The 50-day Hamas war against Israel left 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians dead; there were a total of 842 Israeli casualties during the conflict.1 On the other side, UN and Palestinian sources claimed that some 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza were killed, of whom 72 to 84 percent were civilians.2
There are strong reasons to contest these Palestinian figures and argue that the percentage of Gazan civilian casualties was fewer than 50 percent. On December 1, 2014, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reported on its detailed, name-by-name analysis of 1,598 Palestinian fatalities in Operation Protective Edge that amounted to 75 percent of those who were killed. Of the fatalities who could be identified, about 45 percent were non-combatants, while 55 percent were combatants – nowhere near the levels of civilian losses that were discussed in the media.3
Unfortunately, civilian losses are part of most modern wars. Israel’s performance compares well to that of other Western states, yet it is singled out for criticism (see Appendix – Proportion of Civilians Killed in the Bosnian, Iraq, and Afghan Wars, Compared to the 2014 Gaza War, at the end of this chapter).
While UN and Palestinian sources claimed that 72 to 84 percent of Palestinians in Gaza killed during the war were civilians, a detailed name-by-name analysis of Palestinian fatalities found that of those who could be identified, about 45 percent were non-combatants, while 55 percent were combatants.
Moreover, Hamas itself instructed its fighters to use human shields in order to purposely suffer civilian deaths and increase international pressure and blame on Israel.4 Fathi Hamad, Hamas’ former interior minister, said in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead that Hamas fighters “formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahedeen in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine.”5
Israel is not the only Western nation facing an immoral enemy prepared to harm its own citizens, the Rand Corporation wrote in a 2006 report for the U.S. Air Force: “U.S. adversaries have…creatively found ways to place innocents at risk and thereby increase the human and moral costs of the nation’s wars, evidently in the hope of deterring the United States from taking military action in the first place or of imposing political costs and constraints on the conduct of military operations if their deterrent efforts fail.”6
The Problematic Source of Palestinian Casualty Reports
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that its information on Palestinian casualties was provided by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza – a Hamas-controlled office.7 Two other organizations in Gaza, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights8 and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR),9 circulated casualty lists with inflated numbers of civilian deaths. In 2009, both organizations provided testimony and statistics to the now-discredited UN Goldstone Report on the war in Gaza.
Even the Gaza Ministry of Health figures show that a disproportionately large percentage of casualties in Gaza were men of fighting age.10 If Israeli attacks were indeed “indiscriminate” or aimed at civilian shelters, as Hamas claimed, the percentages of men and women killed would have been close to 50 percent each. Instead, as presented by the Ministry of Health, men constituted 66 percent of the casualties, women 14 percent; children comprised 16 percent and elderly four percent.
The “keeper of the statistics” in the Gaza Health Ministry is Ashraf al-Kidra, according to Associated Press.11 Kidra sits in an office at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital (used by Hamas as a headquarters)12 and “receives casualty reports from hospitals and emergency services….Al-Kidra uses a very broad definition of civilians, saying the term applies to anyone who has not been claimed by one of the armed groups as a member.”
The “keeper of the statistics” in the Gaza Health Ministry defined as a civilian “anyone who has not been claimed by one of the armed groups as a member.”
The New York Times analysis of Gazan deaths pointed out that “men ages 20 to 29, the population most likely to be militants, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll: They are 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided (emphasis added).”13
The Times’ figure of 34 percent “likely to be militants” is actually low since it is based on a very narrow age group (20-29 years old) that the newspaper considered to be combatants. The chart presented by the Times also shows disproportionate deaths among the 15-19 and 30-39-year-old males of Gaza, many of them likely combatants as well.
Human Shields and Inflated Casualty Numbers
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “at least 142 families had lost three or more family members in the same incident, for a total of 739 civilian fatalities.”14 But how many of those families served as human shields for Hamas’ top military leaders? The airstrike on Hamas’ military commander and arch-terrorist Muhammed Deif provides a clear example of this phenomenon.
On August 20, 2014, Israeli intelligence discovered that the illusive Deif was visiting one of his wives in a home in Gaza City. Israeli planes bombed the house, and Deif’s fate is not known to this day.15 One of Deif’s wives and two of his children were killed in the attack as well as two or three other civilians. Mohammed Deif was certainly a legitimate target by all rules of warfare. Cutting off one of the heads of the Hamas snake would save innocent lives. His family died because he used them as human shields.
The next day, an Israeli strike on a Rafah house killed three high-ranking Hamas military leaders: Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Attar, and Mohammed Barhoum, men responsible for the tunnel attack into Israel in 2006 that killed two soldiers and captured another, Gilad Shalit. Attar also headed a Hamas paraglider unit that planned terrorist raids into Israel.
