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In Gaza, dispute over civilian vs combatant deaths

Saturday - 8/9/2014, 2:24am  ET

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 file photo, bodies of members of the Najam family, including a child, killed overnight in an Israeli strike, are transported on an open truck during their funeral in Beit Lahiya of the Gaza Strip. In the grisly math of the Israel-Hamas war, conflicting counts of combatants and civilians killed in Gaza are emerging - with the ratio perhaps more important to shaping international opinion of the monthlong conflict than any final toll. U.N. researchers and local rights groups say three-fourth of some 1,900 dead were civilians, while the Israeli military estimates the split is closer to 50-50. Those doing the tallies use different methods and standards to make that all important determination of who is a civilian. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- In the grisly math of the Israel-Hamas war, conflicting counts of combatants and civilians killed in Gaza are emerging -- with the ratio perhaps more important to shaping international opinion of the monthlong conflict than any final toll.

The U.N. and rights groups operating in Gaza say about three-quarters of the around 1,900 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 450 children, with many perishing in strikes that killed several family members at a time.

Israel estimates that between 40-50 percent of those killed in Gaza were fighters.

While the overall count is not in great dispute, those doing tallies use different methods and standards to make that all important determination of who is a civilian.

The U.N. and human rights groups rely on witness accounts and community contacts of field researchers to distinguish civilians from combatants.

Mahmoud AbuRahma of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights said his researchers require at least two sources and count on their local ties to determine if someone was a combatant or civilian.

For its part, Israel has said it uses its own intelligence reports to determine who among the dead belonged to Hamas or other militant groups.

The ratio of civilians to combatants could be used by either side to promote their narrative of what took place in the conflict.

Israel faces growing international criticism over the large number of civilians killed in Gaza, with President Barack Obama and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both saying Israel could do much more to prevent harm to noncombatants.

Ban said this week that "the massive deaths and destruction in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world."

However, a high ratio of civilian deaths does not necessarily point to a violation of the rules of war, said Sarah Knuckey, an international human rights lawyer at Columbia Law School in New York.

It might raise legal concerns, but "does not itself answer whether any party ... violated the rule against disproportionate attacks," she said. In judging if disproportionate force was used, each incident has to be investigated separately, she said.

In explaining the civilian casualties, Israel has accused Gaza fighters of launching attacks from crowded residential areas.

Brig. Gen. Mickey Adelstein, a senior Israeli army commander, said forces under his command "avoided attacking many, many targets" because civilians were present and that "Hamas took advantage of that issue."

Adelstein told reporters Thursday the military estimated that between 1,700 and 2,000 Palestinians had been killed, but that Israel didn't have the names of all the dead yet.

He said the number of dead militants was being underreported.

In one set of 300 names classified as civilians "at least 50 percent were ... members of the Hamas terrorist movement," he said, declining to give further details on exactly who made that classification.

Hamas has a military and a political wing, along with thousands of civil servants who worked in the outgoing Hamas government in Gaza.

Adelstein said he was referring to those who are involved in Hamas military activities, but not civil servants. He said the Hamas military wing also has reservists, who have full-time civilian jobs.

The initial source of information about deaths in the war has been the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The ministry has become more efficient in collecting data over the years, learning from two previous rounds of fighting in 2008-2009 and in 2012, said Ashraf al-Kidra, the keeper of the statistics.

Overall, there has been little discrepancy between al-Kidra's count and that of the human rights groups, which say they check his figures against their own research.

Al-Kidra sits in an office at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital and receives casualty reports from hospitals and emergency services. Throughout the day, he frequently updates the figures on the ministry website and takes calls from reporters.

On Friday, his overall toll since July 8 stood at 1,902 dead, including at least 450 children and 243 women. Al-Kidra uses a very broad definition of civilians, saying the term applies to anyone who has not been claimed by one of the armed groups as a member.

U.N. researchers start out with figures from the ministry, the media and other sources, but then cross-check them with the help of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups.

The U.N.'s overall number of 1,922 killed is slightly higher than that of the Gaza Health Ministry.

The U.N. said nearly 73 percent of the total, or 1,407, were civilians, defined as those who didn't take part in hostilities and were not members of armed groups.

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