Sunday, July 20, 2014

How many civilians are dying in Gaza?

This is a difficult subject, so these are points that I want to raise very carefully and tentatively. But I think they're worth considering.

Almost all reports on the fighting in Gaza over the past week and a half claim that the vast majority of people killed in Gaza have been civilians. This is a typical headline: "Israel-Gaza conflict: 80 per cent of Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes are civilians, UN report says". We should begin by recognizing that there are certainly civilians dying in Gaza, including women and children, and that's a terrible thing. But have the overwhelming majority of victims so far been civilians? I don't know, and it's hypothetically possible. But there are good reasons to be skeptical, at least, about the validity of those figures.

Many news reports attribute these estimates about the proportion of civilian deaths to UN agencies. But in fact, as a closer reading of the news articles usually makes clear, the figures all come from the Gaza health ministry—which is of course under the control of the Hamas government in Gaza. The UN agencies basically pass on the figures they receive without really trying to second-guess them. (For one explanation of how that works, see here.) This conflict is, among other things, a propaganda war. As part of this propaganda war, Hamas has an obvious and demonstrated interest in trying to inflate the civilian death toll as much as possible. And in propaganda wars, it is never a good ideal to accept propaganda claims uncritically or just take them at face value.

We do have another public source of information to analyze. Over the past week Al Jazeera has been listing by name all the people killed in Gaza during the fighting: "Gaza under siege: naming the dead". It's a worthwhile initiative. Their list is regularly updated, and unfortunately it keeps getting longer.

I first saw this Al Jazeera list on Tuesday (July 15). At that time several people, including me, noticed some curious features of this list. The points I'm about to make are mostly based on calculations I did on Tuesday, but a quick glance at today's list suggests that they still apply, perhaps with small variations. Bear in mind that the information on the list comes from the Gaza health ministry.

First, the casualties were overwhelmingly male—over 80%. We can presume that the population of Gaza is at least 50% female, so the disproportionate number of male casualties is striking. (Of course, I did not rely exclusively on my own ability to distinguish male from female Arabic names. For a while, Al Jazeera was explicitly indicating which victims were female, and that was true on Tuesday, though I notice they've stopped doing that.)

Second, among the male casualties whose ages were listed (some weren't), a majority were men between 18 and 40—that is, men who might plausibly have been playing active military or organizational roles in Hamas or in other jihadist groups involved in the fighting. A more recent calculation reported today (July 20) suggests that about half of the male casualties were young men between 18 and 30, and a full two-thirds were between 18 and 38. (See below; I haven't checked those calculations myself, but at first glance they look plausible. Updated calculations from the same source for July 23 are here, and calculations for July 25 are here.) By themselves, of course, those percentages don't tell us how many of those male casualties were actually combatants rather than civilians. We don't know. But it's striking that such a high proportion of the casualties were potential combatants.

Third, it is a well known demographic fact that Gaza's population is, on average, exceptionally young. According to the 2007 census of Gaza reported by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), over 50% of Gaza's inhabitants were 14 years of age or younger, and another 10% were between 15 and 19. Yet less than 20% of the casualties listed on the Al Jazeera list have been younger than 18. There is no question that those add up to too many dead children and young teenagers. But those figures are not at all proportionate to the age distribution of Gaza's population.

=> To repeat, none of these figures can establish, by themselves, how many of the people being killed in Gaza are civilians rather than combatants. But those percentages are compatible, at least, with the possibility that most of the casualties are actually combatants. And they are not compatible with the possibility that Israeli forces are just indiscriminately killing civilians in Gaza.

Some people have, indeed, claimed that Israel is deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians in Gaza. We can ignore those claims, since they're obviously bullshit. But is Israel waging this war in ways take insufficient care to avoid unintentionally killing or harming civilians—perhaps even recklessly and reprehensibly exposing civilians to possible harm? That's a separate question, and a reasonable question.  Also a complicated question, to which the answer is far from self-evident.

In considering that question, however, it's important not to uncritically swallow every claim that the casualties in Gaza are overwhelmingly civilians. A good deal of current discussion about this Israel-Gaza war is based on the assumption that those claims are correct, but I think it's clear that there are good reasons to take them with a grain of salt. We also know that in previous clashes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the earliest reports about civilian casualties have turned out to be misleading. Early claims about atrocities and war crimes committed by Israeli forces in these clashes have also turned out to be exaggerated. (Which is not to say that the Israeli military never commits war crimes or other atrocities—all armies do that, sometimes, though some armies try harder than others do avoid them.) So we shouldn't jump to conclusions.

To avoid any possible misunderstandings or distractions, let me emphasize once again what I am not trying to say here. Even if it does turn out that the Palestinian casualties in the current Gaza fighting have been mostly combatants (and at the moment that's just a plausible possibility, not a confirmed fact), by itself that would not necessarily exonerate the Israeli military for everything it is now doing in Gaza. Nor am I suggesting that killing civilians accidentally doesn't matter, or that small numbers of dead women and children are OK, or that civilians in Gaza are not suffering. Nor do the issues I've been addressing here settle all the larger questions about Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, over the past two months or over the past several decades. Nor do war crimes committed by Hamas (which are unquestionable) give Israel permission to commit war crimes  (and vice-versa).  I could go on, but life is too short to pre-emptively avoid all misunderstandings and deliberate misreadings when subjects like these are concerned  ...

All I am asking is that, in moments of high passion like this one, we should try to avoid immediately and uncritically equating propaganda claims (from all sides) with confirmed facts.

 (And if anyone comes up with good arguments to show that the analyses presented here are fallacious, or are discredited by other reliable evidence ... I will stand corrected.)

—Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. Now that some people have begun to notice the implications of the casualty lists reported by the Gaza health ministry, we may start to see those reports skewing more heavily toward deaths of women and children. (Of course, it's also possible that new phases of the fighting, with more Israeli tanks and infantry operating in densely populated urban areas in Gaza, may actually start producing a higher proportion of civilian casualties than before.)]

Aussie Dave (Israellycool)
July 20, 2014
Analysis Of Gazans Killed So Far In Operation Protective Edge

Some of the claims I am seeing online include how the vast majority of Gazans killed are civilians, and how Israel is deliberately targeting them.

Regarding the latter, we all know this is nonsense – if Israel wanted to kill civilians it would carpet bomb Gaza. It is precisely because we want to avoid civilian casualties, that we opt for pinpoint strikes and ground operations, at risk to our soldiers’ lives.

But what about the first claim? Are the vast majority civilians?

Without having all of the terrorist obituaries or intel to prove who was a terrorist, this is hard to analyze. But what we do have is a list of the names and ages of those killed so far, which does provide us with some insights.

An anonymous Israellycool reader and her family spent countless hours going over this list from Al Jazeera – a media outlet that can’t be accused of slanting things Israel’s way. Their main findings regarding the casualties to date are as follows:

As you can see, over 80% of Gazans killed so far have been male, with almost half of these males being in the 18-28 age group. One can imagine many of these being “combatants.” A further 20% of these males are between 29 and 48, an age group one could envisage may also contain many Hamas members.

In other words, these figures bring into question how many of those killed were really innocent civilians.

What these figures also indicate is if Israel was indiscriminately killing Gazans, the representation in terms of gender and age would be broader (with relatively more children killed than the approx 18%, considering nearly 50% of Gazans are under the age of 14).

Update: Even way back in 2008, Israellycool linked to Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal who noticed Palestinian sources have always reported far too many male casualties to back up the claim of indiscriminate killing by the IDF, let alone the crazy charge of deliberately targeting civilians.