Operation Protective Edge: Casualties and the Media

On July 8th, 2014, Israel launched an assault on the Gaza Strip in response to sustained rocket fire from Hamas into Israel. Dubbed Operation Protective Edge, it was to last until the 26th of August. As the Operation was merely the latest such incursion in a series of Gazan conflicts going back to the mid-2000s, there was little which was notable but for the massive disparity of casualties between the two sides, with the Palestinian population of Gaza suffering many times more casualties than their Israeli opponents. While the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is a premier fighting organization which has consistently acquitted itself well on the battlefield, the discrepancy between casualty numbers was great enough to capture worldwide attention. In order to capitalize on this attention, Hamas employed a standard formula by insisting that the majority (or even vast majority) of Gazan casualties were civilian non-combatants, a claim that was echoed uncritically by the United Nations, some Non-Governmental Organizations, and many media outlets. For its part, the IDF claimed that it had waged an extremely careful campaign with the express purpose of limiting civilian casualties while destroying Hamas infrastructure and hampering the organization’s ability to operate effectively. This essay examines some of the reasons behind the casualty imbalance, as well as looking at the post-conflict casualty figures to assess the truth of the Operation’s civilian deaths. It also examines the tactics used by both sides in order to exert influence over Gaza’s civilian population, and the manner in which the Operation was reported by Western media.

A War of Numbers

By the time that Israel and Hamas finally reached a truce, an estimated 2,100 Gazans had been killed, as compared to only seventy-two Israelis: sixty-six soldiers, five civilians, and one Thai expat.[1] The reasons for the contrast between the gross numbers of deaths are three-fold: Israeli technology, Israeli protective infrastructure, and the fact that the war was fought in densely populated Gaza rather than in Israel itself.

Deploying the Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel was able to shoot down a very high percentage of the incoming rockets fired from Gaza (rockets being Hamas’s primary offensive weapon in the conflict). With few rockets actually striking their planned targets, the risk to Israelis was significantly reduced. Furthermore, as rocket fire had for some time been a constant feature of life throughout much of the country, a system of early warning sirens and bomb shelters had been developed to shield civilians from attack. While those living close to the Israel-Gaza border had only a few seconds to reach shelter, the system was still very effective. Finally, as the balance of military might lay squarely with Israel, it was Israel that was able to project force into Gaza, rather than Hamas projecting force into Israel. In contrast, Hamas had no anti-aircraft capability and no protective infrastructure to which civilians were allowed to flee. Although a vast tunnel network stretched throughout Gaza, the tunnels were intended for the launching of attacks into Israel, rather than as bomb shelters.[2] This overall situation inherently put Gazan residents at risk.

However, gross casualty numbers are only one part of the problem. More pertinent was the ratio of combatant to civilian casualties. In this, Hamas was adamant that over 80% of Gazan deaths were innocent civilians, and they went to great lengths to ensure that this narrative was maintained.[3] Media interviews were held at hospitals to provide cameras easy access to dead and wounded civilians,[4] while Hamas also did its best to ensure that its military activities were kept out of the spotlight. Reporters were intimidated, were not allowed to film Hamas rocket attacks, and were carefully managed in order to control their access throughout Gaza.[5] With few exceptions, the impression given was that the IDF was waging war solely on civilians, as Hamas’s fighters were virtually absent from news coverage.

Gross casualty numbers inevitably placed Israel in a bad light and left it open to the charge of disproportionality. Under international law, civilian casualties are acceptable provided that the civilians are not directly targeted, and that the strategic value of the actual target being sought out for destruction is of great enough military significance to justify the loss of innocent life.[6] If a great many of those Gazans being killed were indeed civilians as Hamas claimed, then this would strongly suggest that the principle of proportionality was not being followed. To mitigate the poor optics, IDF media relations regularly emphasized the carefully targeted nature of their strikes, denying that civilians had ever been directly targeted.[7] While being labeled as war criminals by Hamas for their alleged disproportionality, the IDF countered that Hamas rockets were fired directly at civilian centers, deliberately targeting non-combatants.[8] Aside from this argument, the Israeli government does not seem to have produced its own civilian casualty figures, though it did publicize the total number of combatants that it had killed. Instead the IDF emphasized the number of tunnels it had destroyed, the number of rockets that had been fired into Israel, and particularly the number of successful Iron Dome intercepts that the system had made.[9]

