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Why a high number of Israeli soldiers in Gaza have died by friendly fire or accidents

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This week, Israel saw its highest number of soldier deaths in one day since it began its invasion of Gaza. In all, 210 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the war. Nearly a fifth of those deaths were caused by accidents or friendly fire, according to the Israel Defense Forces. That is one of the highest such percentages in recent military history. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Israeli soldiers were killed in airstrikes by shrapnel from Israeli explosives. Some were run over by armored vehicles or mistakenly identified and hit by tank fire, shelling and guns. That's according to a report released by the IDF earlier this month. There have been injuries, too, as Israel fights its most complex war, with 2 million civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers packed into the tiny coastal enclave of Gaza.

SEAN MACFARLAND: As somebody who has fought in a similar environment when I was a brigade commander in Iraq, there's really no limit to the procedural steps that you can take to minimize those kind of casualties. And even with that, there are going to be breakdowns and tragic outcomes.

TANIS: That's retired Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who was also the commander of coalition forces against ISIS. He says one big factor for the high number of friendly-fire deaths is that Israel is essentially fighting it out amongst the civilian population who have not been allowed to leave Gaza. And as Hamas militants jump out of the hundreds of miles of tunnel networks and fire at Israeli soldiers, it's led to a highly kinetic environment that's tested Israel's military structure and the limits of its technological prowess.

MACFARLAND: Urban combat really strips away a lot of the technological advantages that any force holds over any other force. Fighting inside of buildings is very, very difficult. And once again, it kind of comes back to training and less about technology.

TANIS: Israel brought nearly 300,000 reservists back to active duty. Many went from their regular day jobs to urban combat in Gaza with limited training. These incidents, along with the shooting of three hostages by Israeli soldiers and the more than 25,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, have raised questions about how Israel is conducting its war tactically and strategically. And there's more to it than just the environment of urban warfare or lack of training, according to Raphael Cohen, who's a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation. It also has to do with the unique structure of the Israeli armed forces.

RAPHAEL COHEN: They're all very young. Israel tends to promote quickly. And, you know, Israeli military culture tends to be very sort of short-term and tactical.

TANIS: It means the priority is generally on military force. Israel still has no day-after plan in Gaza - something that has worried U.S. officials - that Israel could be headed toward strategic defeat. Cohen says, beyond that, there's also a lack of shorter-term tactical strategy, such as helping to pass out aid and food to civilians, even toys to children. Cohen says these are things that are usually baked in to every U.S. military officer.

COHEN: What can I do to sort of mitigate the harm to the population, both from war grounds, but from strategic grounds as well. Because hopefully that, you know, kid that you gave the soccer ball to - you know, they probably will still hate you, but maybe they'll hate you a little bit less is what you're aiming for. And that's just not there.

TANIS: Avner Gvaryahu is the director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans that oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He says Israel's leaders need to learn the lessons here. Nearly three months since the invasion of Gaza, only one hostage was returned by the military. The others were all brought back through a deal.

AVNER GVARYAHU: I think that it does expose some of the weakness in this idea that we can just use force to solve our problems.

TANIS: More and more Israelis are now beginning to ask that question, too.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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