Terrorized by Numbers

by Howard Fienberg
July 29, 2002

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been marred by many casualties on both sides. Between the start of the second Intifada almost two years ago and the end of June, the war had killed 561 Israelis and 1,499 Palestinians. But a new study claims that these numbers obscure the reality of the conflict, combining combatants with the non-combatants and suicide bombers with their civilian victims. As much of the case swinging world opinion against Israel hinges on the perception that Israel has killed far more Palestinian innocents than vice versa, these numbers possess a political importance beyond simple accounting. If they are accurate and not just propaganda, their implications for public opinion worldwide could be far-reaching.


The study, from the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), examined reports of deaths in order to go beyond a simplistic notation of civilians and non-civilians. It is a common differentiation, but one that obscures more than it enlightens. Since most Israelis serve in the Israeli military and remain active as reserves, it is easy to call an Israeli fatality a soldier. On the other side, since the Intifada is essentially a low-intensity or guerilla conflict, few members of groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad can be classified as uniformed soldiers. Hence, rather than fighting a semantic battle, the ICT tried to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants and to figure out who might have killed whom.


Taking that into account, the ICT concluded that about 579 non-combatant Palestinians (just over 38 percent of all Palestinian casualties) were killed by Israelis and 433 non-combatant Israelis (about 80 percent of all Israeli casualties) were killed by Palestinians. (The noncombatant Israeli fatalities were actually much more than 80 percent of all Israeli casualties before the military battles in Jenin in March.) While Israeli casualties make up about 27 percent of the total fatalities (as they are usually reported in the media), they actually represent about 43 percent of the non-combatant fatalities.


When it comes to Palestinian fatalities, it is also important to note that it is not just the Israelis doing the killing. There has been a steady increase in the number of Palestinians killed, in one way or another, by their own side. Approximately 189 Palestinians were killed while committing a suicide bombing, in work accidents, in intra-Palestinian conflict, or as so-called collaborators. These 189 fatalities do not even include suicide shooters -- Palestinians who attacked Israelis with the expectation of death, but did not specifically blow themselves up.


The ICT figures on Palestinian noncombatant deaths may actually be an over-estimate because of the limitations of their analysis. While Israeli fatalities are reliably detailed in both Israeli and foreign media and official government web sites, Palestinian fatalities are harder to verify. Islamic names are often long and spellings vary, so it can be hard to determine whether or not several different names actually refer to the same person (the same problem has also clouded the debate over Afghan civilian casualties). In addition, detailed reports on Palestinian casualty reports usually emanate from Palestinian organizations or individuals, which have sometimes been characterized as biased or even fraudulent. Depending on where one reads about them, news accounts can vary dramatically. If the Israeli government maintained a precise record of every incident of weapon use, it might be possible to verify the status of more of the Palestinian casualties. No such record is available.


Defining Categories


So how did the researchers differentiate between combatants and non-combatants? They separated casualties into several different categories.


  • Non-Combatants were innocent bystanders -- or assumed to be so. The ICT included any casualties under the age of 13 in this category as a matter of principle. Of Palestinian fatalities, 13.6 percent fell under this category, while 69 percent of Israeli ones did so.


  • Health Related fatalities -- 0.8 percent on the Palestinian side, none on the Israeli side -- were people who died from causes only indirectly linked to violence (e.g., harm from delays in reaching medical facilities or a heart attack following a violent incident).


  • The designation of Probable Combatant went to people killed at a location and time during which there was an armed confrontation, who are likely to have been an active participant, but not enough evidence exists to prove them as such. This category encompassed 0.4 percent of Israeli fatalities and 9.5 percent of Palestinian ones. The researchers claim that, when it appears that a person might have just stumbled into an incident or been in the midst of combatants by accident, benefit of the doubt has been granted. The designation also was given to people who knowingly put themselves in danger, such as entering an area in which fighting was going on or which security officials had declared off-limits.


  • Non-civilians who were not actively involved in an incident were labeled Uniformed Non-Combatants. These fatalities included police and soldiers in uniform who were not at their post or on duty -- 9.6 percent of Israelis and 2.5 percent of Palestinians.


  • Violent Protestors -- 2.1 percent of Palestinians versus 0.4 percent of Israelis -- may have been civilians, but chose an active and violent role, like rioting or vigilante activity.


  • Protestors for whom there’s no indication of violent behavior -- 2 percent of Palestinians and none of Israelis -- are called Protestor Unknown.


  • The designation of Full Combatant was reserved for active duty soldiers and terrorists, or civilians who independently chose to perpetrate an armed attack on the opposing side. While only 20.1 percent of Israeli fatalities came under this category, 42.9 percent of Palestinian fatalities did so. Note that this does not include someone throwing rocks, though the researchers note that, if the rocks were large and dropped onto cars from a high bridge, the perpetrators would fall into this category. Similarly, a thrower of Molotov cocktails counts as a full combatant. Of course, merely having a weapon does not make a person a combatant. A civilian with a weapon in his or her car or walking with a holstered pistol is not a full combatant unless he or she draws that weapon.


  • The label of Suspected Collaborator is given to the 1.7 percent of Palestinians and 0.2 percent of Israelis who were targeted under (alleged) suspicion of aiding Israel.


  • The final category, Unknown, encompassed 0.4 percent of Israeli fatalities and a quarter of Palestinian fatalities.


In the final analysis, only Violent Protestors, Combatants and Probable Combatants were included as combatants. All others, including the Unknown cases, counted as noncombatants.


What It Means


The ICTs study holds up to scrutiny and its proposed figures do indeed capture the casualties of the conflict more accurately than the traditional media accounting methods. If anything, this studys main weakness is the considerable margin for error in granting so many Palestinian casualties the benefit of the doubt. When the ICT could not verify the status of a Palestinian victim, they were usually listed as a noncombatant.


The figures make a pretty strong case that the Israelis have not noticeably targeted Palestinian noncombatants and that the Palestinians have overwhelmingly targeted noncombatants. Those who would charge the Israelis with indiscriminately targeting women and children have little evidence to back up their argument in these figures. While 39 percent of the Israeli noncombatants killed by Palestinians were female, only about 7 percent of the Palestinian noncombatants killed by Israelis were female. Although children appear more prominently among the Palestinian fatalities, combatant and noncombatant, most were teenage boys (over the age of 11).


The ICT explains the pattern of Palestinian fatalities by pointing out that Palestinian men and boys on the brink of manhood engaged in behavior that brought them into conflict with Israeli armed forces and should have been aware that they were placing themselves in danger. In addition, the ICT suggests that Palestinian efforts at indoctrination which glorify martyrdom encourage Palestinian teenage boys and young men to take such risks.


In order to check against any kind of pro-Israeli bias in the ICTs methodology, I asked their researcher, Don Radlauer, to apply it to a more recent and highly publicized incident. On July 22, an Israeli air strike against the home of Hamas military leader Salah Shehada killed him and 14 others. Radlauer said, the two Hamas members who were killed would both be classified as Full Combatants, as they were terrorist leaders actively involved in planning and organizing attacks. All the other victims would be considered Noncombatants. He emphasized that Israel was considered fully responsible for all the fatalities.


If these numbers gain wide acceptance as a truer depiction of what is happening in Israel than the numbers more usually quoted, their effect on public opinion worldwide could be dramatic. They seem to tell us a lot more about the nature of the conflict than has been possible before.

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