Demography and Death

Throughout the fighting, a parallel war of numbers was being waged between Hamas and the IDF over the ratio of civilian to combatant casualties. The official Hamas line was that the majority of those killed were innocent civilians. For their part, the IDF maintained that strikes against enemy targets were carefully planned, resulting (so they claimed) in a much lower proportion of civilian deaths than that which Hamas authorities were stating. Interestingly, the casualty figures coming from the Gaza Health Ministry and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (both controlled by Hamas) were taken up by the United Nations[10] and thus given an air of legitimacy which, given Hamas’s casualty numbers in previous conflicts, they probably did not deserve.[11] These same numbers were then repeated (mostly) uncritically by Western media outlets and NGOs. As former Associated Press journalist Matti Friedman points out, many journalists in Israel move effortlessly from working in media, to NGO reporting and promotion, and to staff positions within the U.N. The nature of this work, he argues, creates a closed community with quite evident anti-Israel biases, perhaps helping to explain this uncritical approach to Hamas’s statements.[12] [13]

From the beginning of the conflict, Hamas began a running tally of the names and ages of those killed by the IDF. This list, which grew daily, was provided to the Qatar-based news agency al Jazeera.[14] While initially quite a striking document, by using the age and gender of the casualties, the list can be compared to Gaza’s demographic make-up. When this is done, a number of anomalies become evident which cast serious doubts upon Hamas’s veracity on the subject of civilian casualties. The data also suggests that the IDF’s claim to have waged a carefully targeted campaign is not without foundation.

Data from the PCHR shows a large spike in deaths for males aged 17-30, and a larger spike in males aged 21-27. This is the age-range most likely to constitute a fighting force. It is notable then that males in the 17-30 age range, while only 10% of Gaza’s population, account for 44% of casualties during the Operation. Furthermore, by expanding the age range to 17-39, 57% of all casualties can be accounted for (in a cohort that makes up less than 17% of Gaza’s population). Conversely, adult females account for only 10% of fatalities while the overall population of Gaza is 25% adult female. Likewise, only 20% of listed casualties are children under 17, although they comprise more than 50% of the population.[15]

While the U.N. and NGOs seem to have maintained Hamas’s interpretation of civilian deaths,[16] some media outlets appear to have backtracked during the conflict. Anthony Reuben, the Head of Statistics at BBC News, published a cautionary note that information coming out of Gaza should be treated as highly suspect:[17] an interesting development after BBC’s notably biased coverage of the fighting.[18] Also, CNN granted a five-minute interview to Matti Friedman where he roundly condemned the disproportionate media focus on Israel and explained his views on the media’s anti-Israel bias.[19]

Tools of the Trade

Both Hamas and the IDF employed various means to influence the casualty data in their favour, while at the same time attempting to influence public opinion. For the IDF, it was critical to ensure that they were seen to be limiting civilian suffering. This accounts for the huge emphasis placed on the Iron Dome system which was repeatedly touted as a saving-grace for the Israelis (and not without reason).[20] Other strategies were employed which included the release of aircraft radio chatter calling-off airstrikes because of the presence of civilians, telephone transcripts of calls made to civilian phone numbers asking civilians to evacuate, and many videos of the IAF’s ‘roof-knocking’ procedure, where a low-ordinance bomblet would be dropped on a targeted building to warn civilians that a strike was imminent.[21] While these actions are dismissed by some, it would seem that regular attempts were indeed made to limit civilian casualties.[22]

On the other side, Hamas was reported to have made regular use of ‘human shields’ by placing civilians near to probable military targets. For example, rockets were placed in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools on at least three occasions.[23] The claims that Hamas regularly co-located civilian and military targets is well-documented, with rockets being fired from hotel parking lots,[24] and active fighters occupying hospitals and residential neighbourhoods.[25] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made much of Hamas’s ‘human shields’ in speeches throughout the Operation, casting Hamas as a monstrous organization and thus trying to deflect much of the blame for the many actual civilian casualties that inevitably occurred.[26]

Conclusion

The great imbalance between Gazan and Israeli casualties during Operation Protective Edge is attributable both to the nature of urban warfare and to the significant steps Israel has taken to protect its civilians from attack. Moreover, the relative superiority of the IDF over Hamas clearly led, not only to a highly successful air campaign to which Hamas had no answer, but also to a decisive ground campaign in which the IDF seems to have delivered a tactical, if not strategic, defeat to Hamas. While the overall casualty imbalance is not in dispute, it is highly improbable that Israel waged an indiscriminate campaign against Gazan civilians, as the available casualty data simply does not support such a conclusion. There is also little doubt that Hamas employed civilians both to shield itself from attack and to deliberately increase civilian casualties. Although many innocent civilians were undoubtedly killed, it is perhaps telling that the Israeli government has opened up several investigations of IDF personnel who may have caused unneeded civilian deaths.[27] It is also true that both sides worked strenuously to cast themselves in the most favourable light possible while deliberately demonizing their opponent, sometimes with justification. Finally, it would appear that media coverage of the fighting was often suspect, having been tainted by ideological biases or merely left incomplete due to the restrictions placed on journalists who were unable to report all that they witnessed in Gaza.

