President Joe Biden says Israel is losing support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza. He says that Israeli conduct in Gaza has been “over the top.” His secretary of state, secretary of defense, and vice president have all said Israel must do more to make the war in Gaza less destructive. Yet the White House has never laid out precisely what Israel is doing wrong on the battlefield. How does one wage a less destructive war when facing an enemy that has spent more than a decade building hundreds of kilometers of tunnels underneath densely populated areas, turning whole neighborhoods into human shields?

A growing contingent of journalists believes it has the answer to this question: Israel must stop using 2,000-pound bombs in Gaza and shift to smaller, less powerful munitions. Investigations by CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all make the case that employing such large bombs in dense urban environments is inherently reckless, even criminal.

Yet the military analysis that informs this conclusion is amateurish, placing inordinate emphasis on the potential of 2,000-pound bombs to inflict grave harm on people and buildings far from the point of impact. This ignores how a well-trained air force can limit such harm by fusing a bomb to detonate below ground, as well as adjusting factors such as the angle and velocity of its delivery.

The indictments also tend to brush aside that Hamas has spent a decade constructing a tunnel network that is more extensive, built tougher, and buried deeper than those of other insurgent forces, such as ISIS. Ignoring this key fact, the critics ask why Israel needs to use 2,000-pound bombs if the United States and its allies used them infrequently in urban environments when fighting ISIS.

Another flaw of the broadsides against Israel’s use of large bombs is that their conclusions rest heavily on analysis provided by experts drawn from progressive ranks, and especially from organizations calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and an immediate end to U.S. military support for Israel. The voices of independent military experts are conspicuously absent.

Finally, the critics shy away from observing that Hamas has embedded its military infrastructure directly under homes, hospitals, schools, and mosques. This is a war crime, plain and simple, yet the media’s emphasis remains on Israel’s alleged culpability, with no reference to the original sin of locating military infrastructure in prohibited spaces. Unquestionably, the war has inflicted unprecedented suffering on the people of Gaza. Yet that is part of Hamas’s plan.

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Detonated in an open space, a 2,000-pound bomb can reportedly kill individuals standing within a radius of 1,200 feet, or almost a quarter mile. Yet detonated inside a building or under the ground, the same munition may harm people and structures in a much more restricted area. In 2016, the U.S. Air Force received an order to destroy a hoard of cash that the Islamic State was holding in a bank in Mosul, Iraq. The bills were in a vault in the basement of a nine-story building in a neighborhood full of civilians. To reach the target, U.S. warplanes dropped three smaller bombs with fuses that detonated on successive floors of the building to kill ISIS personnel and open a path to the basement. Next came a pair of 2,000-pound bombs that penetrated the vault and incinerated the stockpile of cash. A CNN dispatch at the time indicated there were several civilian fatalities, yet by striking at dawn on a Sunday, the Air Force had minimized the death toll. This degree of precision may require extensive planning, but it shows why responsible analysts cannot assume that the lethal radius of a 2,000-bomb is anywhere near its reported maximum.

Fast-forward to December 2023 in Gaza. In a scathing report, CNN repeatedly emphasized that 2,000-pound bombs “can cause high casualty events and can have a lethal fragmentation radius—an area of exposure to injury or death around the target—of up to 365 meters (about 1,198 feet).” Not once does CNN explain that the blast radius may be far smaller, depending on the angle and velocity of the bomb’s delivery, the timing of its fuse, the height above (or depth below) ground of the detonation, and the nature of the target. In fact, the U.S. and Israeli air forces can drop 2,000-pound bombs close to their own troops in battle without hurting them. An American F-15 weapons officer recalled how, while fighting the Islamic State in 2016, he dropped a GBU-31v3, whose listed weight is 2,115 pounds, only 50 meters from a house where a U.S. ground controller was pinned down along with his Syrian partners.

Rather than grapple with such variability, the network built on the assumption that all 2,000-pound bombs have a 1,200-foot blast radius to create the impression that the Israeli air force carpet-bombed Gaza with complete disregard for civilian life. The video component of CNN’s report displays a satellite image of a neighborhood north of Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. Nine small circles indicate the presence of craters associated with the use of 2,000-pound bombs. Red circles then expand out of the craters, covering the map, while the narrator reports that “the potential kill zone could encompass this entire area.” She adds, “In an area this densely populated, and using these bombs, it’s inherently indiscriminate.” Put simply, in the absence of appropriate weapons forensics, CNN is accusing Israel of extensive war crimes and all based on misleading assumptions about the impact of 2,000-pound bombs.

The network’s report also employs another argument favored by critics of the 2,000-pounders: The United States would consider the use of such munitions in densely populated areas to be almost unthinkable. CNN asserts, “The U.S. dropped a 2,000-pound bomb only once during its fight against ISIS—the most recent Western war on a militant group in the Middle East. It fell on the so-called caliphate’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria.” This is surprising, since CNN itself reported the use of two 2,000-pound bombs in its coverage of the 2016 strike on the Islamic State bank in Mosul described above. U.S. Air Force officers have also recounted the precise ways they used 2,000-pound bombs to destroy select parts of buildings in Raqqa without bringing down their entire structure or endangering nearby troops. But those facts did not get in the way of the network’s narrative.

