Charts show a stark difference in the human cost of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts over the years

An aerial view of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City on Oct. 11, 2023.

Yahya Hassouna | AFP | Getty Images

With the current war in Gaza proving the most deadly of many flashpoints between Israel and Hamas, historical data shows it’s Palestinians who are paying the highest price.

More than a month into the war between Israel and Hamas, the scale of death and destruction from the conflict is already unprecedented on many fronts.

Following Hamas militants’ deadly attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, Israel has struck back, killing more than 11,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

The figure has surpassed the total number of Palestinian deaths in the last 15 years resulting from conflicts with Israel, according to data compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA. 

Israel also suffered tremendous losses, with Oct. 7 described as “the deadliest day for Jews since the holocaust.”

Approximately 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in a single day — that’s nearly four times the total number of Israelis killed from such conflicts since 2008, according to data from OCHA. Israel estimates that about 240 hostages seized that day remain unaccounted for.

There have been five major military conflicts between Israel and Hamas since the Jewish state unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In every major hostility — 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021 and now, in 2023 — deaths in the Palestinian territories (Gaza and the West Bank) have outnumbered those in Israel by a large margin, the UN data shows.

“Typically speaking, year on and year on, the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces exceeds Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians, several times over,” H.A. Hellyer, a specialist in international security studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNBC.

The data collated by CNBC shows that more than 18,600 Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank have been killed in conflicts with Israel since 2008. That compares with at least 1,500 killed in Israel over the same period.

Since 2008, at least 183,500 Palestinians have been wounded due to the conflicts, while approximately 11,700 in Israel have been injured, according to the UN data.

As is often the case with war, it’s impossible to get accurate casualty numbers. As it stands, more than 2,000 people are reportedly missing in Gaza, while Israel is still struggling to identify victims weeks after the massacre, as well as trying to rescue the hostages.

To get a more accurate picture, CNBC used data from the United Nations, corroborating it with numbers from the Israel Defense Forces and the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry. The tolls could include deaths that may not have necessarily been perpetrated by the other side.

‘Asymmetric conflict’

Explaining why the number of casualties is disproportionate, Hellyer said, “Israel has in its possession some of the most advanced military tools in the world, which it has aimed at predominantly civilian areas in Palestinian territories.”

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system is considered one of the most effective tools in its arsenal. Its defense ministry says it successfully intercepted 97% of all Palestinian rockets fired during one weekend surge of fighting in Gaza last year, while the system recorded a 95.6% success rate during a rocket attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in May.

In comparison, “Palestinian militant groups, all put together, do not compare to that kind of arsenal,” said Hellyer, who is also from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

“This is an asymmetric conflict, with Israel having far more destructive weapons. Also, Hamas’ rockets mostly hit uninhabited areas while Israel’s explode in densely populated areas,” explained Paul Scham, a professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

The Gaza Strip, a sliver of land hugging the Mediterranean Sea, occupies an area between Israel and Egypt that’s about 140 square miles. With 2.3 million people living there, it is one of the most densely populated territories in the world.

There are about 3 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, with Israel having a population of roughly 9 million.

Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by major world powers, has been the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip since 2007, after winning elections there a year earlier. There has not been an election since.

The IDF told CNBC it’s taking “feasible precautions to mitigate civilian casualties,” even as it targets Hamas operatives. “Hamas has embedded itself in civilian infrastructure and operates across the entire Gaza Strip,” a spokesperson said, adding, “we will strike Hamas wherever necessary.”

Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the high death toll among Palestinians is partly because Hamas “co-locates military and civilian assets, making retaliation against Hamas hard to separate.” 

Scham said that “after 16 years, they [Hamas] are thoroughly entwined with everything … They also control all public institutions; even the kindergarten teachers ‘are’ Hamas.”

Israel doesn’t have the capacity to wipe [Hamas] out, although it will exact a tremendous civilian price on the people of Gaza in its attempt to do so.

H.A. Hellyer

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The IDF says the militant group is using Palestinians as human shields and has built a sprawling network of underground tunnels — dubbed the “Hamas metro” — beneath heavily populated structures.

It says Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa, where tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians are currently taking refuge, is an example of such a location. CNBC could not independently verify the IDF’s assertions.

“I have no doubt that Israel’s claim that Hamas’s military targets are close to — and often under — civilian institutions is true,” Scham said. “On the other hand, Gaza is an extremely small place, and there are no wide-open spaces to locate military facilities.”

Israel has vowed to “crush” Hamas, but eradicating the militants is “exceptionally difficult,” Byman said, highlighting it will be “costly for Israel.”

“Hamas is an organization of tens of thousands, with leadership inside and outside of Gaza,” Hellyer said. “Israel doesn’t have the capacity to wipe it out, although it will exact a tremendous civilian price on the people of Gaza in its attempt to do so.”

— CNBC’s Gabriel Cortes contributed to this report.

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