The Murkiness of Gaza Casualty Figures: One Case Study

After CAMERA published its analysis of Gaza casualties, which suggests that the breakdown of civilian and combatant fatalities provided by Gaza-based organizations (and used by the United Nations) are highly unreliable, The New York Times and BBC each published similar examinations.

The murkiness surrounding Gaza casualty figures was further underscored by a recent NPR interview with family of a Hamas member killed as he ambushed Israeli soldiers. On “All Things Considered,” Aug. 4, Emily Harris interviews the mother and brother of Ahmed Abu Thoraya. She reports:

Ahmed Abu Thoraya died July 19th in a tunnel ambush thwarted by Israeli troops. . . .

Thirteen other Hamas militants died in the same operation. All were from the same Gaza town, Deir al-Balah.

If NPR is correct that 14 Hamas combatants were killed in one incident on July 19th, then some interesting questions arise. What do the Palestinian organizations that provide details about the Gaza casualties, such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and Al Mezan, say about 14 Hamas fatalities in just one incident that day? Among all of the news media accounts of incidents involving multiple civilian casualties, why are there no reports to be found regarding 14 Hamas men being killed in an attempted ambush of Israeli troops July 19 in the Deir al-Balah area? CAMERA set out to find the answers to these questions, with interesting though inconclusive results.

PCHR Says Only Three Combatants Killed

PCHR’s July 20 report, which covers the events of the previous day, says that two other members of an “armed Palestinian group” were killed together with Ahmed Abu Thoraya. The report states:

At approximately 19:30, Israeli warplanes attacked members of a Palestinian armed group in Wadi al-Salqa village, east of Deir al-Balah, killing 3 of them: Ayman Nasri al-Na’ouq, 25; ‘Abdullah Ghazi al-Masri, 30; and Ahmed Maher Thuraya, 25.

PCHR does not note that Thoraya’s group was killed as they were reportedly attempting to carry out an ambush on Israeli troops. Regardless, what about the other 11 Hamas men who, according to NPR’s interview with the family of one of the fatalities, were killed during the ambush? Why don’t they appear in PCHR’s report? Did PCHR identify some of those killed along with Abu Thoraya as having been killed in other fatal incidents involving armed men?

PCHR does list another four combatant fatalities many hours earlier in the day in Wadi al-Salqa:

At approximately 10:00 on Saturday, 19 July 2014, an Israeli drone fired a missile and tanks fired a number of shells at members of a Palestinian armed group in Wadi al-Salqa village, east of Deir al-Balah, killing 4 of them: Tariq Sameer al-Hatu, 26; ‘Abdullah Sameer Abu Zu’aiter, 31; Mo’men Tayseer Abu Dan, 24; and ‘Abdul Rahman Mohammed al-Barrak, 23.

Or did PCHR comply with directives from the Hamas Ministry of Interior to misrepresent combatant fatalities as “innocent civilians”? If so, are other young men of fighting age, not identified as combatants, who are listed as casualties in other incidents actually from that Hamas group of 14 reportedly killed together at 19:30 in Wadi al-Salqa?

For instance, PCHR reports that in Khan Yunis:

 At approximately 14:10, an Israeli drone fired a missile at a civilian car in Street 2 in al-Qarara village.  As a result, Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed al-Sa’idi, 19, was killed, as he was on his way to evacuate relatives from the area.

Also, in Rafah:

At approximately 02:30, an Israeli dorn fired a missile at a house belonging to Mahmoud Hussein Mo’ammar, in which 45 people live, in al-Junaina neighborhood. As a result, 3 of Mo’ammar’s sons were killed: Anas, 17; Hamza, 23; and Mohammed, 31.

The Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, another Palestinian monitoring group, evidently relying on information provided by PCHR, also reports three Palestinians were killed in that incident involving Thoraya. Unlike PCHR, it is does not bother to identify them as members of an armed group:

Israeli warplanes attacked Palestinians in Wadi al-Salqa village, east of Deir al-Balah,  killing 3 of them: Ayman Nasri al-Na’ouq, 25, ‘Abdullah Ghazi al-Masri, 30; and Ahmed Maher Thuraya, 25.

No Information Available at Al Mezan

Unlike other daily reports by the Mezan Center for Human Rights, the July 20 report, which covers the previous day, does not provide information about casualties.

What About the Western Media?

Agence France-Presse refers to an airstrike in Deir al-Balah in which two were killed (“Toll in Gaza hits 343 on day 12 of Israel campaign,” July 19, 10:45 PM GMT):

Shortly beforehand, one man was killed in an air strike on the northern town of Jabaliya shortly after two were killed in a strike near Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, Qudra said.

AFP does not state that the two were combatants. There is also this Times of Israel live blog update, attributed in part to AFP:

The latest incident saw two men, aged 25 and 31, killed in an air strike near Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

There are no reports at all to be found about 14 Hamas men killed July 19 near Deir al-Balah as they attempted to ambush Israeli soldiers.

What Does It Mean?

It is difficult to draw many conclusions about why NPR reported that 14 Hamas men were killed in one July 19 incident, an allegation not substantiated elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine the family’s motive for fabricating the involvement of some 10 other Hamas men. It’s possible that a family member said Thoraya was killed along with three other Hamas members, and somewhere in the translation three became 13. Or it’s possible that Ashraf al-Qudra, the Hamas spokesman who provides much of the information to the world about Hamas casualties, covered up that 10 more fighters were involved. Such a deception would be in line with the Hamas Interior Ministry guidelines.

There is no way to know from the information now available. The uncertainty in this incident underscores the difficulty in ascertaining the truth about Hamas casualties. In the meantime, we wait for the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center to finish off its own list of Gaza’s casualties, at which point we will likely learn more about this particular case.

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