Israel disputes Gaza death toll

But officials offer no other figures; Italian reporter: No more than 600 killed in the fighting.

Gaza damage 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gaza damage 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Almost a week after the end of Operation Cast Lead, Israel is privately vehemently contesting Palestinian figures for the number of civilians killed, but has released no official figures on the overall death toll, or on the proportion of civilians and Hamas operatives among the fatalities. IDF Military Intelligence has set up a team to produce a comprehensive list of Palestinian fatalities, including their names and affiliation. It will be completed within two weeks, officials said, but it is not clear whether it will be made public. Privately, throughout the operation and since, Israeli officials have disputed "official" Palestinian figures for the number of civilians killed in the 22-day assault on Hamas in Gaza, insisting that the Hamas Health Ministry, the source of those figures, has significantly inflated the civilian death toll and played down the number of Hamas operatives killed. There is also growing controversy as to the accuracy of the overall count, put by the Hamas ministry at 1,314. The ministry said the majority of the fatalities were civilians, including 412 children and 110 women. The Palestinian count also shows 5,300 wounded, including 1,855 children and 795 women. The IDF privately told Israeli reporters Thursday, by contrast, that only 150 of the 900 fatalities it has checked were civilians and that it was likely that the rest were Hamas combatants. But Israel has presented no formal alternative information. Thirteen Israelis - 10 of them soldiers - were killed in the course of the fighting. In the absence of official Israeli figures, the 1,000 plus foreign journalists who covered the campaign relied almost exclusively on the Palestinian figures, as did foreign governments and NGOs. The death toll was one of the most critical aspects of the operation, and could be central to any war crimes claim against Israel. International organizations, such as the United Nations and the Red Cross, said they had relied on the Palestinians for their own death counts, given that the verification process is cumbersome and could involve cross-checking records at the hospitals or the morgues as well as on-the-scene investigation at the site of the IDF attacks. So far only the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi have publicly attempted to verify the death count on their own, with vastly differing results. On Thursday, Cremonesi published an article in the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, in which he claimed that the Palestinians had distorted their claims, much like in past incidents. He quoted a doctor at Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital who said no more than 500 or 600 could have been killed in the IDF attacks, and that most were men between 17 and 23 recruited to Hamas's ranks. Cremonesi, who based his report on tours of hospitals in the Gaza Strip and on interviews with families of casualties, also assessed the number of wounded to be far lower than 5,300, the number quoted by Hamas and repeated by the UN and the Red Cross in Gaza. "It is sufficient to visit several hospitals [in Gaza] to understand that the numbers don't add up," he wrote. In the European Hospital in Gazan Rafah, one of the facilities that would presumably be filled with wounded from the "war of the tunnels," many beds were empty, according to Cremonesi. A similar situation was noted in the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, and in the privately-run Amal Hospital, where Cremonesi reported that only five out 150 beds were occupied. He noted that in past instances, such as in Jenin during Israel's Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, there was initially talk of 1,500 dead, which ended up being whittled down to 54, of whom 45 were gunmen. Cremonesi's report on the Gaza dead was ridiculed by Jaber Wishah, the deputy director of the PCHR, during a telephone interview from Gaza on Thursday with The Jerusalem Post. "It is completely incorrect," Wishah said. His organization had 45 field workers posted at hospitals and morgues, counting bodies and checking names, he said. They had also gone to the sites of IDF attacks and interviewed the families of the dead, he said. A lengthy but incomplete report on the group's Web site lists names, ages, and circumstances of death. In total, Wishah said, his organization - which is independent of both Hamas and Fatah - counted 1,285 dead. Of those, 82 percent, or 1,062, were civilians, he said, while another 168 were policemen who were not engaged in the fighting. That would leave barely 50 Hamas dead - a figure almost identical to Hamas's own claims. He added that among the dead were 280 children and 111 women. He insisted that although Israel has argued that many of the "civilian" fatalities were actually Hamas fighters who were out of uniform, those people listed as "civilians" in his total were not Hamas operatives. In addition, 4,536 people were wounded, of whom 1,133 were children and 735 were women, he claimed. "Our records have been checked and double-checked," said Wishah. Even so, he added, his staff continued to compile evidence of the dead. When they were certain of the names and that all the relatives had been contacted, they planned to post them on their Web site, he said. Tony Laurance, who heads the World Health Organization's office in the West Bank and Gaza, said the information from the Gaza Health Ministry "is likely to be close to accurate." It was "reported on a daily basis by hospitals to the central information center within the Ministry of Health," he added. That center had identifying details of the casualties in terms of names and ages and places of residents. The ministry has been "quite prepared to share those details with us, but we have not been able to verify them for ourselves," he said. He added that until one combed through the details meticulously, it would be impossible to know how many dead were civilians and how many were gunmen. When the Post contacted the IDF to ask for its numbers of Gaza dead, the response was that the matter was under investigation and that a full count was not known. At best, a spokesman said, he could relate that after the 10th day of battle some 400 Hamas gunmen had been killed or wounded. Israeli military correspondents, however, have been able to prepare a count from briefings and private conversations with top military commanders. Israeli defense officials have said that some 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, and that a majority of them were Hamas operatives. The IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration has compiled a list with 900 names of Palestinians killed during the operation, out of which 750, it says, are believed to be Hamas operatives. IDF estimates are that two-thirds of all those killed were gunmen affiliated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terror factions. Hamas deliberately played down the number of its dead and on Sunday claimed that only 48 members of its military wing had been killed, defense officials said. Many bodies belonging to Hamas operatives were being stored in the morgue in Shifa Hospital, the officials added. They said the vast majority of the Hamas operatives killed were not wearing uniforms, to disguise their affiliation, another reason for the exaggerated estimate of civilian casualties cited by the United Nations and others. The IDF's unofficial death count was not welcomed by the Foreign Ministry, which continues to state that it lacks any such figures. One Foreign Ministry official warned that the IDF should be very careful about circulating a number for casualties, adding that the only figures about which the Foreign Ministry could be certain were for gunmen killed in direct battle with the IDF. It had, however, warm words for Cremonesi's work. "Because this is the first independent evaluation, it needs to be taken seriously by all the NGOs," one ministry official said. One Israeli official told the Post there was speculation that a higher number for overall Gaza deaths - such as the one Hamas and the PCHR are circulating - was actually helpful to Israel in winning its long-term war against Hamas. A high death count increased the deterrence value of Operation Cast Lead, the official explained. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andy David said he did not believe a death count prepared by Israel would be useful from a public relations standpoint. "We understand that public relations is not about facts. It is about mental attitude. Those who are supportive of Israel will continue to support Israel. I do not think that Israel has done things that other countries would not do," David said. Opponents of Israel would always find a way to blame it and accuse it of wrongdoing, he said. He referred to the story of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, who was killed by gunfire at the start of the second intifada in September 2000. The IDF was accused of shooting him during a clash with Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip - an accusation the IDF ultimately rejected after an investigation and amid claims that he was killed by Palestinian fire. "But that didn't convince anyone in Saudi Arabia, where there is still a street named after him," David said. Herb Keinon and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.