Why doesn’t Israel publish figures and details of Gaza casualties?

The world relies on data from the Hamas-run health ministry, and there’s nothing we can do about that, officials in Jerusalem say

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinians seen walking among the rubble of a destroyed house following an Israeli missile strike, in Rafah on July 14, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians seen walking among the rubble of a destroyed house following an Israeli missile strike, in Rafah on July 14, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

So far, 194 Palestinians been killed during Operation Protective Edge; that’s already a higher death toll than that of the entire 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. Or at least that’s what’s reported in the press, internationally but also in Israel. The truth is that the number of casualties, and the percentage of civilians among the dead, comes exclusively from Palestinian sources. Israel only publishes its version of the body count — which is always significantly lower than the Palestinian account — weeks after such operations end. Meanwhile, the damage to Israel’s reputation is done.

During Pillar of Defense, 160 Palestinians were killed, 55 “militants” and 105 civilians, according to Palestinian sources. According to the IDF, 177 Palestinians were killed during the weeklong campaign — about 120 of whom were enemy combatants. A report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center says 101 of those killed were terrorists, while 68 were noncombatants. B’Tselem claims 62 combatants and 87 civilians died.

Why the confusion, and what is the accurate body count for the current conflict?

For Operation Protective Edge, the only data published so far comes from the health ministry in Gaza. This ministry is run by Hamas, therefore rendering the number of casualties and injuries it reports more than unreliable, said Maj. Arye Shalicar of the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s unit. “Hamas has no shame about lying. We know they’re a terrorist organization that makes cynical use of casualty numbers for propaganda purposes. You can’t trust a single number they publish.”

And yet, the figures from the Gazan ministry are routinely adopted, unquestioned, by the United Nations. “According to preliminary information, over 77 per cent of the fatalities since 7 July have been civilians, raising concerns about respect for international humanitarian law,” states a situation report published Tuesday by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Once given the stamp of approval of such an important body, these numbers are quoted everywhere else.

“All these publications are not worth the paper they’re written on,” said Reuven Erlich, the director of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. “They’re based mostly on Palestinian sources in Gaza, who have a vested interest in showing that we’re killing many civilians.”

His center spends considerable resources on researching the real number of casualties, publishing a daily report with information as reliable as can be obtained. On Monday, the center’s “initial and temporary data” suggested the distribution of those killed so far in Operation Protective Edge is as follows: of 157 Gazans who have died, 57 were terrorist operatives (29 from Hamas, 22 from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and six from other terrorist organizations); 76 were non-involved civilians; and 38 could not be identified.

“The numbers from Gaza’s Health Ministry are very general, they don’t explain who is a terrorist and who is a civilian,” Erlich said. “Knowing how many of the casualties were terrorists and how many were civilians requires very thorough work. You have to check every single name. Such an investigation takes time, and unfortunately every day new names are being added to the list.”

In order to ascertain who was killed and whether the victim is a terrorist or a civilian, the center’s staff looks up their names on Palestinian websites and searches for information about their funerals and for other hints that could shed light on a person’s background.

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.

And yet, no official Israeli government body releases any information about casualties caused by Israeli airstrikes in real-time. We simply cannot know what we hit, several officials said. In the West Bank, IDF forces are able to ascertain who dies as a result of IDF actions, but since Israel has no military or civilian presence in Gaza, no information is available during or right after a strike. To be sure, the IDF does investigate claims about casualties, but results are usually only released weeks after the hostilities have ended. By then, the world, gauging Israel’s conduct in part on the basis of available information on civilian casualties, has turned its attention elsewhere.

After Israel’s 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, many pro-Palestinian activists were outraged over the high number of innocent Palestinians killed. Palestinian sources, widely cited including by the UN, reported 1,444 casualties, of whom 314 were children. Israel, on the other hand, said that 1,166 Gazans were killed — 709 of them were “Hamas terror operatives”, 295 were “uninvolved Palestinians,” while the remaining 162 were “men that have not yet been attributed to any organization.” It put the number of children (under 16-years-old) killed at 89.

The international outrage over the operation played a role in the UN Human Rights Commission’s appointment of a panel to investigate “all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed.” Headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, the panel authored the now-notorious “UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” also known as Goldstone report. It leveled heavy criticism against Israel, including the assertion that Israel set out deliberately to kill civilians, an allegation which Goldstone, though not his fellow commission members, later retracted.

How difficult it can be to ascertain who is being killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza is perhaps best illustrated by an incident from Operation Pillar of Defense, in which the infant son of a BBC employee was killed.

On November 14, 2012, 11-month-old Omar Jihad al-Mishrawi and Hiba Aadel Fadel al-Mishrawi, 19, died after what appeared to be an Israeli airstrike. The death of Omar, the son of BBC Arabic journalist Jihad al-Mishrawi, garnered more than usual media attention and focused anger for the death on Israel. Images of the bereaved father tearfully holding the corpse of his baby went around the world.

Jihad Mishrawi speaks to the media, while carrying the body of his son Omar, on November 15, 2012. (photo credit: screenshot BBC)
Jihad Mishrawi speaks to the media, while carrying the body of his son Omar, on November 15, 2012. (photo credit: screenshot BBC)

Only months later did a UN report clear Israel of the charge it had killed the baby, suggesting instead he was hit by shrapnel from a rocket fired by Palestinians that was aimed at Israel, but missed its mark.

Given the difficulty of determining who exactly was killed by an airstrike in Gaza, Israeli authorities are focusing their public diplomacy efforts on other areas.

Rather than arguing about the exact number of Palestinians killed, and what percentage of them were civilians, officials dealing with hasbara (pro-Israel advocacy) try to engage the public opinion makers in a debate about asymmetrical warfare.

“Our work doesn’t focus on the number of casualties, but rather on Hamas’s methods, which are the sole reason for the fact that civilians are being hurt; and on our method, which is to do everything to avoid civilian casualties,” said Yarden Vatikai, the director of the National Information Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to hammer this point home every time he talks to a world leader or to the press. “See, the Hamas and the other terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad are firing from Gaza when their rocketeers and their command posts are embedded in homes, hospitals, next to kindergartens, mosques,” he said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And so we are trying to operate, to target them surgically, but the difference between us is that we’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles. So naturally they’re responsible for all the civilian deaths that occur accidentally.”

Numbers matter, and although it’s tough to explain the many civilian casualties caused by Israeli air raids, there is nothing the IDF can do about it, officials insist. It’s simply impossible to establish an independent body count while the hostilities are ongoing, admitted a senior official in the government’s hasbara apparatus. “It’s a challenge. But even if you said: No, only 40 or 50 percent of those killed were civilian, and not 70 — would that change anything in the world’s opinion?”

The numbers game is not an arena in which Israel can win, the official said. “When it comes to arguments over the actual justice of our campaign, I think we can win. When it comes to numbers, though, we cannot win. Because first of all, we don’t really have the ability to count the casualties, and secondly, because most people don’t really care that it was, say, only 50 percent and not 60.”

If the UN or other groups want to investigate possible war crimes or the high number of casualties after Operation Protective Edge, Jerusalem will deal with it then, the official said. Even if Israel were to publish its body count at the same time as the Gazan health ministry, it would not prevent a second Goldstone report, he added. “The people involved in these kinds of reports are not interested in the exact numbers. If they want to attack Israel they will do it regardless of the true number of casualties. They have their narrative, and nothing is going to change that.”

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