Figures from an Israeli intelligence center highlight how, in the Israeli-Palestinian wars, even the awful tangibles of counting and sorting the dead have become part of a non-fact-based narrative that plays a decisive role in Israel’s asymmetric conflicts.
Palestinian sources in Hamas-controlled Gaza claim that roughly 75 percent of all the dead were civilians. As of Friday at 3 p.m., the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported, 857 Palestinians had been killed, 649 of them civilians, of whom 194 were children.
That final figure is crushing. Even if it is highly inflated, and some of the children are actually teens who took part in the warfare, there is no stepping around the enormity of the tragedy for the families in Gaza. And this article in no way seeks to make light of those losses.
But the 75 percent figure is more than merely tragic. It calls into question the very legitimacy of Israel’s actions, of its right to defend itself in the manner it has chosen.
Yet while it has been widely quoted as fact, a recent Israeli report, along with the facts stated about each fallen Palestinian in Gaza in an Al Jazeera list, reveal a far more reasonable balance, one that would seem to be very much in line with recent NATO offensives and other US foreign wars.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center found, on July 23, that 775 people had been killed in Gaza, of whom 229 were militants or terrorists (135 Hamas, 60 Islamic Jihad, 34 from other terror organizations); 267 were civilians; and 279 could not yet be classified.
Many of the Palestinian figures subsequently quoted, by the UN and other international organizations, “are not worth the paper they’re written on,” Reuven Erlich, the director of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, told The Times of Israel. “They’re based mostly on Palestinian sources in Gaza, who have a vested interest in showing that we’re killing many civilians.”
His center, he said, thoroughly researches the casualties. In order to ascertain an accurate identity of the dead, the center’s staff researches the person’s background on Palestinian websites and searches for information about their funerals and for other hints that could shed light on the person’s true occupation.
The authorities in Gaza generally count every young man who did not wear a uniform as a civilian — even if he was involved in terrorist activity and was therefore considered by the IDF a legitimate target, military sources said.
This can be particularly misleading in the current conflict, where, as Patrick Martin noted in the Globe and Mail during the battle for Shejaiya, some gunmen “bore their weapons openly, slung over their shoulder, but two, disguised as women, were seen walking off with weapons partly concealed under their robes. Another had his weapon wrapped in a blanket and held on his chest as if it were a baby.”
Noru Tsalic, a blogger for The Times of Israel, went through a list of the dead as posted on Al-Jazeera on Saturday, July 19. It had 307 names, 85% of them male. “In fact,” he wrote, “more than two-thirds of the fatalities are males aged 18 to 60, despite the fact that they represent around 20% of Gaza’s population.”
In Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, 1,166 Palestinians were killed. Palestinian human rights organizations, at the time, stated that two-thirds of the dead were civilians. The Israeli army, several months after the close of the operation, presented an inverse figure of 61 percent militants, 25 percent civilians, and the remaining 14 percent – although all male – in the category of unknown.
If one merely splits the difference between the Israeli and Palestinian figures, the death toll would be very much in line with the comprehensive study done about the history of civilian deaths during war conducted by Professor William Echkardt – the chief prosecutor in the My Lai Massacre case during the Vietnam War and a former colonel in the US Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
“On the average, half of the deaths caused by war happened to civilians,” Wikipedia quotes him as writing in the study “Civilian deaths in Wartime.” That ratio, he wrote, “remained at about 50% from century to century.”
Figures from the Korean War and Vietnam War are probably far from exact but several online sources put the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths, at the hands of US forces, at roughly 2:1. Wikipedia puts the ratio from the First Chechen War at 10:1.
The, point though, is probably not the numbers, which are clearly capable of masquerading as facts. The point, one might argue, is the world’s fixation on them, even during a week in which, the BBC reported, 1,700 people were killed in Syria, several hundred of them civilians.