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Middle East

In Gaza, dispute over civilian vs combatant deaths

Palestinian boys look on as they inspect the rubble of a house after it was destroyed by an Israeli military strike in the Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, on August 9, 2014. AFP photo/Mahmud Hams

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 monthlong conflict than any final toll.

The U.N. 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 percent 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 U.N. 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 Center 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 U.N. 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.

Brig. Gen. 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 Thursday the military estimated that between 1,700 and 2,000 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 underreported.

In one set of 300 names classified as civilians "at least 50 percent 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-Qudra, the keeper of the statistics.

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

Al-Qudra 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-Qudra 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.

U.N. 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 U.N.'s overall number of 1,922 killed is slightly higher than that of the Gaza Health Ministry.

The U.N. said nearly 73 percent 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 U.N.'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 Center for Human Rights, which said 1,976 Palestinians were killed over the past month, almost 83 percent 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.

 

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Summary

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 monthlong conflict than any final toll.

The U.N. 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 percent of those killed in Gaza were fighters.

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

Adelstein did not provide Israel's definition of a Hamas member.

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


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