Wars kill people, many of them civilians. That much we know for sure. Counting the dead in any war zone can be quite difficult. But death toll estimates are rarely subjected to media scrutiny–which makes the exceptions notable.
The war in Syria, for instance, is confidently estimated to have killed over 170,000 people, a third of them civilians. There are rarely substantive debates over whether that count is accurate, or whether it overstates or understates the toll on innocents.
But the death tolls coming out of Gaza are a different matter altogether. The New York Times and Washington Post both published critiques of the figures from Gaza, strongly suggesting that the numbers should be treated skeptically, mostly because the Israeli government says so.
On August 4, the Post‘s Paul Farhi presented the problem as a journalistic issue, noting that if the question is who has died in the war, “the answers emerging in Gaza are colored by charges of propaganda and media manipulation.” He explains:
Supporters of Israel say the raw casualty numbers coming from Gaza are suspect, both in size and in composition. They assert that the sources –the Hamas-controlled health ministry, pro-Palestinian groups, nongovernmental organizations–are partisan and have an incentive to inflate and distort the figures to influence international media accounts, and hence poison world opinion about Israel.
And, on the other side, “Palestinian and non-state organizations counter that they are making a good-faith effort to account for the dead amid difficult circumstances.” Farhi adds that the most widely cited figure from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is 1,888 deaths, but that only tells part of the story: “But that estimate is fraught with an important sub-issue: How many of those killed are Hamas fighters, compared with civilians?”
The group says 84 percent of the deaths are civilians, but Israel does not agree.
An Israeli government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said about half of those killed have been Hamas combatants, and the number could rise once Israeli intelligence sources vet all of names of those killed. This higher figure is consistent, he said, with what Israeli officials found in after-action investigations into Israel’s two most recent operations in Gaza, in late 2012 and in 2008-2009.
So there is a raging dispute: The pro-Israel side suggests a massive effort to conceal the truth (not only by “Hamas-controlled” agencies and “pro-Palestinian groups,” but also by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations like the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem), but cannot explain how this is happening–unless you grant a government official anonymity to offer without explanation a remarkably different tally of the deaths, which the source says is consistent with its other investigations of itself. Both sides have their say.
In the New York Times (8/5/14), Jodi Rudoren offered a similarly muddled account that served primarily to bolster Israel efforts to deflect criticism of the war. Rudoren shows that there are several counts with slightly different findings, with estimates of the civilian toll ranging between 72 t0 84 percent of the total deaths.
Rudoren grants that Israel
has a very different assessment. The military says it took the lives of 900 “terrorists,” but it did not provide specifics beyond the 368 cases listed in 28 entries on its blog. Politicians have been saying that 47 percent of the dead were fighters, citing a study by an Israeli counterterrorism group that is impressive in its documentation, using photographs and Internet tributes, but analyzes only the first 152 casualties, when the assault was exclusively from the air.
So the Israeli account is that the numbers are very different. But this finding is based on some very limited counts, one of which Rudoren calls “impressive.” She also conveys the Israeli government’s point of view elsewhere, like when she notes that “it says that the ratio of combatants killed in a densely populated urban environment supports its assertion that it conducted the attacks as humanely as possible.”
Determining whether deaths are civilian or military is the heart of the matter. “No other number is as contentious as the ratio of civilians to combatants killed,” Rudoren explains. So what is the truth, then?
An analysis of the statistics provided by both sides suggests that a majority were probably noncombatants. Through last Thursday, according to a New York Times analysis of a list provided by the Health Ministry, more than a third were women, children under 15 or men over 60.
The Times does not dwell on this finding, or pursue it greater detail. Indeed, the paper immediately shifts the focus:
But the difference between roughly half the dead being combatants, in the Israeli version, or barely 10 percent, to use the most stark numbers on the other side, is wide enough to change the characterization of the conflict.
Rudoren then notes that some deaths were probably due to other factors:
Human rights groups acknowledge that people killed by Hamas as collaborators and people who died naturally, or perhaps through domestic violence, are most likely counted as well.
And then Rudoren observes that many of the dead would fall into the “population most likely to be militants”:
The Times analysis, looking at 1,431 names, shows that the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll: They are 9 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided. At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71 percent of the population and 33 percent of the known-age casualties.
The effect could not be clearer: Sure, it might sound like many of the dead were civilians, but here are some theories about how things might not be as they appear. It’s hard to make killing nearly 500 women and young children sound like a sign of benevolence, but the New York Times gives it its best shot.
Rudoren even wonders if there’s a way to accurately characterize Hamas deaths:
Then there is the question of who counts as a “combatant.”
There are uniformed men actively firing weapons. But Hamas also has political figures, members of its security service and employees of its ministries. In some eyes, anyone affiliated with the organization, which professes a goal of destroying Israel, is a combatant.
This claim is challenged by a Human Rights Watch researcher–and thus, like so much else, it is reduced to a conflict between sources.
But as NYU law professor Ryan Goodman (Just Security, 8/6/14) pointed out, there is relatively little debate among international law experts on this subject. He writes that the Times piece
analyzes the key legal issue without mentioning the existence of any international legal standard.
Indeed, a reader would not be faulted for concluding, after reading the story, that this is simply an amorphous area in which parties to a conflict and civil society groups might arrive at their own conclusions. Instead, the law of war is fairly well settled on this issue in many important respects.
Goodman notes that the widely recognized definition of legitimate targets under international law “excludes purely political leaders, religious figures, financial contributors and others without a fighting function.” Journalists should be glad that this is the case, because otherwise an op-ed columnist who “professes a goal” of eliminating Hamas would be considered fair game for a military attack.
These pieces are reminiscent of some of the problematic reporting about deaths in the Iraq War. Which might lead one to conclude that what makes a given death toll controversial is linked to who is doing the killing.