Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon

The perception that Israel’s response to Hezbollah attacks was disproportionate, and that indiscriminate force was aimed at the Lebanese population, was largely a result of media reports on the casualty breakdown in Lebanon. Throughout the hostilities and after the fighting stopped, many news outlets unquestioningly accepted Lebanese claims that almost all Lebanese casualties were civilians. At the same time, they implicitly rejected or ignored Israel’s assertion that between 500-600 of the Lebanese fatalities were Hezbollah fighters. For example:

• On October 3, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported: “Israel responded with a devastating air and ground campaign that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese — almost all civilians …” (emphasis added throughout).

• The New York Times wrote of fighting “which had killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese, an overwhelming majority of them civilians” (Sept. 12, 2006).

• Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Aug. 19: 

The Israeli offensive on Lebanon has left at least 1,287 people, nearly all civilians, dead and 4,054 wounded, according to an AFP count based on official figures. At least 1,140 civilians – 30 percent of them children under 12 – have been killed along with 43 Lebanese army and police troops in the month-long offensive that ended on Monday, the state High Relief Committee said Saturday… Hezbollah has announced the death of 74 combatants…

• The Associated Press (AP) reported on August 18:

At least 845 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day war: 743 civilians, 34 soldiers and 68 Hezbollah. Israel says it killed about 530 guerrillas. On the Israeli side, 157 were killed – 118 soldiers and 39 civilians …

• The BBC Web site reported that

More than 900 Lebanese, most of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict, the Lebanese government says. More than 90 Israelis, most of them soldiers, have also been killed. (Aug. 7, 2006)

• The Independent‘s Robert Fisk accused Israel of  “wrecking Lebanon and slaughtering more than a thousand Lebanese civilians” (Aug. 19, 2006).

The above reports all state as fact that most of the Lebanese dead are civilians. (While the AP report did note Israel’s count of the number of Hezbollah fighters, the wire service clearly qualifies this as an Israeli claim.  It does not similarly qualify its assertion that “743 civilians” were killed.)

Hezbollah and its supporters have reason to exaggerate the number of Lebanese civilian casualties: it promotes the charge that Israel uses reckless and disproportionate force, and at the same time bolsters Hezbollah’s reputation by understating their battlefield losses.

Because of the distinct possibility that Hezbollah exaggerated the number of civilian casualties, and in light of assertions from other sources that hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were killed during the war, the media’s uncritical acceptance of Lebanese claims about the proportion of civilians killed demands a closer look.

Lebanese Casualties

On August 25, the Lebanese Higher Relief Council, an official government agency, estimated 1,187 Lebanese deaths in total resulting from the conflict. If, as AP reported, only 68 Hezbollah and 34 soldiers were killed, then it would be true that “an overwhelming majority,” “nearly all,” or “most” of the Lebanese casualties were civilians. But the number of Hezbollah fighters among the total dead is clearly much higher.
Even before the end of hostilities, Israel released a list of 196 Hezbollah fighters, individually identified by name, who were killed in fighting through Aug. 6, and at the same time estimated an additional 200 fighters were killed beyond those listed. (Israel has since updated its list of fighters to include 532 names. See below.)

By contrast, according to an Associated Press report from Aug. 6, Hezbollah admitted to losing only 53 fighters through Aug. 6. AP seemed to accept Hezbollah’s figure in its calculations, apparently subtracting the “53 guerrillas” acknowledged dead by Hezbollah from their count of the total dead to determine the number of civilian deaths: “Israel’s attacks on Lebanon have killed at least 591 people, including 509 civilians, 29 Lebanese soldiers and at least 53 Hezbollah guerrillas.” And although the wire service did acknowledge that “Israeli officials said they have confirmed 165 dead guerrillas and even have their names and estimated that another 200 had been killed,” it apparently discounted Israel’s assessment, and the possibility that some of the “509 civilians” might have actually been combatants. (AP, Aron Heller, Aug. 6, 2006)

Unlike many of its counterparts in the media, the Daily Telegraph has been candid about Hezbollah’s efforts to hide its casualties. An Aug. 4 piece by Con Coughlin in the Telegraph noted that

Although Hizbollah has refused to make public the extent of the casualties it has suffered, Lebanese officials estimate that up to 500 fighters have been killed in the past three weeks of hostilities with Israel, and another 1,500 injured.

