Analysis: Counted out: Belatedly, the IDF enters the life-and-death numbers game

Throughout Operation Cast Lead, the Post tried to gather reliable information on the number and nature of the Palestinian dead.

shifa hospital gaza hamas 248 (photo credit: AP [file])
shifa hospital gaza hamas 248
(photo credit: AP [file])
Throughout the three weeks of the Gaza fighting in Operation Cast Lead, this newspaper attempted to gather, from official Israeli sources, reliable information on the number and nature of the Palestinian dead. It was clear that the overall death toll in the Strip - and more specifically the number of the civilian fatalities - was serving as the yardstick by which the "proportionality" of Israel's response to Kassam fire was being measured. However, Israel was unable to provide even reasonably firm official figures for the death toll and its civilian component. Part of this inability was an inevitable consequence of the fog of a war fought in enemy territory. But part of it also stemmed from the minimal allocation of Israeli resources to the task. In the absence of official Israeli numbers, reporters worldwide were left with firm Hamas-Gaza-supplied figures, and vague, unofficial Israeli estimates. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian figures were universally cited in news reporting of the conflict, by the international media and largely by the Israeli media, too. These figures indicated that the overwhelming majority of those killed were civilians - indications that, in turn, exacerbated hostile international attitudes to Israel among reporters, politicians and the general public in this region and far beyond. On Sunday, four full weeks after the fighting ended, the IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) was finally ready to show The Jerusalem Post its research into the fatalities - information compiled from a variety of sources, notably including Hamas's own media and other open Palestinian sources. This research contradicts the official Hamas-Gaza government claims, in the course of the fighting and since, that most of those killed were civilians. Attempting to investigate every fatality, the CLA now has a list of names, ID numbers, occupation/affiliation and circumstances of death for most of the 1,338 Palestinians killed in the course of Operation Cast Lead. (Thirteen Israelis were killed during the fighting - 10 soldiers and three civilians.) This dossier is not yet complete, but 1,200-plus fatalities have been identified by name, and the Post was shown the dossier that details them. Some 880 have been categorized as combatants or noncombatants, and the ratio is approximately two-to-one - the reverse of the impression created by Palestinian officials during the conflict, and a world away from the Hamas claim that just 48 of its fighters were killed. Perhaps the most emblematic alleged distortion of the death toll relates to the deaths near the UN school in Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City, on January 6. Palestinian medical officials claimed then that some 40 Palestinians, many of them women and children who had sought refuge from the fighting, were killed at the school by IDF shells. These claims sparked condemnation from the UN, widespread allegations of a "massacre" against Israel and escalated international political demands for an urgent end to the fighting. The CLA on Sunday, however, belatedly reported that the Palestinian death toll in that incident - which, it restated, involved Israel returning fire against Hamas gunmen outside the school facility - caused an estimated 12 fatalities, nine gunmen and three noncombatants. CLA head Col. Moshe Levi acknowledged on Sunday that all this information - on both such specific incidents as the UN school and the overall classifications of the dead - would probably be largely ignored today, since it was being made available so long after the fighting ended. But Levi explained that the IDF was not prepared to issue information unless and until it was confident of its accuracy, no matter how grievous the damage to Israel's image, and the consequent political pressures caused by the delays in contesting inaccurate facts and figures. Levi remarked that, in future conflicts, the IDF might need to bolster the resources it allocates to establishing, in real time, facts as basic as the number and identities of the dead. Given that compiling the dossier appears to have been the responsibility of a single officer in the CLA, some might regard this remark as something of an understatement.