Civilian or Not? New Fight in Tallying the Dead From the Gaza Conflict

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GAZA CITY — Inside the Health Sciences Library at Al-Shifa Hospital here, a small team spent the war crunching numbers. Stuck to their laptops were a statistician, a graphic designer, a data-entry specialist and an issuer of death certificates, some of whom spent nights sleeping in their straight-backed chairs.

By Tuesday, this is what they had come up with: 1,865 “martyrs” from “Israeli aggression” since July 6: 429 under age 18, 79 over 60, 243 women. The Palestinian Ministry of Health does not categorize victims as civilian or combatant, but others do: The United Nations — which had a lower death toll, 1,814 — said that at least 72 percent were civilians, while two Gaza-based groups put the percentage at 82 (Al Mezan Center for Human Rights) and 84 (the Palestinian Center for Human Rights).

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.

Even as the war appears to draw to a close, the battle over casualty statistics rages on. No other number is as contentious as the ratio of civilians to combatants killed, widely viewed, including in Israel, as a measure of whether the commanders in the field acted proportionately to the threat posed by militants — or, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, committed war crimes.

“There are big problems in the numbers because there are such huge numbers,” said Samir Zaqout, who runs a team of 10 Al Mezan field workers who interview relatives, neighbors and doctors to compile dossiers on each attack. “We do our best in this horrible situation to be very clear.”

Palestinians and their supporters contend Israel massacred innocents with indiscriminate assaults with heavy weapons, citing numerous strikes that killed multiple family members in their homes and several that hit schools sheltering those who had sought refuge.

Israel, in turn, says that Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, purposely sacrifices its own citizens by fighting in their midst, in order to raise the world’s ire against Israel. 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.

To combat the heart-wrenching photographs of dead children, Israel has published extensive video images of warplanes aborting missions to avoid collateral damage, and provided summaries of warnings it gave residents before attacking buildings.

Accurate accounting for this bloody battle is problematic, especially since the fighting just stopped. Mr. Zaqout of Al Mezan expects that scores more bodies will be pulled from the rubble, many of them militants, in places like Shejaiya, Rafah and Beit Hanoun that saw the hottest combat.

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.

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.

It seems unlikely that there will ever be a definitive breakdown both sides accept: Israel contends that some of the casualties were caused by errant Hamas rockets or mortars. 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.

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.

“Israel has a very liberal definition of who qualifies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. “Israel’s labeling of certain individuals as ‘terrorists’ does not make them military targets as a matter of law.”

But the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the Israeli group that analyzed the first Palestinian deaths, accused the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry of “concealment and deception” in order “to create an ostensibly factual infrastructure for a political, propaganda and legal campaign against Israel.”

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 portion that were female rose steadily over that period, to 27 percent July 26-31. There were six infants under age 1 on the list, and 82 children ages 1 to 5. The oldest victim, Muhammad Mazin Faraj Daher, was 99.

Some have not yet been identified, and may never be. “Some of the bodies are just in pieces,” said Julie Webb, 61, a New Zealander who has lived in Gaza for three years and assists the Health Ministry. Others, like Syrian refugees, have not been verified because they are not in the Palestinian population registry.

Though her team in the hospital library is not involved in counting combatants, Ms. Webb doubts that many have been missed. “The resistance factions claim their dead, and they have big funerals,” she said. “They would never hide it, because it’s a thing of pride.”

News reports generally rely on the United Nations’ estimate of civilians killed. Matthias Behnke, a United Nations official, said those numbers came from cross-referencing research by several human rights groups, though he declined to say how many, which ones or what methods they used.

“Getting information about people who are dead is not that complicated because everybody knows everybody” in Gaza, Mr. Behnke said. “Organizations go out and collect information independent of each other. That is quite a good basis for doing the analysis.

“We are by no means saying these figures are absolute and final,” he added. “They will be subject to verification.”

At Al Mezan’s office here, Mr. Zaqout and his aides were using highlighters to update handwritten logs on Tuesday evening and issuing small corrections to earlier news releases. He said he did not rely on the Health Ministry data, though it had improved since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, when telephone, cellular and wireless Internet networks were cut off.

Instead, his 10 field workers collect names directly from Gaza’s 13 hospitals (four have been closed because of bombing) and five morgues, and go to the site of virtually every strike to conduct interviews and fill out detailed questionnaires in support of war-crimes accusations. Surviving children might deny that their father was a fighter, but a medical worker might say he arrived at the emergency room with a weapon in hand.

“Each incident that we have which the Israelis targeted for airstrike, always we have this kind of thinking that maybe there is a fighter,” Mr. Zaqout said. “When we’re talking about the fighters who are fighting on the border or the tunnels, we couldn’t know, because their bodies are not coming to the hospital. I think these numbers will increase in the next days.

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