Sitting on rubble, using his briefcase as a writing table, human rights researcher Yasser Abdel Ghafar interviewed residents of a house shelled by Israel, part of his assignment to compile detailed lists of killed and wounded during Israel’s 23-day war on Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
His group, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), released a final tally on Wednesday, saying 1,284 Gazans were killed and 4,336 wounded, the majority civilians. Yet Israel, insisting that Hamas is inflating civilian casualties, said it has the names of more than 700 Hamas militants killed in fighting.
The wrangling over the final toll, particularly the ratio of combatants and civilians, is part of the rival Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the Gaza war. Israel portrays it as a justified attempt to finally halt years of indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel. The Palestinians say it was a brutal onslaught in which troops used disproportionate force in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Some bombings and shellings of homes, even if targeting militants, killed entire families.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Hamas fighters fired rockets from civilian areas and stored explosives in mosques and schools. Yet he acknowledged that troops “moved forward with fire” to prevent Israeli casualties and that “nobody had any illusions that civilians wouldn’t be harmed as well.”
The growing international outrage over Israel’s offensive has been fueled by the scenes of civilian suffering, including bodies of dead women and children in hospital morgues.
The PCHR said 894 of the dead were civilians, including 280 children and minors, age 17 and under, as well as 111 women. Of the remaining 390 dead, 167 were members of Hamas’ civil police, many of them killed on the job during Israel’s surprise attack on dozens of security compounds.
The civilians not only included innocent bystanders, but also Hamas members killed in non-combat situations, such as Said Siam and Nizar Rayan, two top Hamas leaders assassinated, along with their relatives, in massive bombings of homes, said Ibtissam Zakout, head of the PCHR’s research team.
The rest, or 223, were combatants, she said. That figure is higher than the 158 dead fighters acknowledged by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups.
“Maybe they [the militants] were interested to show that they have fewer losses and casualties,” Zakout said.
Others, such as Gaza health ministry official Moawiya Hassanain, have raised the possibility that the militant groups buried some of their fighters in secret, without reporting their deaths.
Zakout said the PCHR count, including the distinction between militants and civilians, is based on cross-checking hospital records and interviews with survivors. The group is affiliated with Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists and has won two European human rights awards.
During the war, 13 Israelis were killed, including three civilians struck by rockets. The other 10 were soldiers.
Israel has not provided its own Palestinian death toll, though Barak said he believed dead militants outnumbered dead civilians.
“Many more than 700 Hamas men were killed, many more,” he told Israel’s Channel 10 TV.
“We know their names,” he said, while noting that civilians were hit as well.