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Suffer the children: the child casualties of Operation Swords of Iron

Executive Summary: As of December 6th 2023, the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) says up to 16,248 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7th, including 7,112 children. This means children account for 44% of fatalities in Gaza as a result of Israel’s Operation Swords of Iron. Action on Armed Violence’s data shows that, on average, 4.4 children are harmed per injurious Israeli air strike in Gaza. So far, Operation Swords of Iron has seen the second highest rate of children harmed per injurious Israeli air strike in Gaza, and the second highest percentage of children among the civilian fatalities after Operation Wall Guardian, in May 2021 (based on OHCHR data). Notably, ground-launched attacks has shown an even higher rate of harm to children than air strikes, with 9.6 children reported harmed per incident. 


On October 7th, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, massacring civilians in their homes, at festivals, on the beach, with RPGs, grenades, and automatic weapons. Testimonies from survivors describe brutal sexual assaults and ruthless murders, such as the 50 civilians killed in Hamas’ attack on the Ofakim community, in southern Israel, or the four boys killed in a Hamas rocket attack on Bat village, a Bedouin settlement in the Negev desert. In total, up to 1,200 people were killed, including at least 846 civilians. Hamas further kidnapped at least 240 people, including women and children, holding them hostage in the Gaza Strip.

Israel retaliated the very same day, launching Operation Swords of Iron. Their stated aim? To eliminate Hamas. In order to achieve this goal, they have ceaselessly launched 2,000-pound bombs on the enclave’s densely populated neighbourhoods. The New York Times reported that a former Pentagon official “thinks the closest comparisons to so many large bombs falling in such a small area are the Vietnam War or World War II.” In just the first week, Israel said they dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza – in comparison, the US dropped a little over 7,300 bombs on Afghanistan in all of 2019.

The result illustrates a truth AOAV has been documenting for over a decade: when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. In Gaza in particular, children are bearing the brunt of Israel’s assault.

Israel itself has declared that 15,000 people are likely to have been killed in Gaza, claiming that around 5,000 of them are Hamas – and meaning that 67% of fatalities would be civilians. Up to December 6th, the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health (MoH) says some 16,248 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7th, including 7,112 children and 4,885 women. In total, women and children consequently account for 74% of fatalities in Operation Swords of Iron, and children in particular for 44% – at least so far.

When compared to data from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights across three of Israel’s most injurious previous operations in Gaza (Operation Pillar of Defense, November 2012; Operation Protective Edge, July-August 2014; and Operation Wall Guardian, May 2021), Operation Swords of Iron emerges as the Israeli operation with the second highest percentage of child casualties among civilian fatalities, after Operation Wall Guardian.

Operation Pillar of Defense:

  • 168 Palestinian fatalities, including at least 101 civilians
  • At least 33 children among civilian fatalities: 33%

Operation Protective Edge:

  • 2,251 Palestinian fatalities, including at least 1,462 civilians
  • At least 551 children among civilian fatalities: 38%

Operation Wall Guardian:

  • 261 Palestinian fatalities, including at least 130 civilians
  • At least 67 children among civilian fatalities: 52%

AOAV has recorded 623 Israeli air strikes in Gaza as part of Operation Swords of Iron (up to December 8th), which have resulted in 9,118 reported civilian casualties (6,400 killed, 2,718 injured). Of the 623 air strikes, 120 have resulted in 533 reported child casualties.

This means 4.4 children have reportedly been harmed per airstrike where child casualties were reported.

Comparing air strikes during Operation Swords of Iron to three other highly injurious Israeli operations in Gaza, AOAV finds that Operation Swords of Iron has caused the highest number of child casualties per recorded, injurious air strike out of all four operations, though the rate of harm to children per air strike is lower than Operation Wall Guardian:

Operation Pillar of Defense:

  • 82 air strikes
  • 34 air strikes killed and injured 109 children
  • 3.2 children harmed per air strike

Operation Protective Edge:

  • 328 air strikes
  • 123 air strikes killed and injured 448 children
  • 3.6 children harmed per air strike

Operation Wall Guardian:

  • 124 air strikes
  • 61 air strikes killed and injured 335 children
  • 5.5 children harmed per air strike

Of note, Operation Protective Edge is the only operation in this study where ground-launched attacks had a higher rate of harm to children than air strikes, with 9.6 children reported harmed per incident. 

Overall, Operation Swords of Iron has so far resulted in 536 reported child casualties across 648 incidents of explosive weapon use, including air- and ground-launched weapons. This makes it the second most injurious to children after Operation Protective Edge, during which 750 children were reported killed and injured across 382 incidents. With the Israeli armed forces gearing up for a ‘long and difficult’ war, children will undoubtedly continue to shoulder the burden of armed violence as Israel’s deadliest operation to date continues.

Dr Iain Overton, CEO of AOAV, said ““The tragic reality in Gaza, as our data painfully illustrates, is the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on children. The recent Operation Swords of Iron has not only been one of the most destructive in terms of sheer scale, but also in the alarming rate of child casualties it has inflicted. When explosive weapons are used in densely populated areas like Gaza, it is invariably the innocent – particularly children – who bear the brunt of the suffering. This operation, with children accounting for 44% of the fatalities and a high rate of child harm per incident, underscores a harrowing pattern we’ve seen in previous conflicts. It’s a stark reminder of the urgent need for stricter regulation of explosive weapons in populated areas and a more concerted global effort to protect the most vulnerable, especially children, in times of armed conflict.”


While the MoH’s data has been the source of debate and controversy, Prof. Michael Spagat and Daniel Silverman examined their casualty statistics, finding that the total numbers of Gazan fatalities reported by the MoH in previous confrontations have proven reliable. They also analysed the representation of adult women, children, and the elderly among the dead, concluding that the fatalities in Operation Swords of Iron are heavily civilian. 

In a recent analysis, AOAV found that English language reporting of the explosive violence in Gaza and Israel may only capture a third of the actual civilian deaths from specific explosive incidents in Gaza, when compared to the total death tolls claimed by official sources. Due to the chaotic and tense situation on the ground, many incidents in Gaza and the West Bank are being reported, if at all, in ways which mean AOAV cannot record the strike. The data presented here is therefore a significant under-reporting of civilians affected by air strikes in Gaza.