The return of the Gaza numbers game

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018
The headlines and images of violence from the border between Israel and Gaza are chilling – dozens of dead Palestinians, thousands more wounded. But no Israeli casualties.
The high number of casualties on the Gaza side versus the limited injuries and zero deaths in Israel has been portrayed around the world as proof of Israeli culpability. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch tweeted his outrage at this asymmetry: “According to the pro-Israel trolls, it’s all the Palestinians’ fault that Israeli snipers killed 55 of them with nary a scratch on the Israeli side.”
This is how the violence of the past six weeks, reaching a crescendo on May 14 when the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem, has been cast, in the standard narrative of “David vs. Goliath,” of Israeli aggression and Palestinian victimhood.
This conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it is important to take a step back and recognize two core truths about the casualty statistics emerging from Gaza.
First, the available data is limited and originates with what remains (after the 2005 takeover by Hamas) of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. This means all data starts with Hamas – a terrorist organization that tightly controls the flow of information in Gaza and has a vested interest in inflating the numbers. Casualty figures – in particular the number of injured, the nature of their wounds, and the circumstances of their being wounded – are easily manipulated. Yet, this lack of credibility does not seem to give reporters pause; nor does it prevent diplomats, UN officials and human rights groups from repeating the unsubstantiated claims.
In previous rounds of the Gaza conflict (2009 and 2014), Hamas’ claims about who was a civilian and who was a combatant were filtered through two Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan, as well as an Israeli group, B’Tselem. These NGOs lack proper methodologies to credibly evaluate such claims. Nevertheless, their reworking of Hamas propaganda was entered into the international record by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the infamous Goldstone Report (on the 2009 war), and the Schabas-Davis commission (2014).
The details were, to be generous, incomplete.
The IDF, along with the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, NGO Monitor, a highly effective blogger known as Elder of Ziyon, and others, independently demonstrated that many of the supposed civilians were, in fact, members in Hamas and other terrorist factions. Hamas, too, has acknowledged that many of those labeled civilian by the NGOs were combatants.
However, the NGOs and the UN never retracted their mistakes, and their misinformation is still widely quoted.
The specifics regarding the current round of violence are still emerging. Already Islamic Jihad is taking credit for deploying teenagers, a war crime conveniently ignored by human rights NGOs. And the AP has reported that a baby who Hamas alleged was killed by tear gas may instead have died of a preexisting condition.
Second, the numbers of dead and injured tells us nothing about the legality or morality of Israel’s actions. Under international law, the targeting of even one person can be illegal, depending on the circumstances. A soldier can commit a war crime, for instance, if she opens fire without cause on a single individual; it does not matter that there are no more victims.
On the other hand, it can be entirely legal and justified to kill dozens of people in combat situations, even if they are unarmed and even, in theory, if they were civilians not participating in the fighting.
Unarmed individuals can become legitimate targets if they are performing a military function, such as spotting for other combatants or trying to damage defensive infrastructure in support of an attack. In the Gaza border context, this could mean firing weapons, throwing incendiary devices, planting bombs, storming the border fence, flying fire-bomb kites, or even purposefully acting as a distraction to facilitate others’ violence.
The deaths of truly innocent people who had nothing to do with the hostilities are more complicated. When conducting an attack, armies must consider whether actions are “proportionate,” meaning whether the expected harm to civilians outweighs the anticipated military gain that the attack hopes to achieve.
To be sure, there are no fixed rules for calculating proportionality. What if an armed group is storing a large stockpile of longrange missiles in residential structures, as Hamas does? How do you determine how many civilians are “worth” destroying the munitions? To stop 50 or 100 or 1,000 terrorists from storming the border fence, are 10 civilians deaths or 20 justified? The key factors, such as the real-time military value of and threat posed by the enemy force, are inherently subjective, almost always dynamic, and certainly unknowable by NGOs and other critics.
It must also be mentioned that most NGO and political condemnations of Israel that reference “disproportionate responses” do not use this legal definition. Rather, they use the term colloquially, highlighting the imbalance in the number of casualties on each side.
But as we have seen, legally, the number of casualties along the Gaza border does not address whether an individual casualty was participating in hostilities, was anticipated “collateral damage” in a strike against a military target, or was tragically harmed by mistake.
Likewise, from the perspective of morality, Israel is under no obligation to sacrifice its soldiers and civilians to “balance” out the numbers.
Emphasizing the number of dead and wounded along the Gaza border may call attention to the broad human tragedy of armed conflict, but those same numbers cannot assign blame or point a way forward to prevent future deaths.
The author is chief of staff at NGO Monitor (, a Jerusalem-based research institute.