Lebanese officials have also disclosed that many of Hizbollah’s wounded are being treated in hospitals in Syria to conceal the true extent of the casualties. They are said to have been taken through al-Arissa border crossing with the help of Syrian security forces. …

Hizbollah’s operational council has drawn up casualty lists that have been passed to the Shaheed Foundation. Copies have been seen by The Daily Telegraph, and have also been obtained by Lebanese newspapers, which have been pressured by Hizbollah not to publish them.”Hizbollah is desperate to conceal its casualties because it wants to give the impression that it is winning its war,” said a senior security official. “People might reach a very different c onclusion if they knew the true extent of Hizbollah’s casualties.” (emphasis added)

A few weeks later, Patrick Bishop of the Daily Telegraph reported:

UN officials believe that Hizbollah will not want to reignite the conflict, at least for a while. The organisation’s culture of secrecy has disguised the true number of its casualties – funerals of “martyrs” are being staggered to soften the impact of the losses. Some were interred without ceremony for re-burial later. A UN official estimated the deaths at 500, 10 per cent of the force Hizbollah is thought to muster … (August 22, 2006)

Additionally, the Kuwait Times on August 30 reprinted a Stratfor article which reported that “Hezbollah has buried more than 700 fighters” from the recent fighting. This is in accord with a statement by Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former senior officer in Israeli military intelligence, who said in a public briefing reported by UPI, that:

… Hezbollah lost more than 500 men, even though it confirmed only some 60-odd killed. Israel identified 440 dead guerillas by name and address, and experience shows that Israeli figures are half to two-thirds of the enemy’s real casualties. Therefore, Amidror estimated, Hezbollah’s real death toll might be as high as 700. (Sept. 7, 2006)

More recently, Abraham Rabinovich reported in the Washington Times (Sept. 27) that Israel now had identified the names of 532 dead Hezbollah fighters and estimated at least 200 others had been killed.

There is also independent evidence that Hezbollah’s casualties were much greater than they officially admit. News pieces on funerals in just a few locales in southern Lebanon reveal a tally of dead Hezbollah fighters far in excess of the 68-74 fighters listed (see above) by AFP and AP:

• The Australian reported on Aug. 17 three fighters were buried in Nabatiyeh.

• The funeral for two fighters in Khiam is captured in a photo by AFP on Aug. 17.

• On August 18-19 in the towns of Bint Jbail, Haris, Majdil Silim, Deir Qanoun and in south Beirut, 55 fighters were reported buried in widely publicized funerals. These include: eight fighters out of nine people buried in Deir Qanoun, according to AFP on Aug. 20; 18 fighters out of 44 residents buried in Bint Jbail, according to the Daily Telegraph on August 25;  and a mass burial of nine Hezbollah fighters in Beirut, according to NPR’s Morning Edition on Aug. 25.

• According to both an Aug. 24 Boston Globe report and an Aug. 18 AP photograph, seven fighters were among the 18 Lebanese buried in Taibe on Aug. 18.

Ten fighters were among 25 who were buried in Srifa on August 18. (AP, Aug. 22, 2006)

Two fighters were reported buried in Jawaya. (Washington Post, Aug. 18)

• In an Aug. 19 funeral procession for the victims of an Israeli bombing in Qana, three coffins draped by Hezbollah flags were confirmed to contain fighters by a Lebanese official (Voice of America [VOA]), Aug. 19). An AFP Photo of the same event shows four coffins draped by Hezbollah flags.

Five fighters were reported buried in Aitaroon. (AP, Aug. 21, and Toronto Star, Aug. 28)

Three fighters were reported buried in Naqoura on August 20. (Daily Telegraph and AP)

Three fighters were buried in Chamaa on Aug. 20 (New York Times, Aug. 21 and photo by Andrew Stern)

Two fighters were reported buried in the village of Barachit. (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 21)

Five out of thirteen coffins in a funeral in Haddathah on 8/20 had Hezbollah flags draped over them. (BBC monitoring of al-Manar TV on Aug. 20) Several days earlier it was widely reported that four Hezbollah fighters had been killed in Haddathah.

• The bodies of nine Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers killed in the fighting were reported by Fox News on July 25 to have been transported to Syria.

Nine fighters and nine civilians were commemorated at a memorial service following a mass burial in the town of Aita-el-shaab. (McClatchy Newspapers, Sept. 23)

• An Oct. 3 Reuters story described a funeral that day of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Maroun al-Ras.

• Other funerals of fighters were reported by

McClatchy Newspapers in Abasiye on Aug. 6;

New York Times in Shabiye on Aug. 16 (a 16-year-old fighter);

New York Times in Boudai who was killed in Bint Jbail ( Aug. 19);

AFP in photos of funerals for fighters in Kafra on Aug. 21 and Sidiqin on Aug. 26;

Getty in a photo of the funeral for a fighter in Bint Jbeil on Aug. 22;

BBC Monitoring (Aug. 24) citing a story on Lebanon’s New TV in Ghandouriyeh;

AP in a photo published in the Seattle Times on Sept. 11 showing a funeral on Sept. 3 of a Hezbollah commander in Adshit;

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station Web Site on the burial of fighters in Jibshit, Ansarieh and Yohmar. (Sept. 5)

• CBS News on July 21 reported the Israeli military held the bodies of 13 dead fighters. The Associated Press (see, for example, Aug. 15) and others report that Israel holds the bodies of “dozens” of Hezbollah militants killed in the fighting.

