The hidden toll: Is Israel downplaying soldiers’ deaths?

William Van Wagenen, The Cradle, December 19, 2023 —

Faced with its longest and deadliest war to date, Israel is now under increasing pressure to transparently disclose its losses, going against the common practice of concealing casualties during wartime.

“How many Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza?”

This is a persistent question that many are asking as the Israeli military’s ground campaign in the bombed and besieged enclave nears its second month.

If the army is suffering relatively low losses while inflicting massive Palestinian civilian casualties, this suggests Israel is well on its way to achieving its clear objective of eliminating Hamas, but also its unspoken goals: conquer Gaza, ethnically cleanse its 2.3 million residents, and rebuild the Gush Katif settlement bloc.

But if the occupation army is indeed suffering huge losses, this suggests the Israeli military and political leadership may need to soon end their genocidal campaign prematurely, while citing exaggerated external pressure from the White House as the pretext.

Secrecy surrounding Israeli losses

Israel’s military claimed on 17 December that 121 soldiers had been killed since its delayed ground campaign began on 27 October, when tanks and infantry began to push into Gaza’s cities and refugee camps.

But determining the true number of Israeli soldier casualties has always been notoriously difficult, as Israel’s military goes to great lengths to cover up its combat losses. A recent battle between Hamas and Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade exemplifies this secrecy.

“We are heading to the most difficult and deepest place with a large number of enemy fighters,” boasted Israeli Lt. Col. Tomer Grinberg, commander of the Golani Brigade’s 13th Battalion, shortly before leading his troops on a ground operation in the legendary Shujaiyya (which aptly means “courageous”) neighborhood in northern Gaza.

He then added, “I promise you a resounding victory.”

But Grinberg is now dead.

According to Israeli sources, Grinberg was killed during the 12 December operation, along with nine other Golani soldiers, in an ambush by Hamas fighters.

After four of the brigade’s soldiers were injured in a firefight, others sought to rescue them amid fears they may be dragged into a tunnel. The second group was also hit by explosives, as was a third group that also tried to evacuate the wounded.

After the battle, Hamas issued a statement warning:

“The longer you stay there, the greater the bill of your deaths and losses will be, and you will emerge from it carrying the tail of disappointment and loss, God willing.”

Resistance claims higher soldier toll

But there is compelling reason to believe the number of soldiers killed alongside Grinberg in Shujaiyya is much higher than the nine announced by the army.

Security expert and retired Israeli Colonel Miri Eisin told CNN that the 12 December attack was particularly painful because so many of the dead were high-ranking officers:

“We’re hurting today…It’s always hard when soldiers are killed, but when it’s this level of command, it hits you in the gut. These are commanders that commanded hundreds of soldiers.”

This led one former US soldier to ask on X whether Israel was hiding the true number of soldiers killed in the ambush. “Where are all the privates, and the corporals, and the lower enlisted?”

Hamas, through its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, provides an answer.

Regarding the events on 12 December, the Qassam Brigades reported killing 11 soldiers in Shujaiyya, including members of a rescue team, in an apparent reference to the deaths acknowledged by the Israeli army.

But according to Qassam, on the same day, its fighters also killed or injured 10 soldiers east of the city of Khan Yunis, killed or injured another 20 soldiers barricaded inside a building in the Sheikh Radwan area of Gaza City, and killed another 15 soldiers who attacked them in their make-shift base at the Abu Rashid Pool.

Censorship on the press and hospitals

Despite claiming to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” Tel Aviv maintains a tight grip on information related to military casualties through the use of military censors, controlling what the press can publish concerning national security issues, including injuries and deaths of soldiers.

“The human losses announced by the security establishment are usually binding on hundreds of media institutions, and these are allowed to work basically according to this rule. The death toll always comes from one source, and no one questions it,” Hassan Abdo, The Cradle’s Palestine Correspondent, reported earlier this year.

Abdo attributes this to preserving the image of the invincible Israeli soldier “who does not fall victim to a weak, primitive opponent.”

This is “one of the main pillars of the Zionist project based on the tripartite of security, immigration, and settlement,” he added.

As The Cradle noted, even before the outbreak of war on 7 October, Israeli soldiers have had a strange tendency to die in “accidents” during periods of heightened conflict with the Palestinian resistance, including in car accidents, plane crashes, suicides, gas leaks, and even falling from balconies.

But this invincible image was shattered with the operation Al-Aqsa Flood, when Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups broke out of the Gaza Strip to attack the Israeli military bases and settlements (kibbutzim) enforcing the brutal 17-year siege on the tiny and impoverished enclave.

During Al-Aqsa Flood, Hamas killed 41 soldiers from Grinberg’s Golani battalion alone, in major battles at the Re’im and Nahal Oz military bases.

Hezbollah’s estimates and questions from within

Israel claims Hamas carried out a massacre at the Nova music festival, just a few kilometers from the Re’im base, but a major battle took place there as well. At Nova, 58 Israeli police were killed, including from elite combat counter-terror units of the Border Police, known as Yamam, who were the first to respond to the attack.

