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Media Analyses





Gaza Casualties: Civilian or Combatant?


UPDATE, March 27:  The IDF has released its official accounting of Gaza fatalities. According to the report, 709 out of 1004 fatalities whose status is known have been identified as militants.  The other 295 who have been identified consisted of 89 children under the age of 16, 49 women and 157 civilian adult  males.  A further 162 fatalities are unclassified.  These figures are sharply at odds with those provided by PCHR and other Palestinian sources.
 
As CAMERA noted in an earlier piece on the controversy over the Al-Fakhura school shelling incident,  Israeli casualty claims and Palestinian casualty claims are incompatible. The media has tended to unquestioningly accept the Palestinian figures even though there has been no independent confirmation of them. The media's  willingness to report as fact claims made by organizations operating in an environment controlled by a terrorist group requires explanation.
 
An article in Haaretz on the IDF report discusses several instances where known terrorists had been misidentified in Palestinian sources as children.  CAMERA's own analysis of the PCHR data also uncovered examples of misidentification.  For example, PCHR described Mohammed 'Abed Hassan Brbakh as a 16 year old civilian who was killed in his home with his family on Jan. 4, but West Bank-based Maan News Agency identified him as a commander of the DFLP in Gaza and reported his age as 22. 
 
The question of  how to account for the differences in fatality claims is of great relevance to impending discussions of  war crimes accusations. How many of the civilian death claims by Palestinian sources were coincidental natural deaths during the same time period as the fighting ? What proportion of these fatalities were victims of the widely reported retribution by Hamas against its internal opponents? A third possibility is that many of the civilians were inadvertent victims of explosives planted by Hamas in residential areas.
 

Original Report:
 
Note: This page is periodically updated as new information becomes available. It was most recently updated on Jan. 29, 2009.

In the aftermath of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, controversy rages over whether Israel used indiscriminate and excessive force. Israel defends its actions claiming that  of the fatalities were Hamas members or other combatants opposing Israeli forces. The Palestinian claim, echoed in much of the media coverage, is that the vast majority of the fatalities were unarmed civilians.

A complicating factor in quantifying the number of civilian casualties is the call by Hamas leaders for their members to shed their uniforms and fight in civilian clothing ( "Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery,"New York Times, Jan. 11, 2009).

CAMERA examined the data collected by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), which provides the most comprehensive tally of casualty figures in Gaza. The results of CAMERA's analysis are summarized below.

•  By cross-checking with other sources, CAMERA has  identified a number of  Hamas  fighters and members of other Palestinian terrorist groups who were either misclassified by PCHR as civilians, not identified as combatants, or omitted entirely from their  tabulations. This raises serious questions about the accuracy of PCHRs casualty statistics.

• An analysis of the fatalities by age and gender  shows that the majority of civilian fatalities recorded by PCHR are males between 15 and 40 years old, the same age profile as the combatants. This also should raise concern that significant numbers of combatants may have been misclassified as civilians.


PCHR

PCHR represents a partisan source that favors Hamas over Israel. This is evidenced by the terminology and tone it uses in its reports - for example, labelling the Israeli Defense Forces as the "Israeli Occupation Forces" and describing Israeli military operations as "war crimes."  Despite PCHR's clear  bias,  its data is widely cited by the media.

The data examined here covers the period of Dec. 27, 2008 through January 21, 2009. PCHR produces both daily updates and weekly reports on Palestinian casualties in Gaza.  CAMERA's study examined both types of reports, but the report focuses on the weekly updates.

Omissions and Inaccuracies in PCHR Data

PCHR data is quite extensive and detailed, yet a sampling of newspaper accounts and a cursory review of items posted by the Maan News Agency, another Palestinian source, uncovered a number of omissions and misclassifications of combatant status. The following individuals, described by PCHR  as civilians or  without any classification information, were identified in Maan announcements as members of militant groups:

•  Jihad Abu Medif (Medyiff) - identified as member of Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade

•  Haitham Abu al-Qumsan - identified as member of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades

•  Hamdi Fareed Abu Hamada - identified as member of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades

•  Eyad al-Maqqousi - identified as member of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades

•  Mohammed 'Abed Hassan Brbakh - identified as DFLP commander 

•  Tariq Nimer Abu Amsha - identified as member of Islamic Jihad al-Quds Brigades

•  Shams Omar - Al-Quds (Islamic Jihad) commander in Gaza
Maan also released the names of eleven Fatah loyalists it claimed were executed by Hamas during the fighting.  One of these, Hasan Hijazi, was listed in PCHR's report as having been killed by Israeli artillery shelling on Jan. 7.  The other ten could not be matched to any names listed on PCHR's reports. 

CAMERA's examination of  PCHR's reports found no mention of several senior commanders from Hamas whose deaths were widely reported in the media :

•  Mahmoud Shalpokh on Jan. 4

•  Ayman Siam on Jan. 6

•  Amir Mansi on Jan. 10

•  Muhammad Hilou on Jan. 4  (a man with a similar name was listed but with no indication that he was a member of  Hamas or a combatant)

•  Abu Zakaria al-Jamal on Jan.3 

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center  reported that Hamas explicitly forbade the publishing of  the names of Hamas fighters killed in combat. Is PCHR abiding by this demand? CAMERA found the following examples to suggest that it is in many cases.

A Hamas announcement on Jan. 19, 2009 (Military Communique, Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades
Information Office)  names three fighters killed on Jan. 5:

•  Muhammad Farid Abdallah

•  Muhammad Abdallah Obeid 

•  Iyad Hassan Obeid

These fighters were named in PCHRs weekly update for Jan. 15-21, but were not identified as combatants even though others included in the same group were identified as combatants.