• Two Syrian members of a Palestinian militant group were reported killed fighting for Hezbollah. (The Australian, July 31)

• AFP reported 17 Amal militiamen killed in the fighting. (Aug. 19)

These scattered reports of dead Hezbollah and other militia fighters add up to at least 162, well in excess of figures repeated by AFP and others; and this clearly represents only a portion of the total, since these figures comprise only those deaths from a small number of locales publicized in news reports.

Srifa, Marwaheen, Hula and Qana

For the careful reviewer, the extensive coverage of the war and its aftermath also raises questions about non-governmental organizations that have commented on Israel’s conduct during the war. In an August 2006 report, Human Rights Watch claimed that its on-site investigation of Srifa “did not identify any signs of military activity in the area attacked, such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers, other military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters,” and that “witnesses consistently told Human Rights Watch that neither Hezbollah fighters nor other legitimate military targets were in the area that the IDF attacked.” The report further describes its investigative effort as “carefully corroborating and cross-checking their accounts with international aid workers, international and local journalists, medical professionals, local officials, as well as information from the IDF.” Elsewhere, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth wrote “Human Rights Watch investigated some two dozen bombing incidents …. In none of those cases was Hizbullah anywhere around at the time of the attack” (Jerusalem Post, Aug. 18, 2006).

Apparently HRW investigators did not speak with the same people as Hassan Fattah, a correspondent for the New York Times. Fattah reported that Srifa residents told him at least 43 people were buried in the rubble, and noted that “a majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party” (New York Times, Aug. 16, 2006).

Nor did the organization notice, or care to report, what Fattah heard and saw in Marwaheen, which Kenneth Roth clearly implied in his Jerusalem Post column was not being used by Hezbollah at the time of an Israeli attack. Fattah interviewed residents of the village who described how they begged Hezbollah not to use their village as a staging ground for attacks. According to Fattah:

…on Thursday, one of the suspicious white vans was sitting next to the town mosque. The van had apparently been hit by an Israeli missile, but the launching platform for a Katyusha rocket could still be seen inside. A rocket that lay next to the van a few days earlier had been removed.

Elsewhere, villagers showed off a weapons dump that included heavy machine guns, mortar rockets and launchers, and numerous other rockets left behind. Part of the weapons store had been bombed, but a much larger store down the street was intact.

Residents said Hezbollah was using them as human shields. “One man in this village was able to turn all our lives upside down for just a bit of money,” Ibrahim said. When the villagers left, he said, the fighters did too, as evidenced by the limited damage done to the town. (New York Times, Aug. 25, 2006)

Wide publicity was given to the Lebanese claim that 40 civilians were killed in a bombing attack in the village of Hula. It was later admitted that only one civilian had been killed.

The media poured its attention on the aftermath of the Qana tragedy. On July 30, it was reported that 56 or 60 civilians had been killed in an Israeli strike. Within a day, the Red Cross and Hospital officials in Tyre corrected this number to 28 and the names of each of the victims were released by Lebanese authorities. MSNBC reported on Aug. 16 that the number was revised to 29 by medical authorities and human rights investigators. Most of the names listed were children or women. There was only one male aged 17 who was of fighting age.

Oddly, when the funeral for those killed in the incident was reported on Aug. 19, a number of reports noted several coffins covered by Hezbollah yellow flags. “There were 29 graves, dug in neat rows just 100 meters from the crumpled house where the bodies were dug from the rubble 18 days earlier,” wrote Challiss McDonough (VOA). The report notes that three of the coffins had Hezbollah flags, while an AFP photograph of the procession shows four. VOA correspondent McDonough questioned a Hezbollah official at the funeral who claimed these were fighters killed in other localities. That explanation leaves unanswered why they were buried with the victims of the bombing, and it raises another question: If only 26 of those buried that day in Qana were civilians, why were the remaining three civilians not buried? Is it mere coincidence that number of people buried was 29–the exact number of confirmed victims? Was it coincidence that three or four of the civilians were not interred, but the same number of Hezbollah corpses were transferred to Qana?

Regardless, the accumulated evidence from various sources exposes as a deception Hezbollah’s claims to have lost 68 or 74 fighters .

Israel’s claim to have killed 500-600 Hezbollah fighters, meanwhile, is buttressed by the government’s partial list of names of Hezbollah fighters who died through Aug. 6, and is corroborated in some media reports.

These different assessments suggest that Hezbollah losses may have been comparable in number to the civilian losses in Lebanon. Allegations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International–organizations often criticized for their disproportionate and deceptive focus on Israel–that Israel used indiscriminate force and even targeted civilians should be viewed warily in light of this evidence. And when casualty figures and breakdowns cited by news organizations are based on figures supplied by Hezbollah, Lebanese officials, or Israeli officials, those claims should be meticulously investigated for inconsistencies, and should not be reported as accepted fact.

Update, Dec. 18, 2006: Hezbollah now acknowledges almost four times as many losses as previously admitted.

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