Over the following weeks, and then months, as Israel’s onslaught continued, I noticed a growing number of experts, humanitarian workers, and investigators turning to superlatives to describe what is taking place in Gaza. What they narrate is a conflict that has surpassed their records, expectations, and imagination, and a scale of destruction in the face of which comparisons break down. If there are limits to war, they have yet to be defined.

A conflict that has surpassed records, expectations, and imagination

Mikhail Joey. Arrangement #7 (Bücherregal). 2023, inkjet print.

Last fall, the International Committee of the Red Cross made a rare public statement about an ongoing conflict:

International humanitarian law is clear: civilians must be protected.

Critical infrastructure must be protected.

Even wars have limits.

This was October 14, 2023. More than nineteen hundred Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, and some 423,000 had been forced to flee their homes and find refuge in another corner of the 141 square miles of the Strip.

Over the following weeks, and then months, as Israel’s onslaught continued, I noticed a growing number of experts, humanitarian workers, and investigators turning to superlatives to describe what is taking place in Gaza. What they narrate is a conflict that has surpassed their records, expectations, and imagination, and a scale of destruction in the face of which comparisons break down.

If there are limits to war, they have yet to be defined.

“Never in Oxfam’s history have we seen a humanitarian crisis like the one in Gaza.”
—Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB CEO, October 19, 2023

“The number of children reported killed in just three weeks in Gaza is more than the number killed in armed conflict globally—across more than 20 countries—over the course of a whole year, for the last three years.”
—Save the Children, October 29, 2023

“This is an avalanche of human suffering that is a hundred percent man-made. It is the worst humanitarian catastrophe I’ve experienced in my lifetime and in my growingly long career in humanitarian medicine. . . . An avalanche of suffering that is unprecedented in modern times. . . . There is an acronym that is unique to the Gaza Strip. It’s called, it’s W.C.N.S.F.: Wounded child, no surviving family.”
—Dr. Tanya Haj-Hassan, Pediatrician, to BBC News, November 1, 2023

“In the last 24 hours, two additional UNRWA colleagues were killed. UNRWA also received confirmation that one colleague was killed on 3 November. 92 UNRWA colleagues have been killed and at least 26 injured since the start of hostilities. This is the highest number of United Nations and workers killed in a conflict in the history of the United Nations.”
—United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Nov 8, 2023

On November 10, the death toll in Gaza surpassed 11,000, including more than 4,500 children and 3,000 women.

“They haven’t stopped bombing. They’re still bombing. They’ve got troops in there with tanks. And it’s just consistent. It’s well documented. We are seeing it all over the world in all the newspapers and television. So it’s like people know exactly what’s happening. And yet it doesn’t stop. I haven’t seen that before.”
—Anne Taylor, Head of MSF mission to Palestine, November 17, 2023

“If the figures are even close to accurate, far more children have been killed in Gaza in the past six weeks than the 2,985 children killed in the world’s major conflict zones combined—across two dozen countries—during all of last year, even with the war in Ukraine, according to U.N. tallies of verified deaths in armed conflict.”
New York Times, November 18, 2023

“We are witnessing a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since I am Secretary General.”
—UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, November 20, 2023

“Another horrifying milestone. The reported number of children killed in Gaza has now exceeded 5,000.”
—UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell, November 21, 2023

On November 30, amid reports of rising civilian casualties and following meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “Israel has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world.”

“In my 35 years of work in complex emergencies, I never have expected to write such a letter, predicting the killing of my staff & the collapse of the mandate I am expected to fulfill.”
—Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner General of UNRWA, about a letter to the President of the Security Council, December 8, 2023

“The Omari Mosque, Gaza’s most iconic landmark and oldest mosque stretching back centuries, has been largely destroyed in an Israeli strike.”
—NPR, December 9, 2023

“As the leaders of some of the world’s largest global humanitarian organizations, we have seen nothing like the siege of Gaza. In the more than two months since the horrifying attack on Israel that killed more than 1,200 people and resulted in some 240 abductions, about 18,000 Gazans—including more than 7,500 children—have been killed, according to the Gazan health ministry. More children have been reported killed in this conflict than in all major global conflicts combined last year. . . . In no other war we can think of in this century have civilians been so trapped, without any avenue or option to escape to save themselves and their children.”
—Joint opinion by heads of international aid agencies, December 11, 2023

In early December, the White House bypassed Congress to send 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition to Israel.

