Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad's admission that Hamas and affiliated militias lost 600-700 fighters in the Israeli "Cast Lead" military operation undermines the central accusation of the Goldstone Report that the Israeli operation was "premised on a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed ... [at] the civilian population." The public, however, is unlikely to know this, because Hamad's remarks have been largely ignored by major news organizations, like the New York Times and the BBC.
Hamad's comments were made in an interview published in the London Arabic daily Al Hayat
on Nov. 1, 2010 and reported by Agence France Presse
(AFP), the Jerusalem Post
and others. According to AFP, he stated
Hamad's figures closely match the Israeli estimate of 709 combatant fatalities and indicate that combatants comprised around half of the Palestinian fatalities in the time period of Dec. 27, 2008 through Jan. 18, 2009, far more than the 17 percent claimed by Palestinian groups. The increased ratio of combatants to non-combatants is inconsistent with Goldstone's most serious charge that Israeli forces systematically targeted civilians.
"They say the people suffered from this war, but is Hamas not part of the people? On the first day of the war Israel targeted police stations and 250 martyrs were killed, from Hamas and other factions," he told the paper.(AFP, Nov. 1, 2010)
"In addition to them, between 200 and 300 fighters from the Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas's armed wing) and another 150 security forces were martyred."
The Significance of Hamad's Admission to the Goldstone Report
The report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict headed by Richard Goldstone describes 36 alleged violations of international law by Israeli forces. Israel's advocates immediately challenged the veracity of the report, charging that the Mission employed a biased methodology favoring Palestinian accounts over Israeli counterclaims and ignored information that conflicted with the Palestinian version of events. This criticism coupled with widespread awareness of the explicitly anti-Israel agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Council convinced the United States Congress to condemn the report as "irredeemably biased."
The number and proportion of civilian fatalities was one of the most contentious subjects. The proportion of civilians among the total fatalities is of crucial importance because it allows the investigators to argue that the 36 specific incidents of alleged war crimes were not aberrations but represented a consistent pattern of Israeli misconduct.
Paragraph 30 in the Report states:
Statistics about Palestinians who lost their lives during the military operations vary. Based on extensive field research, non-governmental organizations place the overall number of persons killed between 1,387 and 1,417. The Gaza authorities report 1,444 fatalities. The Government of Israel provides a figure of 1,166. The data provided by non-governmental sources on the percentage of civilians among those killed are generally consistent and raise very serious concerns about the way Israel conducted the military operations in Gaza.
A section of the report is dedicated to a more expansive discussion of the casualty figures. Paragaphs 355 and 356 state:
PCHR divides the overall 1,417 victims into 926 civilians, 255 police and 236 combatants. It reports that 313 of the dead were children and 116 women.
Al Mezan reports that overall 1,409 persons were killed during the military operations, of whom 237 were combatants (including 13 under-age combatants) and 1,172 non-combatants, including 342 children, 111 women and 136 members of the police. Thus, according to PCHR and Al Mezan, fewer than 17 per cent of the Palestinians killed during the military operations were combatants.
Paragraph 359 then discusses Israeli claims,
The Israeli armed forces claim that 1,166 Palestinians were killed during the military operations "according to the data gathered by the Research Department of the Israel Defense Intelligence". They allege that "709 of them are identified as Hamas terror operatives", 295 are"uninvolved Palestinians", while the remaining 162 are "men that have not yet been attributed to any organization". Of the 295 "uninvolved Palestinians", 89 were children under the age of 16 and 49 women. According to these figures, at least 60 per cent, and possibly as many as three out of four, of those killed were combatants. The Mission notes, however, that the Israeli Government has not published a list of victims or other data supporting its assertions, nor has it,to the Mission's knowledge, explained the divergence between its statistics and those published by three Palestinian sources, except insofar as the classification of policemen as combatants is concerned.
However, after assessing the competing claims in paragraph 361, the report's authors come down on the side of the Palestinian figures:
The Mission notes that the statistics from non-governmental sources are generally consistent. Statistics alleging that fewer than one out of five persons killed in an armed conflict was a combatant, such as those provided by PCHR and Al Mezan as a result of months of field research, raise very serious concerns about the way Israel conducted the military operations in Gaza. The counterclaims published by the Government of Israel fall far short of international law standards.
The importance of this judgement becomes clear later in the report when the indictment against Israel is summed up.
1885: The Mission recognizes that the principal focus in the aftermath of military
operations will often be on the people who have been killed more than 1,400 in just three
1886. In this respect, the Mission recognizes that not all deaths constitute violations of
international humanitarian law. The principle of proportionality acknowledges that, under
certain strict conditions, actions resulting in the loss of civilian life may not be unlawful.
