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18:41

21 JUL 2024

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  • Judah Zahler

Bloodbath? The Ratio of Civilian Casualties in the Gaza War


Is the casualty rate in Gaza too high to justify Israel’s war? 


Scale of missiles and people

The unfortunate problem of collateral damage arises in every armed conflict. While the intent of a war may be just, unintended civilian deaths always raise moral questions. The ongoing conflict in Gaza is no exception. With militants embedded within the general population in Gaza, some level of collateral damage seems unavoidable. But is the civilian death toll too high for Israel to justify?


  • Comparisons to other recent urban battles suggest the Gaza civilian death toll is relatively low.


  • The Gaza Health Ministry (a Hamas entity) does not differentiate between civilian and armed militant deaths, raising questions about their accuracy.


  • The ratio of civilian deaths in Gaza per the number of bombs dropped is lower than in other conflicts 


 

What Is the Civilian Casualty Ratio To Combatant Deaths in Gaza?


Modern technology has enabled more precise military strikes, contributing to an overall decline in civilian death rates over time. However, recent conflicts have shifted from open battlefields to dense urban centers, increasing the risk to civilians. In any regard, the ratio between civilian and combatant casualties has come into focus in nearly all modern wars. 

 


Looking at the data collected from both the NIH and CNN via the IDF the general trend indicates a downtrend in the ratio of civilians killed during warfare. Specifically, the Korean War had a 74% civilian death rate - a number that falls to under 30% with both the Afghanistan War and the Ukraine-Russia War.


However, there are still numerous instances of higher civilian death rates in more modern times. This includes an 88% civilian death rate during the Persian Gulf War and a 67% civilian death rate during the Iraq War. 


Looking at the trends data, the Israel-Hamas War does not appear as some sort of drastic outlier with a ~50% civilian death rate through the first phase of the war. This is considering the widely noted density of Gaza and Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields as noted by the Washington Post, “But Hamas does use civilians as shields, and it is crucial to understand that fact.”  



The Ratio of Civilian Casualties In Gaza Is Relatively Low for the Amount of Bombs Dropped 


There are many ways to analyze the data on civilian casualties in a war. One historical method has been to look at the ratio of civilian deaths per the number of bombs dropped. Here is how the Israel-Hamas War stacks up to other armed conflicts. 



2017 Battle for Mosul 


When comparing similar urban warfare campaigns, the civilian fatality rate in Gaza appears relatively low. For example, the  2017 battle for Mosul, Iraq resulted in an estimated 3,846 civilian deaths according to the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights. This death toll came from approximately 1,400 munitions used over a two-week period per the Pentagon. In summary that looks like this:


  • Total bombs dropped: 1,400

  • Civilian deaths: 3,846

  • Average civilian deaths per air strike: 2.75



Russian-Ukraine War 


In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports 27,449 civilian casualties in Ukraine from February 2022 through September 2023. These casualties come from an estimated 11,300 missile and drone strikes. The equation of civilian casualties to bombs dropped looks like this:


  • Total bombs dropped: 11,300

  • Civilian deaths: 27,449

  • Average civilian deaths per air strike: 2.43



Israel-Hamas War


By contrast, Hamas’ Gaza Health Ministry reports approximately 22,000 purported civilian deaths in the current conflict (as of the time of this writing). The Gaza Media Office states over 45,000 bombs have been dropped by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).  The ratio therefore is:


  • Total bombs dropped: 45,000

  • Civilian deaths: 22,000

  • Average civilian deaths per air strike: 0.49




Questions Around Civilian Casualty Data Coming Out of Gaza


The accuracy of civilian death reports out of Gaza remains questionable. All numbers come from the Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas. There is little transparency around how the totals are calculated.


As the Associated Press reported, the Health Ministry does not differentiate between civilians and armed militants in its reporting. It simply labels all deaths as resulting from "Israeli aggression."


This ambiguity means reported civilian deaths may include Hamas or other terrorist fighters killed in Israeli strikes. The IDF claims over 8,000 militant deaths since October (again, at the time of this writing). If accurate, that would reduce reported civilian deaths by nearly 50% and lower the civilian deaths by air strikes to something along these lines:


  • Total bombs dropped: 45,000

  • Civilian deaths: 14,000

  • Average civilian deaths per air strike: 0.31




Additionally, at the time of this writing estimates indicate circa to 12,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza since October 7th. The IDF estimates that over 550 of those landed within Gaza within the first 10 days of the war alone. The casualties in such cases are often attributed to Israel.


The explosion in the first days of the war at Al-Ahli Hospital further highlights inconsistencies around civilian death tallies. Within 90 minutes, Hamas officials in Gaza reported 500 casualties from an alleged Israeli strike. Multiple independent investigations and analyses including from  Human Rights Watch and US Intelligence agencies concluded that the explosion was likely from a failed rocket launch by Hamas militants. Yet the Gaza Health Ministry still counted the deaths as civilian collateral damage.

This indicates one of two things:


  1. The Gaza Health Ministry doesn't differentiate between civilians killed by Hamas or other militant groups, and the IDF, which would raise the question: Who killed how many civilians?

  2. The Gaza Health Ministry is not a reliable source of data (a sentiment shared by US officials).



Determining Proportionality of Force


Ultimately, the accuracy of civilian casualty reports from Gaza remains highly questionable. The true proportion of the reported death toll that counts as civilian collateral damage may never be fully known.


However, based on comparable urban conflicts and the rate of munitions used by the IDF, the loss of civilian life in Gaza appears relatively low comparatively. Israel also continues to argue that the war is justified under international law due to Hamas’ attacks threatening Israeli citizens.


Yet even a historically low civilian death rate provides little consolation to the Gazan people continuing to suffer deadly consequences. And it does not absolve Israeli forces of addressing whether all necessary precautions are taken to minimize collateral damage.


Proportionality remains subjective according to one’s sympathies in this complex conflict. Without reliable, objective reporting on Gazan casualties, neither side can make a definitive case around justified force or unnecessary suffering.


While the numbers always tell a story, it's important to remember that the ratio of civilian deaths alone does not correlate with the justification of a war.


 

Sources



Modern Warfare Institute, The Future of Warfare is Urban, and the Future is Already Here, March 22, 2018


Wikipedia, 2017 Mosul airstrike, December 31, 2023





The Washington Post, We can’t ignore the truth that Hamas uses human shields, November 14, 2023




Middle East Monitor, Israel dropped 65,000 tonnes of bombs on Gaza in 89 days, January 4, 2024


Wikipedia, Gaza Health Ministry, January 5, 2024




The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center  About Us



Human Rights Watch, Gaza: Findings on October 17 al-Ahli Hospital Explosion, November 26, 2023


 
Yehuda Zahler

Judah Zahler


Judah Zahler is a growth marketer based out of New Jersey with experience working with growing pre-seed startups.

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