In attempts to paint Israel as an oppressive and brutal country, the Jewish state’s detractors often allege, regardless of the facts, that civilians rather than fighters are the primary victims of Israeli military operations.
Members of the media, whose foremost obligation is to fact-check claims, all too often abet such portrayals, parroting casualty figures supplied by partisan sources without assessing their accuracy.
An article published in the Sept. 7, 2006 Guardian contains a particularly egregious example of distorted casualty figures. Not only does the piece rely on a biased source, but it further misleads readers by concealing a key fact: Many of those categorized as civilians were actually militants.
The piece, "Palestinian children pay price of Israel's Summer Rain offensive" by Rory McCarthy, states:
Since the start of the operation, code-named Summer Rain, at least 240 Palestinians have been killed. One in five were children. According to PCHR [the Palestinian Centre on Human Rights], which has investigated each case, 197 of the dead were civilians and the vast majority were killed in Gaza. Among them were 12 women and 48 children.
These figures attributed to PCHR are not found in the weekly reports published on the Palestinian organization’s Web site, which details the Palestinian casualties. In fact, the civilian casualty figure provided by the newspaper is contradicted by the details in PCHR’s weekly report tallies. These reports show that approximately half the fatalities were "resistance" fighters, "resistance activists" or members of a militant organization.
From June 25 to Sept. 6, PCHR’s detailed reports described 88 out of 252 individually identified fatalities in Gaza and the West Bank as "resistance" activists or fighters. Thirty-two others were identified as "members" of a specific militant group, and six were described as members of a government security force. The remaining 126 were either identified as civilians or not classified. In other words, according to PCHR’s detailed descriptions, a total of 126 Palestinian fatalities were not civilians.
But the Guardian’s claim that 197 of the 240 dead were civilians would mean only 43 non-civilians were killed. To reach their tallies, the Guardian article therefore must include "resistance activists" and "resistance fighters" – terms widely understood to refer to Palestinians engaged in violence against Israelis – as civilians.
The Independent, which like the Guardian exhibits frequent bias in coverage of Israel, also made use of PCHR figures. Unlike the Guardian, however, that newspaper shed some light on how the "civilian" count was derived:
... The PCHR classifies 151 as "civilian", although beside non-combatants and bystanders, that total also includes militants or faction members not involved in operations against Israel at the time - for example those deliberately targeted in Israeli air strikes because of their involvement in previous attacks. (Donald MacIntyre, Sept. 19, 2006)
Indeed, a careful review of the PCHR weekly reports offers evidence that the number of Palestinians who were killed while engaging in hostilities or actively serving as members of military organizations far exceeds the 43 indicated in the Guardian piece.
As noted above, PCHR's figures show that 38 of the Palestinian fatalities up to Sept. 6 were active "members" of the military wings of militant groups or government military services. Clearly these are not "civilians" according to accepted definitions of the word.
In addition, many of those identified by PCHR as "resistance fighters" and "resistance activists" were killed while actively engaged in hostilities against Israeli soldiers or civilians. PCHR’s own reports provide evidence of this:
• A PCHR report on August 30 states that "a number of members of the Palestinian resistance clashed with [IDF] soldiers positioned inside a number of houses in al-Mansoura Street in the east of al-Shojaeya neighborhood. These armed clashes left dead 4 members of the Palestinian resistance."
• On July 27, PCHR’s report summarized "the outcome of the [IDF] offensive on al-Tuffah neighborhood" where " 20 Palestinians, including 7 unarmed civilians" were killed. It can be deduced that if seven were unarmed, then the remaining thirteen were armed combatants. The report identifies the twenty Palestinians listed as killed in this Israeli operation as either "civilians," "resistance activists" or more generally as members of the "Palestinian resistance."
• The report described how on July 19, "A resistance activist, Sa’ed Sami Qandil, 21, was killed by several live bullets throughout the body during the exchange of fire with [IDF] soldiers."
• The following week’s report noted that on July 13, "an [IDF] drone fired 3 missiles at two activists of the Palestinian resistance while they were attempting to detonate a bomb planted on Salah al-Din Street, north of Khan Yunis."
• On July 9, this same PCHR report described an Israeli missile strike "at a group of resistance activists attempting to fire a home made rocket in the Farahin area, east of Greater Abasan."
• In describing the deaths of 16 Palestinians identified as "resistance fighters" on July 6, PCH’s weekly report for July 6-12 stated, "Palestinian fighters arrived and attempted to resist the [Israeli] incursion."