Another PCHR entry on Jan. 7, 2009 states:

At approximately 08:30, IOF tanks shelled a number of civilian houses in al-'Atatra area in the northwest of Beit Lahia town killing 'Abdul Karim Rafeeq Hassan, 21 and Bilal 'Abdul Hadi 'Ali, 19.

PCHR offers no further information on these two young men. But an article appearig in Der Spiegel on Jan. 23, 2009 quotes a Palestinian who states that two Hamas fighters were killed in his home. He identified Bilal 'Ali by name.

Another Hamas communique identifies Mahmoud al-Reefi as a Hamas fighter. But PCHRs entry only lists his name, without any other information, among a group that  also included several members of the al-Sammouni family.

Several Islamic sites have publicized the death in Gaza of  Saudi terrorist, Abu Muhammad al-Marri on Jan. 13. PCHR does not list his name, although it reports a man with a similar sounding name, Said Mamoud al-'Emari, who died on Jan. 12, without offering any further information.

The Israelis identified by name two Hamas fighters among the fatalities at the UNRWA school shelled on Jan. 6, but their names do not appear in the PCHR report for that date. The Israelis also identified other Hamas fighters by name (see the daily updates of  Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs) who could not be found in PCHR reports.

The individual cases of omission and misrepresentation that have been exposed so far point to a wider problem in PCHR casualty statistics. A large proportion of the fatalities are young men who were apparently targeted and killed by the Israelis. They are named but either identified as civilians or their status is not  specified.  Yet in the tallies PCHR provides to the media, most are categorized as "civilians." Most of these young men were killed in groups consisting mostly or entirely of young men, or are reported as individual cases. PCHR reports show that only a small portion of these young men are listed in groups that include women and children. This raises questions about the circumstances under which they were killed and warrants suspicion that many may have been gunmen.

The above examples indicate that PCHR's policy of categorizing "civilians" is flawed. The question remains, how many of the numerous fatalities among young men classified as civilians or whose status is not specified, may have been in fact combatants? If many of those fatalities were in fact combatants rather than civilians, this would dramatically increase the overall proportion of fatalities who were combatants. The following demographic analysis of the fatalities indicates the importance of correctly classifying these young male fatalities.

An Analysis of the Fatalities by Age and Gender Suggests Combatants May Have Been Misidentified as Civilians

The most recent weekly update records 1285 Palestinian fatalities through Jan. 21. It defines 895 of  these fatalities as civilians (70 percent) and an additional 167 "civil police officers" (13 percent) it also regards as non-combatants.  Included in the civilian fatality total are:

• 280 children  (defined as those aged 17 or under)

• 111 women

• 503 (39 percent of all fatalities) adult men labeled as civilians

A statistical analysis of the data raises questions about the accuracy of PCHRs application of the civilian label to adult men and to male teenagers.

Table of tabulated PCHR data from Weekly reports

Time period                          combatants security force   

other males        

18- 40 yrs

males 

>40 yrs   

males       

15-17 yrs

children 

women  

>18 yrs

Total from update for 12-27 to 12-31

48

165

        77 "civilians"

not listed separately 

33

11

Identified in updates for 1-1 to 1-21

148

4

269

87

55

151*

69

Summed total of individuals named or identified by status

196

169

433

55

184

80

Difference between summed reports and PCHR sum total

27

-2

70

41

31

PCHR reported total to 1-14

223

167

503

280 

111

* this number excludes males age 15-17.

These statistics raise questions about the accuracy of PCHR's data and its labeling of combatants and civilians. First, there is an unusually high proportion of fatalities in the adult male group, the same group which provides nearly all of the combatants.

•  Out of 1285 fatalities, at least 950 were males aged 15 or higher. While males over age 15 make up approximately 25 percent of the Gaza population, they made up over 74 percent of the fatalities.

•  Where the data is broken down by age, it is clear most fatalities were males between ages 15 and 40. Is it a coincidence that this corresponds with the age range of most combatants?

Even after excluding those identified by PCHR as combatants, there is still a disproportionate number of fatalities among this age group in relation to their representation in the population.  Given reports that Hamas fighters shed their uniforms and were indistinguishable from civilians, and given footage from the conflict showing people actively engaged in shooting from within crowds of civilians, it is right to question how it is possible for PCHR to distinguish combatants from those of the same age range who accompany them in battle.

It has also been widely reported that Hamas militants executed  a number of Fatah supporters. Estimates of the number of Fatah supporters executed range as high as 70. Are these buried in the PCHR figures for civilian deaths?

Among Child Fatalities, an Unusual Proportion are Males Aged 15 to 17

PCHR records 281 child fatalities to January 21. But it gives specific age and gender information for only 253. Of these 253,  57 (23 percent) are 15 -17 year old males. Considering that this age group accounts for less than 8 percent of the under-18 population, 15-17 year old males are overrepresented as fatalities. Since Palestinian terror groups are known to have used teenagers from this age category to carry out suicide bombings, it is not unreasonable to suspect that a number of these teenage fatalities resulted from them having participated in combat.

A Note on Child Casualties

A significant proportion of the child and women fatalities were the result of targeted attacks on the homes of Hamas leaders. Israel reports that these homes serve as command quarters and as munitions depots where arms are stored. Israel claims that it notifies the occupants of houses it plans to hit before attacking them.  PCHR corroborated this claim in at least one instance. In two instances, Israeli warnings were ignored and large numbers of children and women, the families of the targeted senior Hamas officials, were killed.  

Further investigation of  Palestinian casualty claims is warranted. As was the case  in the summer 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the media is all too willing to repeat the claims of partisan sources that most of the casualties resulting from Israeli actions are civilians despite evidence that these claims are exaggerated and the statistics they cite are manipulated.


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