“The killing of the three military commanders in Rafah was a significant blow to Hamas,” reported the Guardian.17 Seven civilians who were used as human shields by Hamas military leaders tragically died in that air raid, but how many dozens of innocent civilians – Israeli and Palestinian – were saved by the attack on these legitimate military targets? This question lies at the heart of the “disproportionate number of casualties” canard hurled at Israel.
A compilation of families killed in the Gaza war was presented by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Ruth Pollard18 and the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood.19 Sherwood conceded that “in many cases there may have been a military target among the dead,” but she raised the question whether the use of force was proportionate and in violation of international law’s obligation to protect civilians.
Both journalists cite as their sources the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Al Mezan, B’Tselem, UNOCHA, and al-Haq – all of whom were dependent on data from Hamas’ Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Analysis of many of the victims’ backgrounds shows a distinct military nature or age group:20
- Hafiz Hamad, “a senior Islamic Jihad” leader, was killed by an Israeli air strike on his home in Beit Hanoun on July 8, according to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency.21 Five members of his family, used as human shields, also perished. Two were men, one 26-years-old, the other 30, and quite possibly Islamic Jihad fighters.
- Mohammed Eskafi’s “family” was killed in Shuja’iya on July 20. Besides 49-year-old Eskafi, five men, aged 25-30, and a 12-year-old boy were killed.
- The Astal family in Khan Younis lost 10 members – all men between the ages of 18 and 27.
- Tayseer al-Batsh’s family in Gaza City lost 18 members, but many were men between the ages of 17 and 28. Brig.-Gen. Tayseer Batsh, appointed by Hamas as chief of Gaza’s police, was wounded in the attack. His activities in Gaza made him a top-tier military target.
Fraudulent Claims of Civilian Deaths
The images below are of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah terrorists who died fighting Israel. All of them were listed as civilians by PCHR, UNESCO, Al Mezan, and the Gaza Health Ministry. These men are only four of the many examples of terrorists who were listed as civilians.
Hamas Executions of Civilians
At least a score of Gazans were accused of being Israeli spies or “informers” and executed by Hamas in the streets of Gaza in August. Two women were among the group.27 Hamas did not release the names of those executed “for keeping the reputation and honor of their families and children,” but there is little doubt that their names showed up on the civilian casualty lists blamed on Israeli action.
Palestinians Killed by Hamas’ Errant Rockets
Hamas and Islamic Jihad weapons were unreliable, and hundreds of rockets fell within Gaza itself and killed or wounded untold numbers of Gazan residents.28 On July 28, for instance, a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket fell on a public kindergarten in the Shati district packed with children. Eight children and two adults were killed. Another rocket fell on Gaza’s Shifa Hospital’s outpatient clinic.29 Almost certainly, the names of these innocent civilians can be found in the Hamas casualty list blamed on Israel.
The CIA Factbook lists the Gazan death rate as 3.09 deaths/1,000 population, which is to say that among Gaza’s population of 1.8 million people, more than 5,500 people die of natural causes every year.31 That is the equivalent of 15 natural deaths per day. How many are listed as civilian casualties of the war? Attempts to get answers to this question have not been successful, but it is possible that some of the Gazan elderly and babies on the civilian casualty list died natural deaths. Life expectancy is 74.6 years. The infant mortality rate is 16.51 per 1,000 live births, and Gaza averages about 4,000 births a month.32
It is little wonder, therefore, that the BBC’s Head of Statistics, Anthony Reuben, warned, “Caution Needed with Gaza Casualty Figures.”33 As Capt. Eythan Buchman, an IDF spokesman, noted in the article, “It’s important to bear in mind that in Operation Cast Lead [the previous Israeli ground offensive in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009], Hamas and Gaza-based organizations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600-700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF.”34
50 Unnamed Dead Hamas Fighters
At the end of December 2014, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel released a “partial list” of 50 Hamas fighters who were killed during the war whose names did not appear on any Hamas casualty list.35 The Center identified them as fighters who were killed in collapsed tunnels, infiltrating Israel from the sea, or emerging from tunnels to carry out attacks on Israeli territory. Hamas “deliberately refrains from including the names of terrorist operatives whose bodies are in Israeli hands (nearly 20) in the lists of fatalities in Operation Protective Edge,” the Center explained. “Hamas’ policy of concealment…is designed to serve the political, propaganda, and lawfare campaign against Israel.”
The concealment deliberately lowers the percentage of combatants killed in the general casualty tally.
Hamas’ False Claims of Damage to Civilian Institutions
To counter Israel’s precision munitions, Hamas turned residential areas into military zones. “Much of Hamas’ military infrastructure was embedded in civilian areas of Gaza,” wrote Jeffrey White, a former senior U.S. defense intelligence officer, whose analysis was published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.36 “This created in effect a ‘human dome,’ reducing or complicating Israel’s willingness and ability to strike them and providing a measure of protection.”