What makes the application and assessment of proportionality difficult in respect of many
of the events investigated by the Mission is that deeds by the Israeli armed forces and words of military and political leaders prior to and during the operations indicate that, as a whole, they were premised on a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed not at the enemy but at the "supporting infrastructure." In practice, this appears to have meant the civilian population.
1890. The Mission recognizes that some of those killed were combatants directly engaged in hostilities against Israel, but many were not. The outcome and the modalities of the operations indicate, in the Missions view, that they were only partially aimed at killing leaders and members of Hamas, al-Qassam Brigades and other armed groups. They were also to a large degree aimed at destroying or incapacitating civilian property and the means of subsistence of the civilian population.
If five out of every six fatalities were non-combatants, as claimed by Palestinian sources, this would offer strong evidence of a systematic pattern of indiscriminate force and lend support to the even more serious allegation that Israeli forces intentionally targeted civilians. However, if around half or more of the fatalities were members of armed groups, the argument is much less compelling.
Hamad's admission gives greater credence to the assertion of British Colonel Richard Kemp that the Israelis acted with greater restraint than other military forces engaged in similar circumstances. The Israeli forces encountered an environment in which opposing forces were intermingled with civilian populations; distinguishing combatants from non-combatants was difficult. This difficulty was compounded by the intentional blending of civilians and combatants by Hamas. During the war, the New York Times reported
that the Hamas leadership issued instructions for its fighters to shed their uniforms in order to blend in to the civilian population.
Avoiding civilian casualties is challenge for any military force under such circumstances and a balance is always struck. For example, a report by the BBC
on May 15, 1999 highlights the realities of fighting irregular forces insinuated among civilians. After a NATO bombing attack on a Serbian village claimed the lives of nearly 100 civilians, NATO
issued a statement that the village was a "legitimate military target" and that it had identified Serb forces dug into positions there. Nato said it deeply regretted any accidental civilian casualties that were caused by the attack.
The civilian casualty counts in Iraq and Afghanistan offer even grimmer testimony to this reality. The UN Human Rights Council has singled out Israel for opprobation and the alleged ratio of non-combatant to combatant casualties provided a crucial pretext.
The media outlets that "flooded the zone" with coverage of the Goldstone Report have paid little attention to Hamad's statement, even though it clearly contradicts one of the major themes of the report. Starting in mid-September 2009, when the conclusions of the Goldstone Report were first leaked, through the end of October, after the report had been made public, the New York Times published at least 15 articles and many letters discussing it in detail.
The question of the proportion of civilian casualties was always a main topic of discussion. On April 4, 2009, on same day that the Times announced that Richard Goldstone had been appointed to investigate alleged Israeli violations during the Gaza war, guest op-ed contributor George Bisharat cited statistics provided by UN Human Rights Council rapporteur Richard Falk that, "Of 1,434 Palestinians killed in the Gaza invasion, 960 were civilians, including 121 women and 288 children..."
On April 23, 2010, the Times provided a more detailed discussion of the competing casualty claims of the Israelis and PCHR.
On September 16, 2009, after a pre-release version of the Goldstone Report was made public, the Times published several pieces describing its accusations against Israel. According to the Times
The report called Israel's military assault on Gaza ''a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population..."
The piece goes on to state,
But the report did not take a position on the number of Palestinian casualties, noting that they ranged from the Israeli government figure of 1,166 to the Hamas number of 1,444, without saying how many were civilians.
A review of the relevant section of the Goldstone Report, however, shows the Times assertion that the report is neutral on the figure of civilian casualties is not accurate (see paragraph 361 above).
On September 17, the Times published an op-ed by Richard Goldstone in which he accepts the difficulty Israel faced, but nevertheless condemns the conduct of the operation:
In Gaza, hundreds of civilians died. They died from disproportionate attacks on legitimate military targets and from attacks on hospitals and other civilian structures. They died from precision weapons like missiles from aerial drones as well as from heavy artillery. Repeatedly, the Israel Defense Forces failed to adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, as the laws of war strictly require.
Israel is correct that identifying combatants in a heavily populated area is difficult, and that Hamas fighters at times mixed and mingled with civilians. But that reality did not lift Israel's obligation to take all feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians.
This was followed two days later by what passes in the New York Times for a balancing response to the Goldstone op-ed. David Landau, former editor of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, chastised Goldstone for ruining a good opportunity to get Israelis to look critically at the conduct of their army's operations because the report promoted the too extreme notion that "Israel intentionally went after civilians in Gaza -- and wrapped its intention in lies."
In the days following the release of the final Goldstone Report on Sept. 29, 2010, the Times published ten pieces covering different aspects of the report. In the months that have followed, still more pieces were published. On Oct. 4, 2010, a brief article updates readers on the convictions by an Israeli court of two Israeli soldiers for ordering a Palestinian boy to check two bags they suspected might be booby-trapped.
