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The Wrong Reasons to Doubt UN Civilian Casualty Estimates in Gaza

The United Nations’ preliminary estimate that 77 per cent of the 214 individuals killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza are civilians is “almost certainly false,” according to Elliott Abrams, writing on the Council on Foreign Relations “Pressure Points” blog yesterday.

Whatever the source, and wherever the conflict, there are always many good reasons to approach civilian or combatant casualty estimates with caution.  Questions should always be asked about motives, expertise, methodologies and so on.  (Some valuable and in-depth work on the difficulty of accurately assessing and counting casualties, as well as how to improve methods, is here, here, here, and here.)

But the reasons offered by Abrams for doubting the UN’s preliminary estimate in this case are not persuasive.

Abrams states, citing to data compiled by The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, that males “of combat age” are over-represented in the Gaza casualty figures.  Females, he notes, while constituting about 50 per cent of the population in Gaza, have so far made up just 12 per cent of the overall casualties. Because the male/female and child/adult casualty rates are not representative of the general population, Abrams posits that the UN’s 77 per cent civilian casualty figure estimate could not be correct. He argues:

“The Gaza population has the predictable demographic qualities: half men and half women, many children, etc. If 77% of the casualties were civilians, we would see that reflected in the figures. If there is a huge over-representation of males of combat age in the casualty figures, it’s fair to assume that’s because Israel is targeting and hitting combatants.”

But this is not an assumption that can simply be made, and Abrams does not account for possible alternative explanations.

First, Abrams does not consider possible patterns in civilian behavior during strikes or following warnings of impending strikes, or the movement more broadly in various public and private spaces of adult men when compared with women and children.  For example, do parents generally keep their children in safer locations? Such information, together with data about the Israeli military’s targeting practices and patterns, would need to be taken into account when considering whether certain groups in a population were more or less likely to be killed during attacks. It may or may not be relevant in a particular context, but it cannot be assumed that all civilian members of a population are equally at risk of injury or death.

Second, one might actually expect “males of combat age” to be over-represented in civilian casualty figures.  If “males of combat age” are in fact more likely to be fighters than children and women – or are assumed by Israel to be more likely to be fighters – they may be the individuals most likely to be mistakenly (because of misidentification, or inaccurate pre-strike intelligence) targeted as fighters.  An over-representation of civilian male deaths would thus be consistent with assumptions most favorable to Israeli targeting practices i.e., that Israel seeks to target fighters, and is not randomly firing into Gaza or intentionally targeting civilians.

The UN’s numbers, which it stresses are “according to preliminary information,” may well be incorrect.  Perhaps some number of the males claimed or counted as civilian were lawful military targets.  But the mere fact that the casualty rates do not reflect the demographics of the general population is not a sound reason to conclude that the UN numbers are likely false.

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About the Author

is associate clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School, director of the Human Rights Clinic, co-director of the Human Rights Institute. She was a Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions from 2007 to 2016. Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).