As fighting resumed Friday between Hamas and other Gaza-based jihadi groups and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), it's a good time to reflect on how reliable casualty counts from Hamas-controlled health services may be.
Israel honored the recent 72-hour ceasefire and agreed to extend it. Had Hamas responded in kind, no more Gaza residents would be harmed (except for suspected collaborators killed by Hamas or jihadis who botch the job trying to make new bombs).
This likely will return focus to the volume of civilian deaths in Gaza. But separate analyses, one by an Israeli research center and one by the BBC's chief statistician, say the ratio of terrorists killed to civilians may be much closer than the estimates often repeated in news media accounts.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center researched the names of the first 300 people killed in Gaza, drawn from Palestinian Health Ministry lists. It found about half of the dead had demonstrable ties to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or other terrorist groups. That may be a low-end estimate, the center explained, because "there are terrorist operatives who do not appear in the Palestinian Health Ministry's records (either deliberately or because their bodies have not yet been recovered)." [Emphasis original]
When the conflict began last month, a Hamas video advised Palestinians to "not forget to always add innocent citizen [written on screen in Arabic and English] to describe those who are killed in the aggression on Gaza after the Israeli attacks." That includes anyone from Hamas commanders to those launching rockets.
In a report Thursday, BBC Head of Statistics Anthony Reuben cited United Nations data which showed that, out of 1,843 Palestinians killed during the past month, 1,354 were described as civilians, including 415 children and 214 women. That left 725 men outside of the 216 members of armed groups killed. That, Reuben wrote, doesn't make sense.
"[If] the Israeli attacks have been 'indiscriminate', as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women," he wrote.
This is nothing new.
In 2009's Operation Cast Lead, Hamas claimed only about 50 people among the 1,300 dead Palestinians were its fighters. But a Hamas minister later said that 400 of its fighters and security personnel were killed. Israel says that figure is closer to 600.
A 2002 operation aimed at rooting out terrorists in the West Bank city Jenin drew international condemnation as a "massacre" of more than 1,000 people, a claim fueled by repetition by western media. Subsequent investigation placed the Palestinian death toll at 56 people.
None of this minimizes the tragic loss of innocent lives. But, as Reuben wrote in his BBC article, "War zones are not easy places to collect statistics."