Counting casualties in Israel’s war on Gaza
My Good Chat with Sarah Parkinson digs deep into what's really going on with those estimates being cited in the media.
What does it mean when the IDF claims a 2:1 ratio of civilian deaths to Hamas militant deaths in its war on Gaza? How should we make sense of studies reported in the media about 61% of the deaths being civilians? Are Gazan civilians being killed at a “historic pace”? I’ve found a lot of the discussion on these numbers to be frustrating — either nakedly politicized in one direction or the other or else blithely accepting numbers obviously collected under extremely difficult conditions as mathematically precise. The massive scale of civilian death and infrastructural devastation, all those devastated hospitals and schools, should speak for itself.
To try to contextualize and make sense of the claims and counterclaims, I reached out to Sarah Parkinson of Johns Hopkins SAIS. She has deeply researched these questions in Lebanon and a range of other Middle East wars, and is also one of the sharpest, clearest and most original thinkers in our field. Our conversation has now been published at Good Authority (the TMC successor you should all be following). It ranges widely over the logistics of casualty counting and the critically relevant academic literature on the topic. Following many others in the academic literature, she highlights the ways in which a focus on numbers can distract attention from the humanity of the victims — and how arguments over necessarily imprecise numbers become a way to distract from the crushing reality of mass civilian death and displacement.
Midway through our conversation, Parkinson points out one of the most glaring problems with the way “civilian” is defined: the studies assume that all men between 18-59 are potential combatants. That’s horrifying and absurd, to put it mildly. Parkinson doesn’t talk about this in our conversation, but if it’s true (as the IDF claims) that Hamas has 30,000 fighters in Gaza, then this method would almost certainly lump many hundreds of thousands of civilian men into the number of “Hamas militants” reportedly killed. Just recall those humiliating photos and videos of Gazan men in their underwear being presented as “Hamas surrendering”; the IDF later admitted that “of the hundreds of Palestinian detainees photographed handcuffed in the Gaza Strip in recent days, about 10-15 percent are Hamas operatives or identified with the group.” Consider the work that “or identified with the group” is doing in that acknowledgement… and then work backward to the claim of 5000 “Hamas militants” killed. As Parkinson puts it, “Out of respect for basic human rights and humanity, media reports should emphasize that Palestinian men can be, and mostly are, civilians.”
Check out some key excerpts from our conversation and then go read the whole thing:
A recent Israeli study claimed that 61% of the casualties in Gaza were civilians. Is that plausible?
The Gaza Ministry of Health numbers do not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths or injuries. That leaves scholars, human rights organizations, and the news media looking for ways to estimate civilian and combatant deaths – emphasis on the word “estimate.” The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study estimated that at least 68.1% of the deaths in Gaza have been noncombatants. And a study by Israeli sociologist Yagil Levy that was published in Haaretz estimated the civilian death toll at 61%. Both studies get to that number in mostly the same way; they use the Gaza Ministry of Health data from October 7 to 26. Both studies place children (those younger than 18), adult women (ages 18-59), and the elderly (those 60 and over) into a “noncombatant” category (the Lancet correspondence calls them “groups that probably include few combatants”). Levy discusses men (ages 18-59) as adults who he did not include in the noncombatant category; the study in the Lancet is more vague, with the unstated implication being that adult men (those not in “groups that probably include few combatants”) may constitute “potential” combatants.
Wait – these studies count all adult men as combatants? That seems problematic.
Well, yes – it’s a very real problem. The underlying premise is that these are “military-age men” or “potential combatants.” You’ll see these terms repeated or quoted in the media, and I’ll come back to that later.
In terms of mortality calculations, both studies are deliberately conservative in their approach. Both make their assumptions clear. Levy explicitly notes that even if one excludes all adult men (aged 18-59) in Gaza from the noncombatant category, that some number of Palestinian deaths are due to Palestinian rocket misfires, and that the number of non-combatant adult males counted as combatants cancels out some number of child combatants who are counted as civilians (to be clear, children are a protected group under international humanitarian law), the percentage of recent civilian deaths in Gaza is still incredibly high.
Levy’s conservative estimate was that civilian deaths accounted for 61% of deaths related to Israel’s October bombing campaigns. By comparison, in past Israel-Gaza wars, civilians accounted for 33% to 42% of casualties from aerial attacks.
Why are these assumptions so dangerous?
It’s a very imprecise measure to assume that all male Gazan mortalities are combatants and that adult women, children, and the elderly are civilians. It’s worth underscoring that this division ties directly into the gendered assumptions that undergird the contemporary principle of distinction, which scholars like Kinsella, who I mentioned above, and Cynthia Enloe, a scholar of international relations who works on gender and war, have extensively critiqued.
Publishing combatant-civilian casualty numbers without fully explaining the caveats behind the data can have life-and-death consequences. Sharing casualty estimates that posit all men in Gaza as Hamas combatants, for instance, feeds into a normative narrative that actively denies their human rights and endangers them. Indeed, in 2014, anthropologist Maya Mikdashi critiqued dehumanizing and disenfranchising narratives where “boys and men are presumed guilty of what they might do if allowed to live their lives.” Political scientist Charli Carpenter has clarified that in some settings, civilian men are at extreme risk of harm but lack the protection of presumed innocence afforded to women and children.
The Israel Defense Forces claims a 2:1 kill ratio, meaning that they have killed two civilians for every Hamas militant. Setting aside the point that this isn’t something to brag about, does it sound plausible?
That’s unclear – the IDF might have its own internal numbers; it might be basing that claim on the Gaza Ministry of Health numbers, or on a combination of data. The original AFP report notes that the 2:1 kill ratio was shared in a briefing for foreign reporters and that the IDF “believes the overall Gaza death toll claimed by Hamas is fairly accurate.”
The percentages published in the Lancet and Haaretz do roughly map along a 2:1 ratio of civilian to militant deaths. But to build on what I said above and the fact that independent studies have found the Ministry of Health numbers credible, it’s a very specific political choice to label all Palestinian men between 18 and 59 “military-age men” (as Israeli spokesperson Eylon Levy, among others, has done). This equates the constructed category of “potential combatants” with viable targets, and functionally assumes Palestinian men’s culpability based on demographics alone.
Read the whole thing at Good Authority.
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