How many Palestinian civilians is a single militant worth?
On the night of August 5, Gaza’s Interior and National Security Ministry posted a comment on its Facebook page decrying the damage caused by publishing names and photographs of “resistance fighters who fell in battle” (shahids), along with information on where they died.
The Israeli military spokesman seized on this comment as a smoking gun: proof that Hamas was deliberately concealing militant fatalities to boost the apparent numbers of civilians killed.
The Israel Defense Forces cannot refute the images of dead women and children that are broadcast abroad, so instead the army is trying to construct a narrative proving that its targets — and the aftermath of its attacks — are legitimate.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center is a vital partner in constructing this narrative. The center, which is checking the name of each Palestinian said killed in the Gaza fighting (it has gotten to 450 so far), estimates that some 46 percent of them are “terrorist operatives.” This figure may change in accordance with further investigation.
The center’s lists are accompanied by photographs of posters and death notices of some of the militants. Each name is marked “non-involved,” “unidentified” or “terrorist operative.” The source for the information of each person’s “involvement” is not mentioned, apart from operatives whose photograph appears in death notices or public reports of the militant organization to which he belonged.
Hamas’ military wing has released few of the names of its own operatives, though it did announce the deaths of the senior military leaders who had been on Israel’s wanted list for many years: Raed Attar, Mohammed Abu Shamaleh and Mohammed Barhoum, who were assassinated in Gaza this week. If concealing the names of fatalities is really part of Hamas’ propaganda strategy, a way of forging a counter-narrative to that of the IDF, then it contradicts the deep Palestinian and Hamas ethos of pride over those who were killed fighting the Zionist enemy.
“Even if Hamas had decided to hide the names of its fallen combatants and their numbers for a long time, the families wouldn’t agree,” a veteran Hamas activist told Haaretz.
He said ultimately everything will come to light. “Now we don’t know if there are fighters who were killed in the tunnels and are still buried there, or if they’re living in the tunnels. There are bodies that have been under the rubble for so long that they are unrecognizable,” he said.
The IDF and Amit center saw the Palestinian Facebook comment as a warning and an instruction not to release information, for propaganda purposes. But Palestinians saw it as an expression of concern. Releasing the casualties’ names would enable Israel to target their families as well by bombing their homes, thus turning even more civilians into “targets” or “collateral damage.”
This is not propaganda; it is the reality in which 1.8 million Palestinians have been living in the past six weeks.
“The occupation gathers this information and testimonies and uses them to excuse its crimes against the civilians and destroy the homes,” the Palestinian Facebook post says.
The IDF’s English translation of the post omits the words “against the civilians and destroy the homes.”
The IDF itself is well versed in hiding information about the exact location of rocket landings for security, not propaganda, reasons. Hamas also has military considerations in not mentioning where its people were killed.
The concern for civilians is justified. The Gazan human rights organization Mizan reported that 952 people have been killed in their bombarded homes, including 307 children and 204 women, including two disabled women who were in a bombarded rehabilitation center.
On Thursday 50 civilians were added to the list, including Hassan Younis, the 80-year-old father of Mizan director Issam Younis and his wife. The 12 “accurate” missiles fired at dawn were aimed at a neighbor’s house in the Tel Sultan neighborhood, home of three Iz al-Din al-Qassam fugitives.
So far B’Tselem has documented 72 direct bombardments that have destroyed buildings and killed their inhabitants. Of the 547 people killed in these strikes, 125 were women under 60, 250 were minors and 29 were men and women aged 60 or older. B’Tselem also gives the name of an operative in Hamas’ military wing who was killed in the bombing.
The IDF does not say why these 72 buildings were bombed with their inhabitants inside, while it took the trouble to warn hundreds of other families a few minutes before bombing their homes.
In any case, targeting 72 buildings directly and striking them with no warning cannot be excused as a mistake. The IDF does not explain what the acceptable rate of collateral damage is, or how many people is it okay to kill in order to assassinate a single militant.
As of Thursday, 76.8 percent of the 2,090 fatalities documented by Mizan have been civilians. The UN team’s preliminary examination showed Wednesday that 71 percent of the fatalities — 1,434 out of 1,999 — are civilians.
The UN team, Palestinian human rights organizations and B’Tselem are examining every fatality, seeing every body in the hospital, checking every death report and talking to eyewitnesses, family members and survivors.
It’s enormous, difficult work – emotionally, and physically. Despite their experience, no one is trained to witness 10, 50, 100 corpses, among them dismembered children, day after day. It’s work that often involves risking one’s life, done mostly without electricity or enough water.When making an initial identification even as the shelling continues and bodies pile up that were retrieved only after several days, there are details that field investigators cannot get to. In sizeable Gaza City, it is hard to figure out immediately people’s background and their cause of death. In Rafiah, the task is easier.
Because the documenting organizations worked separately, the numbers vary. Mizan and three other NGOs – the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al-Haq and Al-Damir Institution for Human Rights – assembled a joint team that works on cross-referencing information, double-checking identities, confirming identities with the population registry and affirming the circumstances of death. Renewed fighting on Tuesday and the constant addition of dead and injured put an end to this joint activity.
When the investigations renew, the teams will continue their work of dividing the data on those killed between fighters and civilians. Staff members for Mizan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights were careful not to include in their lists people who were executed as Israeli collaborators. So far these casualties, or some of them, were included in the Health Ministry list and not declared publically as killed. Mizan and Palestinian Center investigators understood that whoever was shot in the head at close range in a neighborhood that the IDF came nowhere near to cannot be counted.
On the other hand, as members of that society, they are able to distinguish in the end between those who really were fighters with a long-standing role in one of the militant groups, those who were just waving flags at a rally or funeral, those who were presented as fighters because of family or political circumstances, or those who had just joined a group a month earlier and had yet to learn to fire a gun. Satellite images and collaborator intelligence allows the Shin Bet and the IDF to define them as active terrorists, but investigators from the UN and Palestinian NGOs do not bend their divisions to the very flexible and non-transparent categorizations of the Shin Bet and the IDF.
Dr. Atef Abu Saif, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azahar University, researched the impact of drones on life in Gaza. He found that the targets for Israeli missile attacks for years were determined not only by exact intelligence in the field, as the IDF claims, but by suspicious behavior. Examples include riding a motorcycle, associated with armed groups, or hanging out on roofs, associated with lookouts. Anwar Zaanin, a Mizan investigator, was killed in early August by a missile after riding a motorcycle to see if he could fix a water pipe in his home in Beit Hanun.
Some journalists have challenged UN and Palestinian categorizations, asserting that the number of young men killed in Gaza was relatively high compared to their size within the population. The conclusion is that most of the men killed – and they are the right age to be engaged in militant activity – were indeed militants.
This conclusion is faulty in not being aware that public space in Palestinian society in general and in Gaza in particular is appropriated mainly by men. The men go to the mosque early in the morning and the evening; only men go to funerals; men sit outside their homes on hot days and watch World Cup games, and men are the ones who run out to retrieve the wounded and dead immediately after an attack or go to get water during an attack. So, it is natural that the number of men killed would be higher relative to the population, and not only because this is the right age to join in the fighting.
The attempt to undermine the figures provided by independent Palestinian groups who are more familiar than anyone else with the territory, and to present them as false or distorted, is part of this war. The Palestinian organizations are waiting for the moment international inquiry committees start their probe.
That’s why they are determined to be as accurate in their findings as possible. They want to see an end to what they view as a tradition of not punishing Israel for flouting international law.