Bibliography

[1] “Gaza Crisis:Toll of operations in Gaza,” BBC News, 1 September 2014, http://www.bbc.com.

[2] Felice Friedson, “Israel shocked by scope of Hamas tunnels in Gaza, but locating them still a challenge,” National Post, 8 August 2014, http://www.nationalpost.com.

[3] Jodi Rudoren, “Civilian or Not? New Fight in Tallying the Dead From the Gaza Conflict,” New York Times, 5 August 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.

[4] Richard Behar, “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About New York Times in Israel-Hamas War,” Forbes, 21 August 2014, http://www.forbes.com.

[5] Sreenivasan Jain, “NDTV Exclusive: How Hamas Assembles and Fires Rockets,” New Delhi Television Ltd, 5 August 2014, http://www.ndtv.com.

[6] “Proportionality in Attack,” International Committee of the Red Cross, http://www.icrc.org.

[7] “How is the IDF Minimizing Harm to Civilians in Gaza?,” Israel Defense Forces, 16 July 2014, http://www.idfblog.com.

[8] “Hamas Launches Rockets on Civilians in Gaza,” Israel Defense Forces, 31 July 2014, http://www.idfblog.com.

[9] “Operation Protective Edge by the Numbers,” Israel Defense Forces, 5 August 2014, http://www.idfblog.com.

[10] Evelyn Gordon, “Exposing the UN’s Unreliable Data on Gaza Casualties,” Commentary Magazine, 8 August 2014, http://www.commentarymagazine.com.

[11] Evelyn Gordon, “Hamas Finally Admits Most Gaza Fatalities Were Combatants, Not Civilians,” Commentary Magazine, 11 January 2010, http://www.commentarymagazine.com.

[12] Matti Friedman, “What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel,” The Atlantic, 30 November 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com.

[13] Matti Friedman, “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth,” Tablet, 26 August 2014, http://www.tabletmag.com.

[14] “Gaza Under Siege: Naming the Dead,” al Jazeera, 13 August 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com.

[15] Steven Stotsky, “How Hamas Wields Gaza’s Casualties as Propaganda,” Time Magazine, 29 July 2014, http://www.time.com.

[16] Tia Goldenberg, “Israel committed war crimes in Gaza, human rights group says,” Globe and Mail, 11 September 2014, http://www.globeandmail.com.

[17] Anthony Reuben, “Caution needed with Gaza casualty figures,” BBC News, 11 August 2014, http://www.bbc.com.

[18] Raphael Ahren, “As Gaza deaths mount, UK media leads world trend to criticize Israel,” Times of Israel, 13 July 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com.

[19] “CNN Admits Media Bias Against Israel,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com.

[20] John Hall, “The Iron Dome in action: Incredible footage shows Israeli air defence system shooting down 15 rockets simultaneously,” Mail Online, 27 August 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk.

[21] Alan Johnson, “Gaza: the ethical dilemmas of fighting terrorism,” The Telegraph, 12 July 2014, blogs.telegraph.co.uk.

[22] Richard Kemp, “Gaza’s Civilian Casualties: The Truth Is Very Different,” Gatestone Institute: International Policy Council, 3 August 2014, http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org.

[23] Ilan Ben Zion, “Rockets found in UNRWA school, for third time,” Times of Israel, 30 July 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com.

[24] Sreenivasan Jain, “NDTV Exclusive: How Hamas Assembles and Fires Rockets,” New Delhi Television Ltd, 5 August 2014, http://www.ndtv.com.

[25] Hamza Hendawi and Josef Federman, “Evidence growing that Hamas used residential areas as cover for firing rockets at Israel,” Globe and Mail, 12 September 2014, http://www.globeandmail.com.

[26] Isabel Kershner, “Israeli Premier Voices Regret for Civilian Casualties, but Blames Hamas,” New York Times, 6 August 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.

[27] Gili Cohen, “IDF to open criminal probe into five Gaza war cases,” Haaretz, 10 September 2014, http://www.haaretz.com.

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