One day before CNN broadcast its criticism of 2,000-pounders, the New York Times presented a video investigation of its own, calling the bombs “one of the most destructive munitions in Western military arsenals.” Its argument also rested heavily on assertions about the bomb’s blast radius. “When a 2,000-pound bomb detonates, it unleashes a blast wave and metal fragments thousands of feet in every direction,” the narrator observes in the Times video. Whereas CNN reported that a 2,000-pound bomb endangers those within 1,200 feet of the explosion, the Times video contends that the danger zone reaches almost 3,000 feet in every direction from the detonation site. The paper notes in passing that the figure it provides is for “open areas,” but never tells readers that the actual radius may be far smaller as a result of factors ranging from the height (or depth) of the detonation to the properties of nearby buildings.

Like CNN, the Times attempts to indict Israel via comparison to the United States. The narrator intones, “Munitions experts say 2,000-pound bombs are almost never used by the U.S. military anymore in densely populated areas.” The video does not identify the experts in question. In publicly available sources, there is little precise information available about how frequently the U.S. employed 2,000-pound bombs against the Islamic State’s urban strongholds. In a 2017 presentation, an Air Force planning officer reported that U.S. forces had shifted to using more 2,000-pounders in the fight against ISIS, but they still preferred to use smaller munitions in urban settings. This preference, however, was not absolute. The Air Force developed a method for using 2,000-pound bombs to destroy only the upper floors of building, where snipers usually position themselves. U.S. pilots employed the tactic often enough for it to acquire a nickname: “kneecapping.” By delivering the bomb at a 30–45-degree angle to the base of a building, the upper stories would topple over, like a person struck in the knee.

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The day after CNN warned against the use of 2,000-pound bombs, the Washington Post published its own investigation, which alleged that Israel deliberately sought to wreck the health-care system in Gaza by raining bombs on the neighborhoods surrounding its hospitals. Once again, the blast radius of the 2,000-pounders played a critical role in the analysis. The authors explain, “To assess destruction around hospitals, the Post analyzed U.N. Satellite Center data in areas within 180 meters (about 590 feet)—the distance at which the smallest commonly used bombs, weighing 250 pounds, can cause enough damage to make a building uninhabitable, and the largest, weighing 2,000 pounds, can damage a structure beyond repair.”

Unlike CNN, the Post acknowledges the wide range of factors that influence the actual radius of a bomb’s effects. Yet this caveat appears exclusively in an appendix rendered in very small print beneath the
article’s main text. It reads, “Damage depends on nearby structures, building materials, the soil, whether a bomb has been set to explode above or below ground, and other factors. Experts also noted that even the largest munitions can be employed to ensure that nearby civilian infrastructure is not damaged or is minimally affected when they explode.” Did the IDF employ its 2,000-bombs in such a manner? The Post never answers that question. Perhaps it never asked. And it certainly does not make it easy for the reader to gain accurate insights.

To demonstrate the effect of Israeli bombing, the Post carefully examined satellite imagery to identify damaged and destroyed buildings within 180 meters of hospitals in northern Gaza. The paper called specific attention to 10 craters whose size indicated the use of 2,000-pounds bombs in proximity to hospitals. It noted, “Bombs in larger weight classes have larger blast radiuses and are more likely to inflict serious damage that could put even well-built structures like hospitals permanently out of service.” Notice the authors’ use of the hypothetical “could” instead of a clear statement that Israeli bombs did put hospitals out of service. The Post does not have evidence of such damage, nor of any intent to cause it.

A central finding of the paper’s investigation is that “heavy strikes around Gaza’s hospitals destroyed entire neighborhoods, wrecked infrastructure and displaced civilians, often making it impossible for hospitals to function.” The careful reader will notice the absence of any assertion that the IDF targeted Gaza hospitals, or even that the bombing of Hamas targets in proximity to hospitals resulted in substantial damage to them. Rather, damage to other facilities contributed to hospital closures—this is the slender reed supporting the Post’s claim that Israel consciously intended to disrupt the provision of health care in Gaza.

On the contrary, the paper’s analysis of satellite images shows the extent to which the IDF avoided bombing hospitals or adjacent buildings. A graphic that accompanies the investigation displays satellite images of Gaza, with black dots representing hospitals while yellow and orange dots identify damaged and destroyed buildings, respectively. With a handful of exceptions, there is gray space immediately surrounding the black dots, indicating a lack of damage. Then, as one moves away from the hospital, clusters of yellow and orange dots begin to color the picture. In the case of Rantisi Hospital, named for the co-founder of Hamas, the graphic shows roughly 100 damaged or destroyed buildings within a radius of 180 meters, but only a single damaged building adjacent to the hospital.

After securing the neighborhood around Rantisi, Israeli troops discovered three shafts leading to underground tunnels. Two branches of the tunnel system ran directly under the hospital, according to an IDF diagram. The law of armed conflict dictates that a medical facility can lose its protected status if a belligerent employs it for military purposes. A stream of reports dating back to 2008 shows that Hamas exploits hospitals persistently, yet Israel still does not attack them from the air.

