Israeli Rights Group Challenges Report of Gaza War Casualties

9-11-09, 8:57 am

Original source: Global Times (China)

Nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed during Israel's massive operation in the Gaza Strip eight months ago and over half of them were civilians, an Israeli human rights group revealed on Wednesday.

The B'Tselem data present a notable difference from the official figures published by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in March, which put the toll of Palestinians killed in the Operation Cast Lead at less than 1,200 and the percentage of civilian deaths at about a quarter.

According to the group's findings, which wrapped up months of research and field work, a total of 1,387 Palestinians were killed during the three-week-long offensive launched on Dec. 27, 2008, among whom 773 were classified as non-combatants and 330 as combatants.

Another 248 were police officers affiliated with the Gaza-ruling Hamas movement, who were killed when Israeli aircraft carried out waves of heavy bombardment against Gaza's police facilities at the onset of the operation, said the B'Tselem report, adding that it was unable to categorize the remaining 36.

Among the 773 civilian deaths, 320 were minors under the age of 18 and 109 were adult women, according to B'Tselem. The report also showed that another 19 minors were classified as combatants and that altogether 252 of the killed were under 16 years old.

Meanwhile, the group found that 60 of the fatalities were under the age of five and about a dozen were above 80, with the oldest one at 101, who was killed while sitting next to a police station on the day of massive air raids.

The B'Tselem depicted a more formidable picture than the Israeli army did. According to the IDF count, the death toll of Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead was 1,166, and among them only 295 were unarmed civilians.

Among the rest, the Israeli army claimed that 709 were involved in hostilities against Israel. As to the remaining 162, the IDF said that their involvement in anti-Israel militant activities could not be determined. Altogether, the army listed only 89 minors under 16.

The striking differences between the two sets of numbers were in part due to the different criteria the group and the army used to define a combatant.

While B'Tselem put the tag to someone generally involved in fighting, the IDF said that anyone involved with Hamas should be considered as a target.

For example, the army said that the Hamas police officers were armed Hamas members and should be classified as combatants, yet B'Tselem stressed that they did not participate in actual fighting and thus assigned them to a separate category.

In a more detailed manner, the B'Tselem report listed out each fatality by name and said that it had gathered evidence for each entry, including eyewitness testimonies and death certificates.

The group also said that its researcher examined various sources of information, including the statistics compiled by Palestinian human rights organizations, but they could not cross-check the figures with the IDF count due to the army's refusal.

In response to the B'Tselem report, the IDF released a statement reaffirming the credibility of its March report and accusing the group of not basing its report on facts or on accurate statistics.

'The discrepancy in the numbers is based on the fact that B'Tselem's sources are organizations with a vested interest, and it does not have the tools, nor the intelligence capabilities with which it can within a necessary degree of confidence know the causes of death or the affiliations of these casualties,' said the IDF report.

The army also said that 'as was explained to the organization, the IDF is unable to disclose the methods in which it gathers such information, as it is classified.'

Operation Cast Lead is the largest-scale warfare the Jewish state staged since the 2006 conflict with the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Israel said that it launched the Gaza operation in response to eight years of rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave and in order to restore peace and security to its southern land.

During the military conflict, 13 Israelis were killed, including four by rocket fire from Gaza, five by enemy fire and four by friendly fire in combat inside Gaza. Palestinian groups claimed that over 1,400 Gazans were killed in total.

Behind the dry statistics 'lie shocking individual stories,' stressed B'Tselem.

'Whole families were killed; parents saw their children shot before their very eyes; relatives watched their loved ones bleed to death; and entire neighborhoods were obliterated,' wrote the report.

While noting that militants from Hamas and other militant groups launched attacks within the dense civilian population, which complicated the combat situation, the group emphasized that 'illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimize such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.'

'The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society,' said the group.