“The Israeli military campaign in Gaza, experts say, now sits among the deadliest and most destructive in recent history.

. . .

“In just over two months, researchers say the offensive has wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria’s Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine’s Mariupol or, proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.

. . .

“It has killed more civilians than the US-led coalition did in its three-year campaign against the Islamic State group.

. . .

“‘Gaza is now a different color from space. It’s a different texture,’ said [Corey] Scher, who has worked with [Jamon] Van Den Hoek to map destruction of several war zones, from Aleppo to Mariupol. They say the visible damage in Gaza is worse than what they found in both places.

. . .

“‘Gaza is one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history,’ said [Robert] Pape. ‘It now sits comfortably in the top quartile of the most devastating bombing campaigns ever.’”
—AP News, December 21, 2023

On December 21, Gazan health officials recorded the death toll at more than 20,000 Palestinians.

“The targeting by a US ally of a compound housing hundreds of sick and dying patients and thousands of displaced people has no precedent in recent decades.”
Washington Post investigation into Al-Shifa Hospital, December 21, 2023

“During the first six weeks of the war in Gaza, Israel routinely used one of its biggest and most destructive bombs in areas it designated safe for civilians.”
New York Times, December 21, 2023

“Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars in Gaza.”
Washington Post, December 23, 2024

“The soldiers dug up the graves this morning and dragged the bodies with bulldozers, then crushed the bodies with the bulldozers,” said the hospital’s head of pediatric services, Hossam Abu Safiya, in a phone interview on Saturday. “I have never seen such a thing before.”
—CNN Report, December 23, 2023

“After 78 days of war, I finally managed to call my grandmother in #Gaza,She said: ‘I’ve lived through ‘48 exodus, ‘56 & ‘67 wars, both intifadas, 2008,2012,2014, and 2021 wars, and all escalations But this war’s brutality, destruction & fear surpass anything I’ve ever witnessed.’”
—Nour Naim, X, December 24, 2023

“I have been working in global public health for 20 years, and I have never heard health and aid organisations as forthright and concerned as they are about the level of suffering and deaths in Gaza. It is an unprecedented conflict, breaking the most tragic records, and while experts might debate whether it’s a genocide or not, the truth is we’re witnessing the mass killing of a population, whether by bomb, bullet, starvation or disease.”
—Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at University of Edinburgh, December 29, 2023

“I’ve been doing this for the past two decades, and I’ve been to all kinds of conflicts and all kinds of crises. And, for me, this is unprecedented because of, one, the magnitude, the scale, the entire population of a particular place; second, the severity; and third, the speed at which this is happening, at which this has unfolded, is unprecedented. In my life, I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of severity, in terms of scale, and then in terms of speed.”
—Arif Husain, chief economist of World Food Program, January 3, 2024

“The absolute numbers of people who die in Gaza will not match those of the calamitous 20th-century famines, because the afflicted population is smaller, yet the proportionate death toll may be comparable. The rigour, scale and speed of the destruction of [objects indispensable to survival] and enforcement of the siege surpasses any other case of man-made famine in the last 75 years.”
—Alex de Waal, Executive Director of World Peace Foundation, January 3, 2024

On January 11, the number of dead Palestinians was reported at more than 23,000. Nearly 60,000 others were injured.

“I haven’t seen a number of amputations like this within four hours since the beginning of this genocide 56 days ago.”
—Emergency Medicine Doctor displaced to the south of Gaza, Gaza Medic Voices, January 12, 2024

“The wholesale destruction of Gaza and the number of civilian casualties in such a short period are totally unprecedented during my mandate.”
—UN chief Antonio Guterres, January 20, 2024

In late January, the United States suspended funds to UNRWA, the largest humanitarian agency in Gaza, amid Israeli allegations that several staffers were part of the Hamas attack on October 7.

