Gaza Strip Hamas Israel Palestinians

Arguing with B’Tselem about body counts misses the point

B’Tselem, the Israeli human riights group, has released a report on civilian casualties during “”Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s military venture in the Gaza Strip. Predictably, the Israeli military and various NGOs have different body counts, according to Yediot Achronot. Pay attention to the numbers here, because they lead to a larger point:

A new report [on “Operation Cast Lead”] published Wednesday by rights group B’Tselem reveals that the IDF killed 1,387 Palestinians, 773 of whom were non-combatants. On the other hand, a report published by the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center shows that at least 1,000 of the Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip were Hamas combatants or were suspected of being combatants, and were therefore marked as targets by the IDF.

According to the B’Tselem data, 773 of those killed did not take part in the hostilities, 320 of whom were minors under the age of 18 and 109 were women (above the age of 18). The rest of those killed were 330 armed combatants, 245 Palestinian policemen – most of whom were killed in aerial bombings of the police station – and 38 others whose participation in the hostilities could not be determined.

These figures stray from the official figures published by the IDF in March that rely on data collected by the Military Intelligence Directorate. According to the IDF’s numbers, 1,166 Palestinians were killed during fighting, only 295 – about a quarter – of whom were unarmed civilians. The IDF report showed that 709 of those killed were involved in hostilities, more than double the figure provided by B’Tselem. The IDF reported that the participation in the hostilities of another 162 men and young boys could not be determined.

This topic has begun to show up on the blogosphere, where people are arguing over the numbers, attacking or defending B’Tselem’s research techniques. This is an important matter, because B’Tselem is an important organization. Its reports are widely quoted in the Israeli and international media. The truth, as always, is probably somwhere in between the lowest and highest casualty figures. B’Tselem’s explanation, forwarded in an email by their Washington rep Mitchell Plitnick, shows they did what could be done to verify their numbers under difficult circumstances:

B’Tselem did everything within its capability to verify the data. Its field researchers in the Gaza Strip collected testimonies from eye-witnesses and spoke with relatives of the dead. The organization cross-checked the information with investigations carried out by Palestinian and international human rights organizations and with information on various websites and blogs, including those of the military wings of armed Palestinian groups and of the Palestinian police. B’Tselem also cross-checked its information with announcements made by the IDF Spokesperson, with media reports of army investigations, and with information included in the report issued by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the operation. As part of its investigation, B’Tselem requested the army’s list of fatalities in order to cross-check the names with its own list, but the army refused to provide it.

That said, getting caught up in this numbers game distracts from a far more important point: hundreds of innocent Palestinians, including many children, were killed in an all-out Israeli military assault. Nine Israelis were killed during the hostilities, and three of them were civilians.

To the families and friends of these victims, it doesn’t matter if there were 700 or 300 or 100 civilian casualties. One civilian death is too many. Israel launched an attack on densely populated territory that was, in my view, a disproportionate response to Hamas rocket fire. An obsession with accurately tabulating body counts should not obscure that tragic truth.

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