One of the most often cited criticisms of Israeli military operations is the supposedly disproportionate civilian death toll, which is all too often based on unreliable or heavily biased sources. Moreover, it is often claimed that the majority of those killed on the Palestinian side are civilians, which is usually said to be based on UN figures.
For instance, an SBS report published yesterday stated:
More than 430 Palestinians have been reported killed overall, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations.
However, the ABC's Matt Brown ...correctly pointed out, the UN has no independent capability to identify whether someone who has been killed was civilian or a member of Hamas or another terror group - especially as members of Gaza terror groups rarely wear uniforms. So they rely mainly on the testimony of the health authorities in Gaza - who are controlled by Hamas. As Raphael Ahren of the Times of Israel explained on July 16:
"For Operation Protective Edge, the only data published so far comes from the health ministry in Gaza. This ministry is run by Hamas, therefore rendering the number of casualties and injuries it reports more than unreliable, said Maj. Arye Shalicar of the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's unit.
'Hamas has no shame about lying. We know they're a terrorist organization that makes cynical use of casualty numbers for propaganda purposes. You can't trust a single number they publish.'
"And yet, the figures from the Gazan ministry are routinely adopted, unquestioned, by the United Nations. 'According to preliminary information, over 77 per cent of the fatalities since 7 July have been civilians, raising concerns about respect for international humanitarian law,' states a situation report published Tuesday by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Once given the stamp of approval of such an important body, these numbers are quoted everywhere else."
These claims are repeated by uncritical journalists on many mainstream news outlets and on social media, where Hamas supporters have been caught frequently posting pictures of injured women and children, often taken during the Syrian civil war or other conflicts and falsely depicted as Gazan victims to elicit sympathy among a public that does not have the tools to verify their authenticity. And Hamas has a very clear policy about who should be identified as a civilian on social media - absolutely anybody killed is to be identified as a civilian. Here is what social media guidelines issued to Gazans by the Hamas Interior Ministry, and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), have to say on the subject:
"Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank. Don't forget to always add 'innocent civilian' or 'innocent citizen' in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza."
There have also been concrete cases uncovered where unequivocal combatants have been identified as civilians. To take one example, the Elder of Ziyon blog recently exposed the case of Yousef Qandil and his son, Anas. They died in an IDF air strike in the Gaza Strip, and were described by the Palestinian news agency Ma'an as a high school student and a tailor - innocent civilians. However, according to Islamic Jihad, Yousef was a leader in its Al-Quds Brigades, and his son was a Mujahid ("holy warrior"). That also explains why Anas was not sent away from the area, to his grandparents' house, like his younger siblings and mother.
Several detailed analyses of the actual casualty figures confirm that, from the demographics alone, it is clear that Israel is definitely not indicriminately targeting Gazans - despite the rhetoric one often hears about the Palestinian casualties.
Analysis based on the names and details of Palestinian fatalities published by Al-Jazeera on 14 July, at the end of the first week of operation Protective Edge, suggests that most of those killed were combatant age males. The data was reviewed by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and compared with demographic data about the Gaza Strip's population, which consists of 50% male, 50% female and a median age of 15, meaning almost 50% of the population consists of children under 15.
CAMERA's data is based on the details of 150 men (excluding 19 whose age was not listed, although one of them was listed as a member of Islamic Jihad, and three whose age was over 65- total casualties analysed: 128 men) and 20 women who had been reported to be killed during the operation up until July 14.
CAMERA's analysis shows that young males between the age of 16 and 39 make up a disproportionate percentage of casualties (83 out of 128) , which corresponds with the characteristics of combatants. Male over the age of 40 are also over represented (28 out of 150) compared with their proportion in the broader population - some of these fatalities are likely to be senior members of terrorist organisations. These figures suggest that fatalities were not a result of indiscriminate targeting.
Only 12% of Palestinian fatalities were women, even though they represent 50% of the population. Males under the age of 15 years old, make up only 13% of Palestinian fatalities (20 in total), although they represent 50% of males in the Gaza Strip. CAMERA concluded that:
"media coverage often parrots the line fed by Gazan authorities that ‘most casualties are civilians' despite the well-established propensity of Gazan authorities to exaggerate the proportion of civilian casualties."
Considering that most fatalities are men, and most male fatalities are young adults, it is clear that the killing was far from indiscriminate. Had it truly been indiscriminate the representation of women, children and elderly in the al-Jazeera list would have been much higher, and closer to their actual proportion in the population. It is also likely that a substantial portion of those killed, possibly a majority, are actually combatants.
It is also important to note that even these numbers are based solely on al-Jazeera reports and exclusively Palestinian sources - not Israeli ones.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre (ITIC) also checked the profiles of reported fatalities and their initial analysis confirmed that about 50% of them are clearly identified as terrorists or were directly affiliated with terrorist groups. This is a very conservative evaluation, and even these numbers completely contradict the allegations regarding indiscriminate targeting.
Moreover, the current claims about the majority of Palestinian casualties being civilians hark back to identical claims made during the 2008-2009 and 2012 Gaza conflicts. There is considerable evidence that in both those cases, it turned out that such claims were wrong. Here and here are articles published by AIJAC which seem to establish that, of the casualties during the 2008-09 "Cast Lead" conflict, probably no more than one third of those killed were civilians - but this was not clear until after the war ended.
Of course, it is undoubtedly true that Palestinian civilians, including children, have been killed in the Gaza war. That is a genuine and profound tragedy - though by starting this conflict, failing to protect its population with shelters and urging them to ignore Israeli warnings about attacks, and then refusing repeated ceasefire offers, Hamas bears primary moral responsibility for that tragedy. But both reporters and informed readers should know that there there are currently no reliable figures as to how many these casualties actually are - and that the figures being put out by Hamas health authorities, as repeated by the UN and then Western media, almost certainly exaggerate the numbers of civilians involved.