“There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the horrors that I saw. . . . Every single facet of their society has been ripped apart.”
—Seema Jilani, pediatrician, January 30, 2024

“Israel’s military operation in Gaza, in the aftermath of the heinous 7 October attack by Hamas, has become the deadliest, most dangerous conflict for journalists in recent history.”
—United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, February 1, 2024

“I have worked in other war zones. But what I witnessed during the next 10 days in Gaza was not war—it was annihilation. . . . I stopped keeping track of how many new orphans I had operated on. After surgery they would be filed somewhere in the hospital, I’m unsure of who will take care of them or how they will survive. On one occasion, a handful of children, all about ages 5 to 8, were carried to the emergency room by their parents. All had single sniper shots to the head. These families were returning to their homes in Khan Yunis, about 2.5 miles away from the hospital, after Israeli tanks had withdrawn. But the snipers apparently stayed behind. None of these children survived.”
—Irfan Galaria, physician, February 16, 2024

“We’ve reached our limit. Things are miserable and get worse every day. It’s beyond famine.”
—Gaza City resident, to Middle East Eye, February 25, 2024

“We have never seen a civilian population made to go so hungry so quickly and so completely, that is the consensus among starvation experts. Israel is not just targeting civilians, it is trying to damn the future of the Palestinian people by harming their children.”
—Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, February 27, 2024

“I have never . . . seen a place . . . so bombarded for such a long time with such a trapped population without any escape. People are traumatized beyond belief.”
—Jan Egeland, February 27, 2024

“It’s the fastest decline in a population’s nutrition status ever recorded. What that means is that children are starving at the fastest rate that the world has ever known.”
—Melanie Ward, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians, February 28, 2024

“This is the most trapped population under the worst bombardment in modern history, against any civilian population.”
—Jan Egeland, Norwegian Refugee Council, March 7, 2024

“Since the war began five months ago, UNRWA has recorded an unprecedented number of violations against its staff and facilities that surpass any other conflict around the world.”
—UNRWA, March 13, 2024

On the 13,000 children killed in Gaza and those suffering from severe malnutrition: “Thousands more have been injured or we can’t even determine where they are. They may be stuck under rubble. . . . We haven’t seen that rate of death among children in almost any other conflict in the world.”
—Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director, March 17, 2024

“The catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation in Gaza are the highest ever recorded on the IPC scale, both in terms of number of people and percentage of the population. Never before have we seen such rapid deterioration into widespread starvation.”
—Oxfam, March 18, 2024

“Ninety journalists and other media workers in Gaza have been killed in just over five months, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists—the deadliest period for the profession since the group began collecting data in 1992.”
Washington Post, March 19, 2024

By March 21, the death toll reached around 32,000. Thousands of others were unaccounted for, missing or under the rubble.

“Gaza is already the most intense starvation catastrophe of recent decades. The death toll from hunger and disease may soon surpass the body count from bombs and bullets. . . .We are about to witness the most intense famine since the second world war. It won’t be the biggest, because starvation is confined to the 2.2 million residents of the Gaza Strip.”
—Alex de Waal, Executive Director for World Peace Foundation, March 21, 2024

“UNICEF estimates that a thousand children in Gaza have become amputees since the conflict began in October. ‘This is the biggest cohort of pediatric amputees in history,’ Ghassan Abu Sittah, a London-based plastic-and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in pediatric trauma, told me.”
—The New Yorker, March 21, 2024

“The number of humanitarians killed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in only three months last year, 161, is more than the deadliest year ever recorded for aid workers globally.”
—The New Humanitarian, citing a report by the Aid Worker Security Database, March 21, 2024

“I’ve not seen that level of devastation in 20 years with the UN. People’s coping capacity in the north has been smashed and in the south it is hanging by a thread.”
—James Elder, UNICEF spokesperson, March 22, 2024

In late March, the Biden Administration authorized an arms package to Israel that included more than eighteen hundred 2000-pound and five hundred 500-pound bombs.

