Analysis: Lies, leaks, death tolls & statistics

Does the WikiLeaks Iraq War dossier prove Israel was unfairly treated over civilian deaths following Operation Cast Lead?

Iraq Violence 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Iraq Violence 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The release of the WikiLeaks logs on the Iraq War this week has led some Israelis to ask anew whether the country is the victim of a double standard in the way the international community views human rights.
The key question: Why did Israel, following Operation Cast Lead last year, come under such harsh international criticism culminating in the Goldstone Report, while the war in Iraq, which has claimed the lives of over 150,000 people, has yet to lead to the establishment of a similar UN-sanctioned probe?
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First, it is important to point out that the world’s three premier human rights organizations – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross – do not have statistics on the number of combatants and civilians killed by coalition forces in Iraq and the consequent ratio between them.
The Jerusalem Post contacted all three organizations this week and not a single one had the necessary statistics. They do, however, have the numbers from the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip last year.
One researcher, in charge of the Iraqi desk for one of the NGOs, told the Post that no one had ever worked on tallying up the Iraq numbers. In addition, he said, it would be difficult to do so, since there are differences of opinion regarding the way to define combatants.
“The Iraqis define combatants one way and the US another way,” the researcher said.
This sounds familiar, given the differences of opinion that emerged between Israel and its critics during and following Operation Cast Lead.
The IDF claimed that the Hamas policemen killed during the operation – totaling 264, according to Israel – should be defined as combatants since in many instances, according to the IDF, the policemen took up arms against IDF troops. The Palestinians rejected this claim and categorized the policemen as civilians. The Goldstone Report did the same.
The New York Times, in its main article on the WikiLeaks revelations, cited a study by the Red Cross, which concluded that in the average of 20th century warfare, 10 civilians were killed for every combatant.
One organization that did claim to have a tally of combatants and civilians killed by US and coalition forces throughout the war was the Iraq Body Count (IBC), a UK-based organization that has tracked civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In total, over 150,000 people have been killed and 80 percent of them – more than 122,000 – were civilians, said the IBC.
According to John Sloboda, a founder of IBC, American and coalition forces have killed at least 22,668 combatants as well as 13,807 civilians.
The rest of the civilians were killed by terrorist groups, militias and insurgents.
According to Sloboda, this would mean that for every civilian killed, two combatants were killed, essentially a ratio of 1:2.
The number of people killed during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip is disputed by the different sides. Israel, for example, claims that 1,166 people were killed, including 709 combatants.
Based on this, the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths is 1:3 – one civilian for every three combatants.
Many, however, do not accept the Israeli numbers.
B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, claims that 1,390 people were killed during the operation in Gaza. It says only 349 were combatants, 248 were policemen and 32 are unknowns since B’Tselem said it could not determine for certain whether they had participated in the hostilities.
Two more people are referred to as being killed in targeted killings – apparently a reference to Nizar Rayan, a Hamas cleric, and Said Siam, the Hamas interior minister.
If one adds all of these together, Israel killed 60% civilians during Operation Cast Lead – not greatly dissimilar to the ratio provided by the Iraq Body Count.
Notably, Operation Cast Lead came after a year during which the IDF had succeeded in lowering civilian deaths to an unprecedented ratio of 1:30. This was a far cry from 2002, when the ratio was 1:1, meaning that for every terrorist killed, one civilian was killed.
Partly behind Israel’s improvement was the investment in special weapons systems, smart bombs that are large enough to kill a target but small enough to minimize collateral damage. There was also an upscaled Israeli effort to warn civilians to flee areas and to divert missiles at the last moment if civilians entered a planned strike zone.
In total, during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF dropped over 5,000 missiles in the Gaza Strip; over 81% of them were smart bombs, an unprecedented percentage in modern warfare.
In comparison, during the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, coalition forces used smart bombs 68% of the time. During the Kosovo War of 1999, the percentage was 35%.