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On the front page of the Sunday paper on the morning of November 26, the New York Times ran a 2,500-word story under the headline “Big Bombs in Urban Areas Raise Civilian Toll in Gaza.” Initially, the article carried a sub-headline claiming, “Israel has killed more women and children than have been killed in Ukraine.” But the Times quietly walked back that assertion, apparently after recognizing that the article’s author, Lauren Leatherby, based her comparison on an ultra-low estimate of civilian casualties in Ukraine. In a revised version dated November 30, the offending subhead has disappeared, while the text carries an addition noting that the Russian siege of a single Ukrainian city, Mariupol, may have cost more civilian lives than the entire war in Gaza up to that point. Despite these substantial changes, the Times did not append a formal correction to the text. Rather, it simply marked the story “updated.”

Despite the changes, the article continues to identify 2,000-pound bombs “that can flatten an apartment tower” as a primary cause of the destruction in Gaza. The main evidence for this claim is the testimony of two experts. Referring to Israeli forces, Brian Castner of Amnesty International told the Times, “They are using extremely large weapons in extremely densely populated areas.” He added, “It is the worst possible combination of factors.” Marc Garlasco of PAX, a Dutch organization, described the 2,000-pounders as “really big,” noting that Israel has thousands of smaller U.S.-made bombs designed to limit damage in dense urban areas. Yet one cannot take for granted that Israel had a sufficient stockpile of the smaller munitions. No Israeli source has referred to a shortage, yet in a November 4 story in the Times about U.S. efforts to reduce civilian casualties, a senior U.S. military official told the paper, “The United States is now trying to send more of the smaller bombs to Israel.”

Subsequent reporting confirms the U.S. decision to supply Israel with thousands of bombs of all sizes. The Wall Street Journal reported on December 1 that shipments have included more than 5,000 Mk82 500-pound bombs, more than 5,400 Mk84 2,000-pound bombs, and roughly 1,000 GBU-39 small-diameter bombs, which weigh 250 pounds.

Had Israel chosen the timing of its war with Hamas, it could have manufactured or purchased the optimal mix of weapons for urban combat in Gaza. Yet Hamas launched its surprise attack at a time when Israel was focused on the threat of war with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist organization entrenched to the north of Israel’s border with Lebanon. In its November 4 story, the Times reported, “Israel has over the years built up stocks of larger bombs, intended mostly to target hardened Hezbollah military positions in Lebanon.” Preparation for a war with Hezbollah would also require stockpiling smaller bombs, so this data point is not dispositive. Regardless, in the wake of the October 7 massacre, Israel had to fight with the weapons it had in its stockpiles, not the weapons its planners might have chosen.

The absence of this perspective from the Times may reflect its correspondent’s choice to consult with experts eager to confirm the story’s premise that Israel shows contempt for Palestinian lives. The views of Castner and Garlasco merit a hearing but hardly constitute a broad spectrum of expert opinion. In addition, both men represent organizations that have demonstrated intense hostility toward Israel, in particular with the risible assertion that it is an apartheid state akin to South Africa (even though Arabs in Israel enjoy equal rights, hold leadership roles in the judiciary and diplomatic corps, and enjoy political parties that have formed part of a recent governing coalition).

CNN and the Washington Post also rely on experts inclined to affirm their premises. CNN quotes Garlasco along with John Chappell of CIVIC, a D.C.-based organization that has called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and a suspension of all arms shipments to Israel, American or otherwise. The Post quotes Annie Shiel, a colleague of Chappell’s at CIVIC, along with Leo Cans of Doctors Without Borders, which has demanded a cease-fire and accused Israel of waging war on the people of Gaza. According to Cans, Israel had “a plan, definitely, to close down all the hospitals in the north.” Given that Israel clearly avoided bombing hospitals, Cans’s view amounts to a conspiracy theory, which a responsible publication would not amplify.

To its credit, the Post includes commentary from Pnina Sharvit Baruch, who notes that Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields contributes greatly to their suffering. Yet Baruch is the outlier whose presence mainly underscores that U.S. journalists reporting on civilian harm in Gaza prefer to take their cues almost exclusively from Israel’s harshest critics.

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There has been tremendous suffering in Gaza during the five months of war that began with the massacre of 1,200 Israelis on October 7. Even if one discounts the casualty figures that Hamas provides to Western journalists, which betray signs of manipulation, the death toll is far greater than it has been in any previous war between Israeli and Palestinian forces. Where journalists have strayed, as illustrated by the flawed work of CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, is in their determination to prove that Israel’s inhumanity is a principal cause of the devastation. But war is destructive by nature, and Hamas has adopted a strategy premised on maximizing the suffering of Gaza’s population, which generates pressure on Israel to pause or even terminate its campaign against Hamas.

This does not mean that every Israeli air strike is justified or that more detailed forensic analysis after the war will not show that, sometimes, there might have been ways to limit the harm despite Hamas’s embedding itself in the civilian population. Rather, this conclusion should halt the rush to judgement of all those, especially journalists, who see heartbreaking images from Gaza and presume that Israeli indifference or cruelty is the cause.

Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

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