“A group of US government humanitarian experts on Tuesday privately warned fellow officials that the spread of hunger and malnutrition in Gaza amid the US-backed offensive is ‘unprecedented in modern history,’ famine is likely already occurring in parts of the Gaza Strip and the pace of hunger-related deaths will ‘accelerate in the weeks ahead.’”
—Huffington Post, April 2, 2024

“In this conflict, 14,000 children have been needlessly and violently killed, thousands more are missing, presumed buried under the rubble. If I were to sit here and read the name and age of every Israeli and Palestinian child who has died and since October 7, it would take me over 18 hours. More children have been killed in this conflict than have been killed in all armed conflict globally over the past four years.”
—Janti Seoripto, CEO of Save the Children, April 5, 2024

“You know that sparkle that’s normally supposed to exist in a child’s eye? It’s not there anymore. That’s not to say it can’t come back and it can’t be brought back with these activities, these beautiful heartwarming moments where you are able to create a scenario for a child to be able to laugh and smile, albeit briefly, but you really feel as if you are walking through a population that is—they’re ghosts. And they describe themselves as ghosts. They’re ghosts of their past, they’re ghosts of who they used to be, and they’re constantly haunted by the ghosts of everything that they have lost. And it comes at them from multiple different directions, every single day. The mental health impact of this is unlike anything I have personally ever seen in twenty years working in war zones.”
—Arwa Damon, Founder of INARA, April 9, 2024.

“In the six months since the start of the war, Israeli authorities have also denied or restricted access to a number of items, ranging from lifesaving medical supplies to toys to chocolate croissants. ‘I think it’s unprecedented,’ Shaina Low, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Palestinian territories, said of the Israeli restrictions. ‘It’s just nothing that aid agencies have ever had to deal with.’”
Washington Post, April 11, 2024

In April, mass graves were found at Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces had conducted raids. Over the coming days, additional mass graves were discovered at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in central Gaza. Nearly 400 bodies have been recovered from Al-Shifa, according to Gaza Civil Defense authorities. Initial reports indicated that the deceased included elderly, women, and wounded. Some bodies were naked, some were allegedly found with hands tied.

“I have been working nonstop for the past 6 months covering what’s happening in Gaza, but what I saw today while visiting Al-Shifa hospital was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before.”
—Hossam Shabat, journalist in Gaza, April 1, 2024

“The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said that the massacre at al-Shifa was one of the largest in Palestinian history, estimating that at least 1,500 people had been killed, injured, or reported missing, ‘with women and children making up half of the casualties.’ The organization also confirms that at least 22 patients were shot while in their hospital beds, while the number of displaced persons sheltering at the hospital who were forced to evacuate southward was estimated to include 25,000 people.”
—Mondoweiss, April 11, 2024

“The scale of violations committed over the last six months is unprecedented. And I want to insist on that. It is unprecedented. The harm to civilians is unprecedented. . . . The United States is providing support to a country that is violating international law repeatedly, that is justifying those violations in the name of going after Hamas, without due respect for the proportionality and the discrimination that should accompany their actions. By so doing, the United States is making itself complicit to some of the worst possible crimes being committed right now.”
—Dr. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International, April 25, 2024

“I don’t understand what is happening to us. The situation has exceeded the limits of logic and reason.”
—Hisham Yousef Abu Ghaniama, a father in Gaza who has been displaced multiple times with his family, most recently after Israeli forces invaded southern Gaza; interview with +972 Magazine, May 8, 2024

On May 26, the Israeli military struck a neighborhood in Rafah where displaced civilians were sheltering. The airstrike ignited a fire that tore through tents and the flesh of those inside. At least 40 people are estimated to have been killed.

A doctor volunteering in Gaza treated the injured and sent a message to his colleagues: “In all my years of humanitarian work, I’ve never witnessed something so barbaric, so atrocious, so inhumane. These images will haunt me forever . . . and will stain our conscience for eternity.”

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