Three times during the war, UNRWA admitted that rockets were found inside its schools. In a separate case, that of an UNRWA school in Rafah, Hamas actually moved and positioned bodies of “victims” into the schoolyard for photographers.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the Israeli strike, calling it “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”37 The State Department said it was “appalled” by Israel’s “disgraceful” shelling outside the UNRWA school and said “Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”38
Palestinian Children Digging Tunnels
An old news item resurfaced during Operation Protective Edge saying that 160 Palestinian children were killed while digging Gaza tunnels. The original story appeared in the 2011/12 edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies39 in an article entitled “Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon,” by Nicolas Pelham. In December 2011, Pelham toured the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. He found “nothing was done to impede the use of children in the tunnels, where, much as in Victorian coal mines, they are prized for their nimble bodies. At least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials.”
There was no international outrage against Hamas at the time for leading children to their deaths in underground passageways, nor is it clear how many Palestinian children died in the summer of 2014 – and were counted as civilian casualties – as a result of Hamas forcing them to serve as human shields and soldiers in its ongoing war against Israel.
Proportion of Civilians Killed in the Bosnian, Iraq, and Afghan Wars,
Compared to the 2014 Gaza War40
Bosnia and the Balkans
Iraq War, June 2003 – August 2007
Afghan War, 2001-2011: Lower Estimate
Afghan War, 2001-2011: Higher Estimate
Gaza War, 2014 – Palestinians only
* * *
1 Ben Hartman, “50 Days of Israel’s Gaza Operation, Protective Edge – By the Numbers,” Jerusalem Post, August 28, 2014, http://www.jpost.com/Operation-Protective-Edge/50-days-of-Israels-Gaza-operation-Protective-Edge-by-the-numbers-372574
2 Jodi Rudoren, “Civilian or Not? New Fight in Tallying the Dead from the Gaza Conflict,” New York Times, August 5, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/world/middleeast/civilian-or-not-new-fight-in-tallying-the-dead-from-the-gaza-conflict.html
3 “Additional Findings in the Examination of the Names of Palestinians Killed in Operation Protective Edge – Part Eight,” Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, December 31, 2014, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20753
4 Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Will Captured Hamas Manual on Using Human Shields Help Israel Block War Crimes Trials?” Jerusalem Post, August 5, 2014, http://www.jpost.com/Operation-Protective-Edge/Will-captured-Hamas-manual-on-using-human-shields-help-Israel-block-war-crimes-trials-370154
5 Anderson Cooper, “Israel, Hamas Start 72-Hour Cease-Fire in Gaza,” CNN, August 4, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1408/04/acd.02.html
6 Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savych, Misfortunes of War (Rand Corporation, 2006), http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2006/RAND_MG441.pdf.
7 “Gaza Crisis Appeal,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, September 9, 2014, http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/gaza_crisis_appeal_9_september.pdf
8 “Al Mezan: 2,153 Killed; 518 Children and 295 Women Since 7 July,” Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, August 26, 2014, http://www.mezan.org/en/details.php?id=19477&ddname=IOF&id_dept=9&id2=9&p=center
9 “Statistics: Victims of the Israeli Offensive on Gaza since July 8, 2014,” Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, September 16, 2014, http://www.pchrgaza.org/portal/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10491:statistics-victims-of-the-israeli-offensive-on-gaza-since-08-july-2014&catid=145:in-focus
10 Jodi Rudoren, “Civilian or Not?” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/world/middleeast/civilian-or-not-new-fight-in-tallying-the-dead-from-the-gaza-conflict.html?_r=2
11 “In Gaza, Dispute over Civilian vs. Combatant Deaths,” August 8, 2014, AP-Al-Arabiya, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2014/08/08/In-Gaza-dispute-over-civilian-vs-combatant-deaths.html
12 “Shifa Hospital in Gaza City…has become a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices.” See William Booth, “While Israel Held Its Fire, the Militant Group Hamas Did Not,” Washington Post, July 15, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/while-israel-held-its-fire-the-militant-group-hamas-did-not/2014/07/15/116fd3d7-3c0f-4413-94a9-2ab16af1445d_story.html; An Israeli official said that in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, “We know that downstairs there is a Hamas command and control center and that Hamas leaders are hiding there.” See “Hamas Threatening Journalists in Gaza Who Expose Abuse of Civilians,” Times of Israel, July 28, 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-threatening-journalists-in-gaza-who-expose-abuse-of-civilians/
14 “Gaza Crisis Appeal,” http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/gaza_crisis_appeal_9_september.pdf
15 Isabel Kershner and Fares Akram, “After Strike on Family, Fate of Hamas Commander Is Unknown,” New York Times, August 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/21/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-strip.html
