'Definitions skew civilian casualties'

Israel says most of the dead are Hamas men, Gazans claim otherwise.

gazans leave gaza 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
gazans leave gaza 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF insists that the great majority of Gazan casualties have been "gunmen." The Palestinians say that at least half are "civilians." The consistent discrepancy between the reports from the two sides could stem from a disagreement over the definition of an active combatant. On Thursday evening, the IDF estimated the death toll in Gaza had passed 700, of whom three quarters were said to have been combatants, 290 of them identified as known Hamas terrorists. Since Operation Cast Lead began, Israel has reiterated that it is not targeting civilians, only Hamas members. Palestinian officials put the death toll at an estimated 750 on Thursday night. Mutasem Awad, coordinator for the Palestine Red Crescent Society told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that though its casualty count was not final, it knew for certain of 200 children and 85 women among the dead. When asked whether the Red Crescent Society was capable of telling the difference between innocent civilians and gunmen, he acknowledged this could be tricky. "But militants usually wear uniforms and carry weapons, and we don't have [large] numbers [of dead] like this," Awad said. Israeli defense sources say many Hamas gunmen are fighting out of uniform, however. Awad added that, "Many of the militants have died while they were not actively involved in the fighting. According to international law these people are considered civilians if they are not involved in actively fighting, but they were targeted anyway." Florian Westphal, head of media relations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, reported that "the records provided by 14 hospitals in the Gaza Strip to the ICRC [include] 3,070 wounded persons [who] were admitted to hospitals, of whom a third were children and women. Avi Bell, a professor at Bar-Ilan University Law School and director of the Global Law Forum at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the definition of an active combatant can be vague. "A warrior is considered one whether he is carrying a weapon or not, if he is fighting as part of an organized force. There are certain situations in which a combatant is clearly out of the fighting, such as if he was injured or released," he said. According to Bell, the different numbers could also stem from differing definitions of combatant that relate to whether the fighting is defined as "international" - involving two states - or regional, like the conflict in Gaza. "Some commentators think that the definition of a combatant in [regional] fighting is much wider - for example, it can include inactive reserve forces," he said. "The gaps in the numbers could be explained by the fact that they [the Palestinians] define a combatant narrowly," he said. "Israel considers a civilian anyone who does not belong to the armed forces - unless they are actively involved in fighting. It also considers a combatant someone who is actively involved in planning the fighting, even if they are not armed. This concept is acceptable to most of the international community," he said. Bell added that even if the legal definition was clear, Israel would not have accurate numbers yet.