Each time Israel mounts a substantial military response to escalating Palestinian attacks, Palestinians and their advocates accuse the Jewish state of carrying out attacks that mainly kill civilians. To support their accusations they cite casualty tallies provided to them by Palestinian officials and by various human rights groups with a presence in Gaza. These tallies consistently count most of the Palestinian fatalities and wounded as civilians.
Because the media has been loath to scrutinize the figures provided to them and are often inclined to favor Palestinian accounts over Israeli army accounts, it has fallen to non-media research groups like CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and ICT (International Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel) to offer direct and circumstantial evidence that the ratio of civilian to combatant casualties is significantly exaggerated.
A leading Palestinian source of fatality information in Gaza is the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). During hostilities, PCHR publishes daily reports identifying individual Palestinian fatalities in Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009) and in Operation Pillar of Defense from Nov. 14 through Nov. 22, 2012, PCHR used a similar method of categorizing Gazan fatalities.
PCHR described individual fatalities as either a “member of an armed group”, a “member of the Palestinian resistance”, a “civilian” or simply reported a name and age without any label. However, in its summation of fatalities, those not labeled were automatically added to the civilian tally.
A substantial portion of those labeled as civilian and most of those not given any label were young men. In fact, adult males under the age of 40 described as civilians or not given any label make up nearly a third of the fatalities.
A tally of the fatalities from Nov. 14 to Nov. 22, 2012 listed in PCHR’s daily reports resulted in
55 labeled as members of armed groups or Palestinian resistance;
39 were identified as women or children (age less than 18);
18 were males older than 40 who were labeled as civilians or not labeled;
48 were males between the ages of 18-40 who were labeled as civilians or not labeled.
Therefore, the last two categories of adult males (66 in all) contribute 41 percent of the fatalities. PCHR automatically added these to the civilian category to reach a civilian toll of 105 as opposed to 55 non-civilians.
The Israelis however reported 120 combatants and members of terrorist groups and 57 civilian fatalities. To arrive at a comparable figure using the PCHR data would require shifting over to the combatant category most of the adult male fatalities that PCHR labels as civilian or does not label.
It is important to recall that during the Cast Lead operation in Dec. 2008- Jan. 2009 many of the major media outlets frequently repeated Palestinian claims that the vast majority of fatalities were civilians. The Israelis gave a figure of at least 709 combatants or terrorist operatives out of a total 1166 fatalities. But the media usually favored the Palestinian narrative and portrayed Israel as making little effort to avoid killing civilians. Later, the UN Human Rights Council-sponsored mission headed by Richard Goldstone also gave greater credence to Palestinian figures in its harsh condemnation of Israel’s actions.
CAMERA and ICT uncovered evidence from Hamas-affiliated web sites and from other Palestinian sources that many of those described by PCHR and others as civilians or not labeled were in fact terrorist operatives. An analysis of the fatalities by age and gender showed that 63-75% were young men of prime combat ages, an unlikely result if the Israeli attacks were truly indiscriminate.
Finally, in November 2010, Hamas’s Minister of the Interior, Fathi Hamad, gave figures that – if one included Hamas police forces – corroborated the Israeli figure for combatant fatalities at around 700.
This time around, the media has been more circumspect about civilian casualty claims. Nevertheless there are still examples where the figures provided by PCHR and others are simply reported without qualification. Just like in 2009, it will take time for the terrorist connections to emerge of some of those described as civilians or not labeled. And similar to what happened in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, when an accurate picture of the fatalities finally does emerge, the media will mostly have moved on. Still, it is important to establish accurate casualty figures for the historical record to rebut future accusations.