Palestinian Fatalities in Israeli Gaza Strip Operations

“Mostly civilians killed in Israeli military operation in Gaza since June – report.” So read one headline about a _____ Physicians for Human Rights study. PHR claimed that from the start of Israeli counter-terrorism strikes in the Gaza Strip on June 28 through October 27, 63 percent of the Palestinian Arabs killed by Israelis were civilians. The percentage represented 155 individuals, the group charged.

But Palestinian and Israeli statistics on the numbers of Palestinians killed in Gaza, cited in news coverage of events, indicates PHR’s assertions are mistaken. Palestinian figures—which count teenaged gunmen as children and civilians—indicate that at least half the fatalities were combatants. And Israeli statistics show that an even greater proportion of Palestinian fatalities were combatants.  

Finally, a roughly equal or greater number of individuals killed – Palestinian Arabs slain by their own people – went largely unmentioned.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and approximately 8,000 Israeli residents evacuated the Gaza Strip in September, 2005. IDF soldiers reentered the Strip two days after the June 26, 2006 murder of two Israeli soldiers by Hamas-affiliated infiltrators and the capture of a third, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The IDF acted to free Shalit if possible, prevent him from being transferred out of Gaza if he could not be liberated, disrupt illegal weapons smuggling into the Strip by Hamas and other terrorist groups, and to suppress Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. (Palestinian terrorists have launched more than 800 rockets at Israeli targets since June 28, 2006.) Operations continued until a truce – which did not prevent continued Palestinian rocket fire into Israel – began on November 26.

What proportion of fatalities were combatants?
The Washington Post reported shortly before a truce was to take effect, that “more than 250 Palestinians, most of them gunmen, have been killed since late June ….” (“Tentative Deal Is Reached To Halt Fighting in Gaza,” November 26).

The Los Angeles Times noted that “Hamas’ battlefield losses took a toll. Most of the 300 or so Palestinians killed in the fighting were armed militants, including 25 who died over four days last week.” (“Both Sides Find Relief in Gaza Cease-Fire; Palestinian and Israeli Leaders Urge Military Restraint; Rockets Fall Silent,” November 27).

IDF efforts to minimize non-combatant casualties in the Gaza Strip could be inferred from coverage of an early November action for which Israel nevertheless received international criticism. The European Union said of an operation in and around Beit Hanoun, in the northern part of the Strip early in November  that “the right of all states to defend themselves does not justify disproportionate use of violence or actions which are contrary to international human rights law.” However, The Los Angeles Times reported that for the first six days of “Operation Autumn Clouds” the death toll was “55, of whom 40 were Palestinian combatants, 14 were civilians, and one was an Israeli soldier” (“Female suicide bomber in Gaza attacks Israeli troops,” November 7).  On the seventh and last day of the operation, “the Israeli military killed seven Palestinian militants and a civilian,” Reuters reported (“Military kills 7 militants in Gaza; Abbas: Offensive hurts stability,” Washington Times, November 8).

The Associated Press covered vice prime minister Shimon Peres’ reaction to international criticism this way: “Israel was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. ‘We have to get directly to the people who are doing the shooting and that is what we are trying to do,’ he told reporters.” (“Israel to continue offensive in Gaza,” Baltimore Sun, November 6). 

According to these news accounts, more often than not Israel did successfully target combatants, even while fighting terrorists operating among a civilian population in violation of international law. The Physicians for Human Rights report appears to have been wrong.

One source of PHR error may have been statistics released by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. As CAMERA has pointed out, “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.”

Even so, PCHR daily reports from June 26 through September 6, counted as not civilian half of the 252 Arab fatalities it said resulted from IDF action in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). These casualties came largely from Gaza, and nine days later,, the English-language Web site of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest Hebrew daily, reported that “since Shalit’s kidnapping some 228 Palestinians were killed [in the Strip, and] 208 of them were terrorists, IDF data show.” Even with the accidental shelling of a Palestinian house in Beit Hanoun on November 9, which killed 19 members of the same clan, there was little indication that
The behavior of the IDF and Israeli government shows, at the very least, apathy to the killing of innocent Palestinians, supported by similar apathy among the Israel itself, if not worse,” PHR alleged.
According to Reuters News Agency, “since the start of the offensive four months ago, more than 280 Palestinians have been killed, about half of them civilians” (“Israeli troops kill two women in Gaza; Victims part of human shield guarding gunmen at mosque,” Washington Times, November 4).   

 Reuters’ “about half of them civilians” should be understood as “less than half of them civilians”, in the context of other major news media. For example:

High Court decision

Early in December, Israel’s Supreme Court, ruling on the legality of preemptive “targeted killings” of known terrorists, said such actions should be in accordance with international law and consider proportionality, collateral damage and alternatives.

Harming civilians who “take direct part in hostilities, even if the result is death, is permitted, on the condition that there is no other means which harms them less, and on the condition that innocent civilians nearby are not harmed. Harm to the latter must be proportional. That proportionality is determined according to a valued-based test, intended to balance between the military advantage and the civilian damage.”

The court ruled that “targeted killings” such as those resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 terrorists from 2000 through 2005, upheld the balance between legitimate military advantage and civilian damage – even though nearly 150 civilians also died.

If so, then Israel’s counter-terrorism operations in Gaza also appear to have been neither “apathetic” to civilian casualties, as PHR alleged, nor “disproportionate,” as the EU claimed. Democracy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously observed, “is not a suicide pact.” A democracy’s constrained  self-defense against suicide bombers, terrorists who launch rockets at schools, synagogues, factories and homes, and those who command them upholds, rather than violates, international law.

Arabs killing Arabs

Meanwhile, “about 330 Palestinians have been killed since the start of 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza [Strip], as a result of what the independent Palestinian Committee for Human Rights defines as ‘violent chaos,'” including but not limited to the fighting between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. “Not all of these people were killed in the context of the political strife between the camps, but in light of the large number of armed gangs that act sometimes in the service of the factions and sometimes on behalf of the clans – it has become hard to distinguish between the concepts of ‘anarchy’ and ‘civil war.'” (“High noon at Manara Square,” December 15). 

That is, Palestinian Arabs killed approximately 330 other Palestinian Arabs in 2006, up to mid-December. This in circumstances that apparently violate international human rights law. Inform Physicians for Human Rights, and alert the news media. 

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