Yet, the Times has to date failed to report on the admission by Hamad that a far higher proportion of the casualties were combatants than what was reported by Palestinian sources so often cited by the media. The Times is not alone. As early as Jan. 21, 2009, the BBC noted that
Hamas supporters claim that many more Israelis died in the three weeks of the war than Israel's official count of only 13 dead.
Likewise they believe the official Hamas announcement that Israel killed only 48 fighters among over 1,300 dead in Gaza.
But that raises another question: if so few Hamas fighters died, were they really out there fighting?
Yet despite its early skepticism toward the disproportionately low number of Hamas losses in comparison to civilian losses, the BBC apparently never made any effort to investigate the validity of the numbers provided to them by Palestinian groups. Subsequent reports on the Cast Lead operation and the Goldstone Report invariably repeat the Palestinian figure of 1400 Palestinian fatalities along with the report's findings that Israel used disproportionate force against civilians.
There were indications early on that the proportion of combatants and non-combatants was intentionally manipulated. As early as Jan. 29, 2009, CAMERA published a critical analysis
of PCHR figures pointing out that more than two out of every three fatalities were young males between 15 and 40 years old, an age profile consistent with what one would find among combatants. Several analyses searched Hamas-linked internet Web sites and found numerous examples of individuals labeled as non-combatants by PCHR who were later commemorated as members of Hamas and associated militias. The media did not take much interest in this information, choosing to rely primarily upon the figures provided by Palestinian and associated groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem despite a documented history
The status of the 250 security personnel, most of whom were killed in the initial Israeli airstrikes on Dec. 27, 2008, has been a particular source of controversy. Israel and its supporters claim that the police personnel were part of the Hamas military structure and therefore legitimate targets. Non-governmental activist groups like Amnesty International, BTselem and Human Rights Watch contested this assertion. The Goldstone Report gives both sides of the argument, but comes down on the side that most of the policemen were not members of the Hamas militia and were therefore not a legitimate target.
In paragraph 1923 it states:
The Mission also concludes that Israel, by deliberately attacking police stations and
killing large numbers of policemen (99 in the incidents investigated by the Mission) during
the first minutes of the military operations, failed to respect the principle of proportionality
between the military advantage anticipated by killing some policemen who might have
been members of Palestinian armed groups and the loss of civilian life (the majority of
policemen and members of the public present in the police stations or nearby during the
attack). Therefore, these were disproportionate attacks in violation of customary
international law. The Mission finds a violation of the right to life (ICCPR, article 6) of the
policemen killed in these attacks who were not members of Palestinian armed groups
This judgement has been contradicted by another Hamas representative named Abu Khaled who, in an interview published by The Christian Science Monitor on Nov. 1, 2010, confirmed that "two thirds of Hamas policemen are police by day and Al Qassam [military wing of Hamas] by night".
The Reasons Behind Hamads Admission
Hamas initially admitted to only 48 fatalities. This low figure was remniscent of a similar tactic used by Hezbollah in 2006, when it reported similarly low losses during its summer conflict with Israel. Only later, after the media din died down and the human rights groups had moved on, did Hezbollah officials admit, with little publicity, to larger losses. Why after intentionally downplaying its own losses for nearly two years, did Hamas decide to reveal a much larger casualty figure? Domestic political considerations in Gaza lie at the heart of this decision.
A report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center discusses the motivation behind Hamads admission. Initially, playing to the international audience, it was important for Hamas to reinforce the media image of Israels military action as indiscriminate and disproportionate by emphasizing the high number of civilians and low number of Hamas combatants among the casualties. This also has the benefit of enhancing the image of the group in the Arab world. Hezbollah was widely lauded for its purported success in fighting Israel in 2006.
However, once Hamas got all the mileage it could out of that tactic, it had to deal with the flip side of the issue, that Hamass own constituency, the Gazan population, felt they had been abandoned by the Hamas government which had made no effort to shelter them. Since 2007, Hamas has been the government in Gaza, and it is, at least in principle, obligated to look after the well-being of the population it rules over. The flip side of the claimed low Hamas casualties and high civilian casualties is the lingering image of Hamas fighters retreating to prepared hideouts after firing off rockets, leaving the civilian population to absorb the punishing Israeli military response.
Gaza is a small territory, its residents would certainly have been aware that the Israeli attack was precipitated by the escalating volume of rocket fire directed at Israel from Hamas controlled territory. In order to defuse resentment at having abandoned its own constituency during the Israeli military response, Hamas has to show that its fighters did not simply run and hide, but had stood their ground and taken many of the casualties.
