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Open source analysis gives clues on Israel's ground war in Gaza


The ground war in Gaza is intensifying as it enters its second week. Israeli officials say that 25 soldiers have died so far. Meanwhile, Gaza's health ministry says nearly 200 Palestinian civilians were killed in an airstrike at a refugee camp on Tuesday. Speaking today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over the growing number of casualties.


ANTONY BLINKEN: We need to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. We've been clear that as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters.

SUMMERS: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been looking into the details of Israel's campaign on the ground in Gaza and joins us now. Hi there.


SUMMERS: So, Geoff, let's talk about what's happening on the ground there right now. What do we know?

BRUMFIEL: The Israeli military has pushed into the Gaza Strip from three points, two from the north and one cutting all the way across the middle of the strip. And in doing so, it's encircled Gaza City. Now, before the war, Gaza City was home to a little over half a million people. It was the largest city in the territory. The Israeli military says it's also a Hamas stronghold, filled with tunnels and weapons caches. I spoke to Sean MacFarland, a retired U.S. Army general, and he said surrounding an enemy, it's a pretty standard tactic in urban warfare.

SEAN MACFARLAND: They're setting the conditions there to go into the city, but first, they have to kind of close off the perimeter.

SUMMERS: OK. And, Geoff, if Israeli forces go into Gaza City, what could that look like?

BRUMFIEL: Well, we've had a look at satellite imagery from the commercial company Planet. And it shows armored vehicles parked in these areas cleared by Israeli bulldozers at different points on the edge of the city. But MacFarland and other experts we showed the images to say this doesn't look like an occupation force. There just aren't enough troops to really take control of the entire city. Instead, MacFarland thinks part of the force will prevent Hamas fighters from entering and leaving while other troops go into the city and strike at Hamas targets in limited raids.

SUMMERS: I mean, Geoff, what could the kind of fight that you're describing there mean for the civilians who are trapped in Gaza City?

BRUMFIEL: It's not good. Urban warfare like this is very brutal. It can kill a lot of civilians. And from what we can see on social media, it seems like current Israeli rules of engagement allow significant civilian casualties. I spoke to Marc Garlasco, a former U.N. war crimes investigator. And he says this is quite different than earlier battles Israel has fought in Gaza.

MARC GARLASCO: The Israelis obviously have a higher tolerance for civilian casualties in this conflict than we've seen in prior conflicts. And I think the reason for that is they believe that this is an existential conflict.

BRUMFIEL: And Garlasco brought up that airstrike you mentioned earlier as an example. Israel says it killed a top Hamas leader, but doing so meant dropping bombs in an area filled with civilians.

SUMMERS: I mean, to that point, the stories that we are hearing out of Gaza already are terrible. And yet, from what you are describing, it sounds like this could really just be the beginning. Is there any way to protect innocent people?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the U.S. has called for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow aid to come in. So far, Israel doesn't seem even remotely interested in that, but Garlasco says it may face more international pressure the longer this ground offensive goes on because international law requires them to minimize civilian casualties.

GARLASCO: Even though Hamas may violate the laws of war, it doesn't mean that Israel can, right? And while Israel has a right to defend itself, that right is not unlimited.

BRUMFIEL: In particular, Garlasco says that Israeli strikes need to be proportionate, meaning that the military benefits are worth the civilian harm. The U.N. is already echoing this concern. Earlier this week, they warned that the strike at the refugee camp could amount to war crimes because of questions of proportionality.

SUMMERS: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.