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The death toll from the recently-halted hostilities in the Gaza Strip has been lopsided against Palestinians, who have seen approximately 2,100 dead. But a controversy is swirling around just how many were combatants (or what Israelis call “terrorist operatives”) and how many were civilians.
In the Middle East and around the world, varying reports that declare just how many civilians have been killed in Gaza are causing a public relations battle of their own. Which set of numbers is accepted as truth will continue to influence public opinion about the war’s cost in human lives, how it was fought and, generally, whether it was worth it.
The office of the United Nations (U.N.) that has been reporting on such things, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said most recently that a total 2,104 people were killed in the Gaza Strip. Of these, it says 1,462 were civilians, including 495 children and 253 women. So, according the the U.N., the percentage of Gaza civilians killed was 69. On the other hand, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed “approximately 1,000 terrorists.” Using this number, the calculated proportion of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip is significantly lower, or 52 percent.
IDF troops are bound by a moral code, “The Spirit of the IDF.” Among the 11 points in the directive is one that reads “Military action can be taken only against military targets.” While the IDF prides itself on being “the most moral army in the world,” Palestinians have nevertheless charged that attacks by Israel’s military were often indiscriminate or consciously directed at civilian targets. Israel has disputed numbers emanating from Gaza since the beginning of latest round of fighting, saying that such numbers cannot be trusted because they are based on data from groups inside Gaza, such as the Hamas Ministry of Health.
An official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed confidence in his group’s data-gathering process. He said that a number of sources are utilized in calculating U.N. numbers, including on-the-ground verification. The IDF says that “the [Hamas] terrorist group routinely exaggerates civilian deaths for propaganda purposes.” Nevertheless, neither Netanyahu or the IDF have published a verifiable tally of their own.
The end of fighting in the Gaza Strip happened only this week and it will likely be months before all sides release their final tallies. An assessment by Global Shelter Cluster, which is co-chaired by the International Federation of the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency, estimates that reconstruction of Gaza’s battered housing will take 20 years. At least one Palestinian official has estimated a cost over $6 billion.
A recent poll says that, at this moment so close to end of hostilities in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli public feels the conflict with Hamas to be a draw and that approval of Netanyahu has declined significantly. At 50 percent on Aug. 27 (with a margin of error of 4.6 percent), the prime minister’s approval rating was at 77 percent during the peak of Israel’s ground operations in Gaza on Aug. 5. Pollsters warn that, with the trauma of battle so fresh in the public’s mind, that public opinion is currently quite volatile. Similarly, the popularity of American president George W. Bush skyrocketed to a high of 90 percent after the 9/11 terrorist attack, only to see a low in later years of 25 percent.
Because of its continued refusal to disavow violence, Hamas has been classified as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union, Canada and Japan. The preamble to Hamas’ charter formalizes its pledge to destroy Israel: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Regardless of any disagreement around the civilian death toll, more than 25 percent of people in the Gaza Strip were displaced during the seven weeks of fighting.
By Gregory Baskin
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