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On Gaza Body Counts and the Numbers Game

A double standard between Israel and Gaza, Israel and the world

Adam Chandler
November 21, 2012
A Building in Rishon LeZion Following a Fajr-5 Strike(AFP)

A Building in Rishon LeZion Following a Fajr-5 Strike(AFP)

Over at the Atlantic, my former benevolent overseer Jeffrey Goldberg responded smartly to an editorial in the Times that, while generally well-argued, made one logical misstep.

Here was the line:

Israel has a vastly more capable military than Hamas, and its air campaign has resulted in a lopsided casualty count: three Israelis have been killed.

And here was JG’s response:

Whenever I read a statement like this, I wonder if the person writing it believes that there is a large moral difference between attempted murder and successfully completed murder. The casualty count is lopsided, but why? A couple of reasons: Hamas rockets are inaccurate; Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is working well. But the Israeli body count isn’t low because Hamas is trying to minimize Israeli casualties. Quite the opposite: Hamas’s intention is to kill as many Israelis as possible. Without vigilance, and luck, and without active attempts by the Israeli Air Force to destroy rocket launchers before they can be used, the Israeli body count would be much higher. The U.S. judges the threat from al Qaeda based on the group’s intentions and plans, not merely on the number of Americans it has killed over the past 10 years. This is the correct approach to dealing with such a threat.

The importance of Jeffrey’s point here cannot be overstated. In addition, it’s important to note that Hamas has so enmeshed itself and its weaponry in every nook, warren, and by-place of densely populated Gaza that civilian deaths are nearly impossible to avoid. (Hamas’ crude rockets have, on multiple occasions, fallen short and killed or wounded Gazans.) That doesn’t excuse the death of any innocent people in Gaza–they are a stain on Israel, but they are also a stain on Hamas and other terrorist groups.

But the obsession with numbers also damages a broader ability to look at conflict credibly. Yesterday, which was considered to be the bloodiest day of the conflict between Israel and the various terrorist groups in Gaza, brought the death toll of Palestinians up to about 130 for the week. While the exact figures cannot be known, the split between civilian and combatant deaths, according to earlier estimates by human rights group B’Tselem, hardly an IDF friendly, signaled that the majority of those killed were not civilians.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the number is evenly split. Given the aforementioned dynamic in Gaza, that means that Israel is (partially) responsible for 65 Palestinian deaths in the course of the last week. Those are unintentional deaths. Some pretty mainstream public intellectuals have failed to grasp this. In the past few days alone, Nick Kristof of the Times has taken leave of writing his after-school-special-style columns to tweet things like this to his 1.3 million followers:

Since 2004, 26 in Israel killed by Gaza rockets (h/t @ArarMaher) . Now in 6 days, 100 Gazans killed

And this:

Hamas shelling is appalling.But remember: since 09, 16 times as many Palestinians killed by Israelis as other way around

Meanwhile, in Syria yesterday, Reuters claims that 100 people died in the violence there, including 64 civilians. Consider that nearly 40,000 people have died in the last 20 months in Syria with the blessing of the Assad regime. Compare that to reports of the 81 *public executions* carried out by Iran in the past 10 days.

Where is the outrage? Where are the calls for proportionality or for tactical reassessment? How is it that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seemingly the only battle where the casualties are tallied like a football game? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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