In Gaza, dispute over civilian vs combatant

2014-08-09 14:30
A man stands between wounded Palestinians outside a UN-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Hatem Ali, AP)

A man stands between wounded Palestinians outside a UN-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Hatem Ali, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Gaza City - In the grisly math of the Israel-Hamas war, conflicting counts of combatants and civilians killed in Gaza are emerging - with the ratio perhaps more important to shaping international opinion of the month long conflict than any final toll.

The UN and rights groups operating in Gaza say about three-quarters of the around 1 900 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 450 children, with many perishing in strikes that killed several family members at a time.

Israel estimates that between 40-50% of those killed in Gaza were fighters.

While the overall count is not in great dispute, those doing tallies use different methods and standards to make that all important determination of who is a civilian.

The UN and human rights groups rely on witness accounts and community contacts of field researchers to distinguish civilians from combatants.

Mahmoud AbuRahma of the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights said his researchers require at least two sources and count on their local ties to determine if someone was a combatant or civilian.

For its part, Israel has said it uses its own intelligence reports to determine who among the dead belonged to Hamas or other militant groups.

The ratio of civilians to combatants could be used by either side to promote their narrative of what took place in the conflict.

Israel faces growing international criticism over the large number of civilians killed in Gaza, with President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon both saying Israel could do much more to prevent harm to noncombatants.

Ban said this week that "the massive deaths and destruction in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world".

However, a high ratio of civilian deaths does not necessarily point to a violation of the rules of war, said Sarah Knuckey, an international human rights lawyer at Columbia Law School in New York.

It might raise legal concerns, but "does not itself answer whether any party ... violated the rule against disproportionate attacks," she said. In judging if disproportionate force was used, each incident has to be investigated separately, she said.

In explaining the civilian casualties, Israel has accused Gaza fighters of launching attacks from crowded residential areas.

Brigadier General Mickey Adelstein, a senior Israeli army commander, said forces under his command "avoided attacking many, many targets" because civilians were present and that "Hamas took advantage of that issue".

Adelstein said on Thursday the military estimated that between 1 700 and 2000 Palestinians had been killed, but that Israel didn't have the names of all the dead yet.

He said the number of dead militants was being under-reported.

In one set of 300 names classified as civilians "at least 50% were ... members of the Hamas terrorist movement," he said, declining to give further details on exactly who made that classification.

Adelstein did not provide Israel's definition of a Hamas member. The movement has both a political and a military wing, along with thousands of civil servants who worked in the outgoing Hamas government in Gaza.

The initial source of information about deaths in the war has been the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The ministry has become more efficient in collecting data over the years, learning from two previous rounds of fighting in 2008-2009 and in 2012, said Ashraf al-Kidra, the keeper of the statistics.

Overall, there has been little discrepancy between al-Kidra's count and that of the human rights groups, which say they check his figures against their own research.

Al-Kidra sits in an office at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital and receives casualty reports from hospitals and emergency services. Throughout the day, he frequently updates the figures on the ministry website and takes calls from reporters.

On Friday, his overall toll since July 8 stood at 1 902 dead, including at least 450 children and 243 women. 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.

UN researchers start out with figures from the ministry, the media and other sources, but then cross-check them with the help of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups.

The UN's overall number of 1 922 killed is slightly higher than that of the Gaza Health Ministry.

The UN said nearly 73% of the total, or 1 407, were civilians, defined as those who didn't take part in hostilities and were not members of armed groups.

According to Matthias Behnke, head of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the Palestinian territories, the classification of civilians and combatants is based, in part, on witness accounts and field researchers' knowledge of their local communities.

"Gaza people do know each other and there is a good network of identifying people," he said. Figures are preliminary and a more thorough investigation would follow after the war, he added.

The highest toll has been provided by the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which said 1 976 Palestinians were killed over the past month, almost 83% of them civilians.

The group's higher count of civilians is due, in part, to a broader definition. The PCHR says anyone who is not effectively participating in a military operation is a civilian, including a Hamas fighter who is killed at home while taking a break.

The Israeli group B'Tselem has adopted the most conservative approach, saying it is only putting women, children and men over 60 - or a total of 615 people out of the 1 510 dead it as counted so far - in the civilian category for now.

B'Tselem's overall count is still incomplete, but Noa Tal, in charge of data, said she expects it to be roughly on par with that of the other groups once all the information has been collected.

In the end, Gaza militants may be the ones providing clarity.

After previous rounds of fighting, Hamas and other groups listed the names of the dead and arranged ceremonies for those killed in battle.

In this war, four smaller groups, including Islamic Jihad, announced a total of 43 deaths, presumably a partial count. Hamas, for now, remains silent.

Read more on:    hamas  |  palestine  |  israel  |  gaza

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.