According to an Israeli police investigation regarding events at Nova, had there not been a substantial police deployment at Yad Mordechai, some 30 kilometers further north, “the terrorists would have been on their way to … Tel Aviv in 40 minutes.”

It, therefore, becomes more imperative than ever for the occupation state to hide the extent of its losses, both in the battle against the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and in the north in the battle with Hezbollah, to reestablish and maintain the myth of an overwhelmingly powerful military presence in the region.

Anecdotal evidence and estimates from Hezbollah suggest that the official count of 115 Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting in Gaza and near the Lebanese border following 7 October is likely much lower than the true figure. Reports from different sources indicate a significant discrepancy, with instances of mass casualties not officially acknowledged.

The Lebanese resistance movement estimates its attacks on settlements and military bases in northern-occupied Palestine have killed at least 35 Israeli soldiers and injured 172.

After just the first week of fighting in Gaza, the death toll, as announced by the Israeli army from fighting there, had reached 19. Among them were nine soldiers killed in just one attack. Hamas struck the “Namer” armored personnel carrier transporting the soldiers to the battle with an anti-tank missile.

Seven of the dead soldiers were 20 years old or younger, which seems to confirm the perception that Israel is sending inexperienced fighters into combat against Hamas’ battle-hardened fighters motivated by a cause, resistance to occupation, they firmly believe in.

But the occupation army spokesperson’s unit quickly learned not to announce the mass killing of soldiers of this sort.

Baruch Rosenblum, an Israeli rabbi, recalled a story from a senior officer in the army from the second week of the Gaza ground campaign. The officer explained that most of the fighting takes place at night, and that in just one operation, Hamas had killed 36 soldiers.

The rabbi explained that Hamas had attacked a convoy of three Namer armored vehicles, each carrying 12 soldiers, setting them ablaze. The army command watched via drone live feed as the soldiers abandoned the vehicles and Hamas eliminated them all with anti-tank weapons.

The senior officer chose not to disclose his name to the rabbi “to avoid arrest for revealing state secrets,” and the incident was never announced by the army or reported in the Israeli press.

On 18 November, in the third week of the ground operation, David Oren Baruch, the director of Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, provided another anecdote suggesting a soldier death toll much larger than what was publicly known.

He revealed that “We are now going through a period where every hour there is a funeral, every hour and a half a funeral.”

“I was asked to open a large number of graves. Only in the Mount Herzl cemetery did we bury 50 soldiers in 48 hours,” Baruch explained further.

Military control of the narrative

The Israeli military’s reluctance to disclose the number of wounded soldiers further adds to suspicions of underreporting.

Unlike in past wars, the Israeli military had refused to make any statement about the number of wounded in Gaza. This finally changed on 10 December, just before Haaretz planned to publish its report on the number of soldier casualties based instead on hospital sources.

Haaretz noted “a considerable and unexplained gap between the data reported by the military and that from the hospitals.” The hospital data the outlet obtained showed the number of wounded soldiers was “twice as high as the army’s numbers.”

The Israeli newspaper also highlighted the military’s tight control over the data reported by the hospitals themselves, explaining that members of the army spokesperson’s unit “are in the hospitals around the clock. Every press release regarding wounded soldiers and replies to media queries must receive their approval.”

Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth similarly reported on 9 December that, “Every day, about 60 new wounded are received only by the rehabilitation department” and that “the cumulative numbers since October 7 are astronomical: More than 2,000 soldiers, policemen and other members of the security forces have been officially recognized as disabled.”

“We have never been through anything even similar to this,” explained Limor Luria, head of the rehabilitation department at the Ministry of Defense.

“More than 58 percent of the wounded who are taken in by us have severe injuries of arms and legs, including those that require amputations. About 12 percent are internal injuries – spleen, kidney, tearing of internal organs. There are also head and eye injuries.”

In addition to thousands of horrific physical injuries, Israel is also facing “a tsunami of trauma,” the paper added. “I sat with a fighter who took three bullets. A physically torn person, a very serious injury,” Luria added, “but his main struggle is with the sights he saw.”

One injured soldier, Elisha Madan, recounted to a crowd how his fellow soldiers were killed in front of his eyes. “I came back from the dead alone. My entire squad died, and I was on the verge of death. I survived thanks to your prayers,” Madan said while seated in his wheelchair.

‘All warfare is based on deception’ – Sun Tzu

Since 7 October, the Israeli military leadership has reported falsehoods about almost every facet of that day’s events, and the war that followed.

They lied about Hamas beheading babies, they covered up burning alive their own soldiers and civilians with Apache helicopter and tank fire, and they continue to lie about pretending to care about the safety of Palestinian civilians, who they have mercilessly bombed for months with only the slightest pretext of targeting Hamas fighters and infrastructure.

As a result, while it is impossible to know the true numbers of Israeli soldiers killed in battle against the Palestinian resistance, there is there is ample reason to question the veracity of the information provided by the US-backed occupation army.

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