While the media has largely given Hamad's admission the cold-shoulder, others directly involved with the conflict have taken a different stance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of mentioning Hamas's admission in his speech
to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on Nov. 8, 2010, remarking:
Hamas finally admitted last week that over 700 of its fighters in Gaza were killed by the IDF during that war. This is precisely what the Israeli army said all along that roughly 50% of the casualties in that war were Hamas terrorists...
The authors of the Goldstone Report owe the Israeli army an apology. And all those who supported and helped to spread this libel owe the State of Israel an apology.
CAMERA waits for the UN Human Rights Council and non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and BTselem to correct their reports and for news organizations like the New York Times and the BBC to update their own coverage.
Casualty figures for Cast Lead provided by the Goldstone Report and various groups
Hamad's admission undermines many of the accusations leveled at Israel in various NGO reports issued in the months after Operation Cast Lead. Below is some excerpts of the statements issued by various NGOs in the months after the fighting.
Click on the link provided here to read the Goldstone Report.
Figures from Btselem - an Israeli human rights group critical of Israeli policy
773 did not take part in hostilities.
330 took part in hostilities
248 police officers killed at police stations
36 unknown if took part in hostilities
1387 total 24 percent classified as combatants
Human Rights Watch: Israel / Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)
"Civilians suffered tremendously during the conflict in Gaza. At least 773 Palestinian civilians were killed during Operation Cast Lead, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem; the group listed 330 combatants killed, and 248 policemen. (Human Rights Watch has not been able to assess whether and to what extent Gaza's police were civilians immune from attack or were directly participating in the hostilities and thus lawful targets.)"
From HRW's web site under the heading of February 2009
"The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah resulted in 1,125 Lebanese deaths, nearly 4,400 wounded, and an estimated 1 million displaced, the vast majority civilians.
"The fighting in Gaza from December 27, when Israel began its military operation, until Israel and Hamas unilaterally declared ceasefires on January 18, left some 1,300 Palestinians dead and more than 5,000 wounded, 40 percent of them children and women. In addition, the casualties included an undetermined number of male civilians not taking part in hostilities. Over the same period, Palestinian rocket fire killed three Israeli civilians and wounded more than 80. Ten Israeli soldiers were killed.
"Civilians have far-and-away paid the greatest price in this conflict," Stork said. "An independent investigation is a necessary step for ensuring the justice and accountability that they deserve."
Amnesty International: "Israel/Gaza operation "Cast Lead": 22 Days of Death and Destruction - July 2009
"At 11.30am on 27 December 2008, without warning, Israeli forces began a devastating bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip codenamed Operation "Cast Lead". Its stated aim was to end rocket attacks into Israel by armed groups affiliated with Hamas and other Palestinian factions. By 18 January 2009, when unilateral ceasefires were announced by both Israel and Hamas, some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, including some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians, and large areas of Gaza had been razed to the ground, leaving many thousands homeless and the already dire economy in ruins.
"Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects. Such attacks violated fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, notably the prohibition on direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects (the principle of distinction), the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks,and the prohibition on collective punishment.
"The pattern of attacks and the resulting high number of civilian fatalitiesand casualties showed elements of reckless conduct, disregard for civilian lives and property and a consistent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects.
"Much of the destruction was wanton and deliberate, and was carried out in a manner and circumstances which indicated that it could not be justified on grounds of military necessity.Unlike in southern Israel, where the Israeli authorities have built bomb shelters to protect local residents from rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups, in Gaza there are no bomb shelters and none can be built because Israel has long forbidden the entry of construction material into Gaza.
"Killing of Palestinian Civilians by Israeli Forces
"Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in attacks by Israeli forces during Operation "Cast Lead" between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009. Some 5,000 were injured, many maimed for life. Hundreds of those killed were unarmed civilians, including some 300 children, more than 115 women and some 85 men over the age of 50. The figure is based on data collected by Amnesty International delegates in Gaza and on cases documented in detail by local NGOs and medical personnel in Gaza. According to Palestinian human rights NGOs two thirds of those killed were civilians. Amnesty International delegates who carried out research in Gaza in January-February 2009 did not have the time and resources to verify all the reported deaths, but investigated dozens of cases comprising more than 300 victims, more than half of them children and women, and gathered information from a wide range of sources. They concluded that an overall figure of some 1,400 fatalities is accurate and that, in addition to the children, women and men aged over 50, some 200 men aged less than 50 were unarmed civilians who took no part in the hostilities. In addition, some 240 police officers were killed in bombardment of police stations across the Gaza Strip in the first moments of Operation "Cast Lead" in the morning of 27 December 2008, including scores who were killed when the first Israeli air strikes targeted the police cadets graduation parade in the central police compound in Gaza City. Even though some of the policemen who were killed in these bombardments were also rank-and-file members of Hamas armed wing (in addition to being members of the police), many were not involved with armed groups and none were participating in hostilities when they were targeted and killed in the bombardments." (Emphasis Added).