The numbers identified in these six examples add up to 36. Adding that total to the 38 members of military organizations gives 74 who were members of military organizations or individuals engaged in armed hostilities. But even this number seriously undercounts those engaged in hostilities. In numerous instances, individuals labeled by PCHR as resistance activists or civilians have been identified by news correspondents and even other Palestinian groups as gunmen or active members of terrorist groups.
• While PCHR’s report for the week of July 6 through 12 identified only two members of Hamas’s militant wing, Izzidin al Qassam, among the dead during that week, Associated Press correspondent Steve Weizman reported on July 7 that "Hamas said seven of its militants died in the clashes" on that and the previous day.
• CNN on July 13 cited Palestinian sources saying that Israeli artillery killed two men laying explosives in the ground at Abu Holi junction in southern Gaza. The PCHR report does not mention this incident.
• On July 13, AFP reports that "Nine more Palestinians died in Israeli attacks elsewhere in Gaza [on July 12], including two policemen and seven gunmen, medical sources said." PCHR mentions the killing of a policemen, four activists, two men who are simply identified as "residents" and six people identified as civilians — 4 of whom are young men aged 17-19. None are identified as gunmen.
• PCHR described ‘Abdul Latif ‘Obaid, age 20, and ‘Ali Maher ‘Atallah, age 20, as resistance activists. A martyrs list published by Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) included the same two (with slight variation in spelling) - Abd Ilateef Ibad, age 19 and Ali Maher Ata Allah, age 20 - as members of the Al Naser Salah Al Din (Popular Resistance Committees) terrorist group.
• Deutsche Presse-Agentur, citing Palestinian sources, reported on July 21 that "[a]n Israeli tank fired a shell at a building in northern Gaza City early Friday, killing a militant of the ruling Palestinian Hamas movement and three of his family members, [a] hospital official said." PCHR’s report on the killings omits any mention of the Hamas militant.
• On July 26, Ibrahim Barzak, correspondent for the Associated Press reported that "Israeli air and artillery attacks in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday killed 16 Palestinians, including at least 12 gunmen... including six from Hamas, five from Islamic Jihad and one from the Popular Resistance Committees, the groups said." PCHR’s reporting on the incursion identified 13 "resistance activists," none of whom was described as a gunman.
• PCHR reported on Aug. 14: "As Palestinian civilians gathered, [IDF] fired a missile at these civilians, killing 3 of them: Zuhair Mohammed Shehada al-Kafarna, 50; ‘Othman Hussein Mahmoud al-Bo’, 50; and Ahmed Yousef ‘Abed ‘Aashour, 13." PHRMG identified the first two as members of the Al-Quds Brigades and reported that all three had just launched a missile at Israel when they were killed.
Along with omitting crucial information about many of those defined as civilians, the Guardian piece fails to inform its readers about alternate casualty figures from less visibly partisan groups, news services and the Israeli government, which have determined that from half to as many as 90 percent of the fatalities were combatants.
• Ibrahim Barzak, Gaza correspondent for the Associated Press, wrote on Sept. 8 that "the [Israeli] offensive has killed more than 200 Palestinians, most of them gunmen."
• Yediot Aharanot, a mass-circulation Israeli newspaper, on Sept. 15 reported, "since Shalit's kidnapping some 228 Palestnians were killed, 208 of them were terrorists, IDF data show. About 451 gunmen were injured in IDF incursions into Gaza."
• Reuters recently reported that of the "More than 270 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive, about half of them civilians." (Nidal al-Mughrabi, 10/31)
• On Sept. 12, the International Committee for the Red Cross, citing "official Palestinian sources," claimed that "Since 26 June an estimated 226 Palestinians have been killed as a result of Israeli military operations. According to official Palestinian sources, 118 of the dead, including 80 women and children, were civilians.(Gaza – ICRC Bulletin No. 06 / 2006)
• The Qatar News Agency reported on September 9 that "the Israeli offensive has killed around 210 Palestinians, about half of them civilians since June 25."
The Guardian’s reliance on a partisan source for its casualty statistics, compounded by its failure to explain how the civilian toll was calculated stands in sharp contrast with how these news sources and groups handled the question of casualties.
The tactic of manipulating casualty figures by categorizing armed fighters as civilians is not new. CAMERA previously investigated similar instances of categorizing armed militants as civilians by organizations sympathetic to the Palestinians such as B’tselem. More recently, prominent news organizations accepted figures by Lebanese authorities alleging that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese casualties resulting from the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah were civilians, despite contradictory evidence.
It is the responsibility of the news media and human rights organizations to explain how the casualty figures provided to them are calculated and to invest the time and effort needed to assess their credibility before repeating them as fact.