The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has started, and the gates to Gaza have opened for the international press. Now a new battle will begin over numbers and ratios. There will be calls for investigations, and endless debates about who ‘won’. Israel’s claims of precision targeting will come under scrutiny, but so too should Palestinian accounts, including claims of mass civilian deaths.
At least 243 people are reported to have died in the Gaza Strip during Israel’s military action, including a reported 65 children. These figures rely on claims by the Gaza Health Authority – an unreliable body under Hamas control. The IDF says many civilian deaths are the result of Hamas’ own rockets, 600 of which they say fell into Gaza instead of reaching their targets in Israel.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said that 200 of those killed were terrorists. Israel suffered 12 casualties, including two children, an Indian care assistant and two Thai workers. As bodies are pulled from the rubble of Hamas’ network of military tunnels destroyed by Israeli strikes, the number of dead may rise.
In previous engagements, Israel has pored over details of every death, researching and documenting any terrorist affiliations it finds for each of those killed. It argues that Hamas tries to portray militants killed as civilians, and has documented this phenomenon before.
But why should we trust official information from one side and not the other? Firstly, one side’s claims come from the armed forces of a democratic country, while the other’s come from a violent extremist organisation ready to sacrifice its own population. But more importantly, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have lied in the past, and even admitted it.
For example, Hamas claimed the violent marches it organised in 2018 towards the Gaza-Israel border were peaceful protests. But these were not hippy-led Extinction Rebellion sit-ins. Instead, this rebellion sought the extinction of Israelis; Hamas leader Yahyah Sinwar promised to 'tear out their hearts'. Indeed the ‘protests’ involved machine guns, Molotov cocktails, improvised explosive devices and grenades, so naturally drew Israeli defensive fire. Initially, Hamas spokesmen rushed to the international media to mourn the deaths of innocent civilians, but later a senior Hamas leader admitted that out of 62 Palestinians killed, 50 were Hamas members.
More blatantly, following the 2002 Battle of Jenin, the Palestinians lied massively about casualty numbers. The Israeli armed forces went into Jenin after a string of 22 terrorist attacks originating there had killed 61 Israelis. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat claimed 'not…less than 500' Palestinians had been 'massacred', a claim shared by others in the international media. Once the fog of war had cleared, Human Rights Watch concluded the true Palestinian death toll was actually 52, though not before claims emerged that Palestinians attempted to hold fake funerals. Around half of the dead were civilians.
Discussions of proportionality have become commonplace in the news, but often fall wide of the mark. Under international law relating to war, proportionality is not measured by parity of death counts on either side, but by how reasonable particular actions were in relation to their specific target and the wider collateral damage they might cause.
Civilian to combatant death ratios are notoriously hard to agree on for any military operation. Depending on who you ask, the numbers can vary wildly. Armies may make conservative estimates, while NGOs can over estimate in the other direction. But comparisons to similar military engagements elsewhere in the world suggest Israel’s record in this round of fighting and others is impressive. Nonetheless, any number of civilian casualties is, of course, emotive and sad.
Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, has long praised Israel’s military for its efforts to protect civilian lives. He has previously said of Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths was 'by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare'. He compared it to Afghanistan, where he said three quarters of those killed were civilians, and to Iraq and Kosovo where he said only one fifth of deaths were combatants. Chechnya and Serbia, he said, were possibly even worse. In Israel’s 2008 Gaza operation, the ratio was one to one.
Speaking to me about the 2021 operation, Kemp said Hamas and the Gaza Health Authority are 'very, very adept at faking and falsifying figures and trying to blacken Israel; the whole conflict is all about trying to blacken Israel,' he explains, 'it’s not about trying to defeat Israel militarily.'
Moral and legal assessments require a distinction between the deliberate killing of civilians and unintended civilian deaths caused by actions targeted at combatants. In Yasser Arafat’s time, Palestinian terrorists deliberately set out to kill Israeli civilians with suicide bombings. Though Israel has since eliminated that threat, Hamas and Islamic Jihad still prize civilian deaths above all else. Now they use rocket attacks to kill both Palestinian and Israeli civilians, knowing that either way Israel’s international standing suffers.
Early IDF claims suggest Hamas’ own rockets may have killed more Palestinians than they did Israelis. Even if we exclude the Palestinian civilians Hamas killed in the last eleven days, Hamas’ civilian to combatant death ratio shows a complete disregard for international law.
With high level intelligence about the Gaza Strip at their disposal and some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons and technologies for both attack and defence, Israel says it carried out only precision strikes on vetted targets, with real-time surveillance to ensure civilian casualties were minimised. It claims to have targeted Hamas’ rocket supplies, military research and development capabilities, miles of underground military tunnels and also Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s key personnel, whilst protecting civilian lives as much as possible.
Only time will tell whose claims are more reliable. As the dust starts to settle we will slowly learn what the true results of the last 11 days have been.