), according to the PDA.

(Al Jazeera)

Even with perfect intelligence and accuracy, many of the PGMs used by Israel cause disproportionate collateral damage.

The weapons carry hundreds of pounds of explosives encased within metal. Within the first week of the Israel-Hamas war, the Biden administration sent 1,800 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) kits, small diameter bombs (SDBs) and other munitions to Israel.

Maintaining Israel’s regional military hegemony is a core element of the United States’ Middle East policy. This has been achieved by US funding an increasing Israeli military arsenal.

On November 2, the United States passed a bill providing $14.5bn in military aid to Israel.

Between 1976 and 2022, the US supplied Israel with almost 30,000 smart munitions including JDAMs, Paveways and SDBs.


What ‘smart bombs’ is Israel using?

Precision-guided missiles (PGMs), also known as smart bombs, employ advanced guidance systems to hit high-value targets.

They can be fired or dropped from aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The guidance systems in these weapons can be used to convert “dumb bombs”, which are free-fall, unguided munitions into precision weapons.

“Smart bombs are equipped with different warheads designed for different targets. Some are designed to penetrate hardened bunkers, while others have fragmentation warheads to maximise damage to exposed equipment and personnel,” Magnier tells Al Jazeera.

Guidance systems employed in PGMs include GPS technology, inertial navigation systems (INS) and laser guidance, where a target is marked, either by ground forces or by the aircraft itself, for the bomb to follow.

Most of the bombs Israel has dropped belong to the United States-designed Mk 80 family. Some of these bombs include JDAMs, Paveway laser-guided bombs and small diameter bombs. These are shown in the infographic below.

Israel’s US-made aircraft

Israel's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in an aerial display during a graduation ceremony of Israeli Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim Airbase in the Negev desert, on June 23, 2022 [Menahem Kahana/AFP]
Israel's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in an aerial display during a graduation ceremony of Israeli Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim Airbase in the Negev desert, on June 23, 2022 [Menahem Kahana/AFP]

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Military Balance 2023, Israel’s air force has 339 combat capable aircraft, including 309 fighter ground attack jets.

Of these:

  • 196 are F-16 jets
  • 83 F-15 jets
  • 30 F-35 jets

The US has sent further fighter jets to Israel in the most recent escalation.

These American-made fighter jets are capable of carrying a variety of munitions including air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.

F-15 Eagles can carry a variety of different bombs including JDAMs.

F-16 Fighting Falcons are multirole fighter aircraft capable of carrying 250-pound (Mk-81), 500-pound (Mk-82 bombs, 1,000-pound (Mk-83) bombs and 2,000-pound (Mk-84) general purpose bombs as well as precision-guided variants of these.

F-35 Lightning II is also capable of carrying 500-pound (Mk-82) bombs, 1,000-pound (Mk-83) bombs and 2,000-pound (Mk-84) bombs.

Are smart bombs effective?

The effectiveness of precision-guided missiles is dependent on multiple factors including the quality of intelligence received.

“If the intelligence is faulty, even the most accurate weapon will hit the wrong target,” Magnier told Al Jazeera.

Weapon functionality is also crucial, whereby technical malfunctions can cause smart bombs to miss their target and human error during the targeting process can lead to misidentification of marks.

“In various conflicts, there have been reports of secondary strikes occurring shortly after an initial strike, hitting rescue workers and civilians rushing to help the wounded, significantly increasing civilian casualties,” Magnier says.

‘War crimes’ and accountability

International humanitarian law prohibits the destruction of facilities essential to the survival of civilian populations, such as water supplies, electricity and medical facilities.

On Friday, an Israeli air strike on an ambulance convoy near the al-Shifa Hospital killed at least 15 people and wounded 60 others, according to health officials and aid workers.

The largest medical facility in the Gaza Strip, al-Shifa is one of at least 270 healthcare facilities that Israel has attacked over the past month.

Since November 3, the main power generators at al-Shifa Hospital and the Indonesian Hospital have stopped working. Israeli warplanes have continued to attack hospitals and the areas around them, where patients, health workers and hundreds fleeing the conflict have found shelter.

“Because such actions are taken deliberately to starve the population or deny them access to essential health services, they are considered war crimes,” Magnier says.

Magnier explains that cutting off such services in a form of collective punishment prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention, raising the question of how to hold Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza where the use of  PGMs indicates anything but precision warfare.

“The continued use of PGMs in Gaza, even when targeting military installations, can have a profound effect on the infrastructure and the psychology of the population,” Maglier tells Al Jazeera.

“Repeated strikes can contribute to a sense of fear and helplessness among the civilian population, leading them to leave a safer area at the first opportunity.”

Source: Al Jazeera