16 Hafez Omar, “Night of the Gliders,” Palestine Poster Project Archives, November 1987, http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/night-of-the-gliders
17 Harriet Sherwood and Hazem Balousha, “Hamas Kills 21 Suspected Informers,” Guardian (UK), August 22, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/hamas-executes-suspected-infomers-gaza
18 “Gaza Casualties: 54 Families Who Have Lost More than Four Relatives,” Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2014/gaza-victims/gaza-family/index.html
19 Harriet Sherwood, “Gaza Counts the Cost of War: ‘Whole Families Smashed under the Rubble’,” Guardian (UK), August 15, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/15/-sp-gaza-counts-cost-of-war-whole-families-smashed-under-the-rubble
20 “Gaza Casualties: 54 Families,” http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2014/gaza-victims/gaza-family/index.html
21 “Jihad Leader, 5 Relatives Killed as Israel Attacks Family Home,” Ma’an News (PA), July 9, 2014, http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=711173
22 “Fake Civilian of the Day,” Elder of Ziyon, November 17, 2014, http://elderofziyon.blogspot.co.il/2014/11/fake-civilian-of-day.html#.VMT3UtKUfHE
23 “Director-General Deplores Death of Journalist Simone Camilli and His Translator Ali Shehda Abu Afash in Gaza,” UNESCO, August 14, 2014, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:thPSCdHeWXcJ:www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/director_general_deplores_death_of_journalist_simone_camilli_and_his_translator_ali_shehda_abu_afash_in_gaza/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk#.VLj-byuhySo. Press release removed from UNESCO site but is viewable via Google cache.
24 “The Martyr Abdullah Murtaja,” Shehab News Agency, October 30, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9_FvBCaYeU#t=127
25 “3 More Fake ‘Civilians’ of the Day,” Elder of Ziyon, September 22, 2014, http://elderofziyon.blogspot.co.il/2014/09/3-more-fake-civilians-of-day.html#.VHYEPfmUd8F
26 Saed Bannoura, “Civilian Casualties Continue to Rise,” IMEMC News, July 25, 2014, http://www.imemc.org/article/68606
27 “Hamas Kills 21 Suspected Informers,” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/hamas-executes-suspected-infomers-gaza
28 William Booth, “Here’s What Really Happened in the Gaza War (According to the Israelis), Washington Post, September 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/09/03/heres-what-really-happened-in-the-gaza-war-according-to-the-israelis/
29 Avi Issacharoff, “The Terrorist Misfire that Deepened the Conflict,” Times of Israel, July 28, 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-terrorist-misfire-that-deepened-the-conflict/
30 “Gaza Terrorists Fired Rockets Today, Hoping to Kill Israelis. Instead, They Hit a Hospital & a Refugee Camp in Gaza,” IDF Spokesperson, July 28, 2014, https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/493900772988682241
31 “Gaza Strip,” World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gz.html
32 “4500 New Births in Gaza During Israel’s Offensive,” Anadolu Agency (Turkey), August 9, 2014, http://www.aa.com.tr/en/gaza/371081–4500-new-births-in-gaza-during-israels-offensive
33 Anthony Reuben, “Caution Needed with Gaza Casualty Figures,” BBC News, August 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28688179
35 “Additional Findings in the Examination of the Names of Palestinians Killed in Operation Protective Edge – Part Eight,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, December 29, 2014, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20753/E_200_14_172393803.pdf
36 Jeffrey White, “The Combat Performance of Hamas in the Gaza War of 2014,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, September 29, 2014, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-combat-performance-of-hamas-in-the-gaza-war-of-2014
37 “UN Voices Outrage over Gaza School Strike,” Al Jazeera, August 4, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/israeli-bombardment-claims-lives-gaza-20148372122193560.html
38 Jen Psaki, “UNRWA School Shelling,” U.S. Department of State, August 3, 2014, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2014/230160.htm
39 Nicolas Pelham, “Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel’s Siege,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41 (2011-12), No. 4, http://www.palestine-studies.org/jps/fulltext/42605
40 Taylor B. Seybolt, Jay D. Arondon, Baruch Fischhoff (eds.), Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); see also Adam Roberts, “Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians?” Survival, vol. 52, no. 3, June-July 2010; and Neta Crawford, Civilian Death and Injury in Afghanistan, 2001-2011 (Boston: Boston University Press, 2011).
Sources for casualty figures: Bosnia conflict – International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia; Iraq War – Iraq Body Count; Afghan War – UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), in Crawford; Gaza War – “Additional Findings in the Examination of the Names of Palestinians Killed in Operation Protective Edge – Part Eight,” Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, December 31, 2014, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20753. The Center conducted a detailed name-by-name analysis of Palestinian fatalities. The number whose names have been identified as of this writing is 1,598 (about 75% of the fatalities). Of the fatalities who could be identified, about 55% are terrorist operatives, most of them Hamas operatives, and about 45% are non-involved civilians.