Astonishing Statistic: How does this operation rank in the history?

After the first day, when the highest numbers bandied around were in the low 200s, Hamas admitted, according to PMW, to a death toll of 180 policemen.

Hamas TV: 180 killed are from Hamas armed forces
Among those killed Hamas Police Commander, Tawfik Jaber

Hamas TV acknowledged this morning that the vast majority of those killed are from the Hamas military. A news ticker running repeatedly from 10:00 AM announced:

“More than 180 Palestinian policemen were killed including the [Police] Commander, General Tawfik Jaber.”

In the background Hamas TV is repeatedly broadcasting the same scenes of dozens of bodies of the uniformed Hamas soldiers who were killed in Israel’s first attack yesterday when Israel hit the Hamas officer’s course graduation ceremony.

Hamas TV, Dec. 28, 2008

I note three things about this:

  • Hizbullah systematically disguised the high death toll during the 2006 summer war because “real men” don’t show they’ve been hurt. High casualties are only good if they are civilian casualties. To admit to this many dead policemen is a shame on every level. Can anyone think of a reason to doubt this figure?
  • Policemen are only one of the many military operations that Israelis targeted. How many other of the casualties after day 1, according to Palestinian sources are combatants.
  • This suggests something around a 80-90% military to civilian mortality rate as a result of Israeli airstrikes.

What is the historical record here? What are the other examples of ratios in an aerial bombardment of hostile forces operating from a civilian area? What are the acceptable ratios in US and British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq?

UPDATE: Reuters reports that Haniya claims “15 women and some children” killed in the raids. (HT/Media Backspin)

Hamas estimated that at least 15 women and some children had been killed in the past two days. “Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said.

AP writers, Ibrahim Barzak and Amy Teibel report

More than 400 people were also wounded. Most of the casualties were security forces, but Palestinian officials said at least 15 civilians were among the dead.

Taking the 15 as the total of civilian casualties, Media Backspin comes up with a figure of 94.8% of the casualties are military men. If even approximately true, that would make this operation the cleanest in the history of aerial warfare, and probably set a standard for decades to come despite the continuously improving nature of targeting systems.

Haniya’s remark is particularly revealing of his quadruple standard. As Belmont Club points out

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that in one seven day period alone, between June 7 and 14, 2007 internecine fighting between Fatah and Hamas killed 161 Palestinians, including 7 children and 11 women. Nor has it stopped. In June of 2008, human rights groups reported that both Fatah and Hamas were engaged in kidnapping and torturing each other’s operatives. The hammer of violence and repression falls on everyone…

The standard would only be double if it didn’t apply to the enemy; here it applies to one’s own people. What I do is justified, right or wrong; what you do is evil, justified or not.

Further UPDATE: Of course these statistics show up in a significantly different form in Palestinian publications, which regularly speak of massacres, despite the fact that that, traditionally, applies not to the killing of combatants, but of civilians. In order to make that work, the Al Mezan, a Palestinian Human Rights Organization, makes its own assertions.

Mostly, the strikes targeted police and security installations across the densely populated Gaza Strip, which is indicative of IOF’s disregard for civilian life and well-being. More than 900 people have been killed and injured, most of whom are non-combatants…

In order to document this claim about “most of [the casualties] are non-combatants, Al Mezan gives statistics:

Al Mezan’s initial monitoring indicates that at least 257 people have been killed in the IOF’s strikes in the last 24 hours. Of those, the vast majority are non-combatants and civilians; including 20 children, nine women and 60 civilians. The majority of the rest of the casualties are members of the civilian police who were inside their stations or undertaking training. At least 597 people were also injured, including 35 children whose wounds were reportedly critical.

(IOF, for those who don’t frequent Palestinian media, is “Israel Occupation Forces.” It’s so important for Palestinian identity that Israelis be occupiers — explains all their suffering — that they can’t bear letting go of them, even after the Israelis leave, as in Gaza. It’s almost like Israel says, “I wan’t a divorce,” and they respond, “You can’t divorce me, you’re still beating me.”)

So the charge is that the “vast majority” are non-combatants and civilians, not because they can total 89 civilians out of 257 (or almost exactly 33%), but by claiming that the Gaza police forces are non-combatants.

Of course, all of this emanates from people who find the targeting of civilians in Israel “resistance,” and who have nothing to say about Hamas’ stationing of hostile forces within the Palestinian civilian population. In fact, given Hamas’ behavior — firing from civilian areas, locating military installations in civilian areas, hiding among civilians — they are responsible for their own casualties.

Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. (HT: Alvin Rosenfeld)

Art. 28. The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.
Rules for the Limitation of the Dangers incurred by the Civilian Population in Time of War. ICRC, 1956 CHAPTER II : OBJECTIVES BARRED FROM ATTACK

Immunity of the civilian population

Art. 6. Attacks directed against the civilian population, as such, whether with the object of terrorizing it or for any other reason, are prohibited. This prohibition applies both to attacks on individuals and to those directed against groups.

In consequence, it is also forbidden to attack dwellings, installations or means of transport, which are for the exclusive use of, and occupied by, the civilian population.

Nevertheless, should members of the civilian population, Article 11 notwithstanding, be within or in close proximity to a military objective they must accept the risks resulting from an attack directed against that objective.

Will we ever know even approximately?

Further UPDATE: The stakes here are quite high. One major dimension of the issue of disproportionality of the use of force concerns whether military or civilian sites are targeted.

Is There Proportionality Against Military Forces?

And in fighting counterinsurgency wars, most armies seek to achieve military victory by defeating the military capacity of an adversary, as efficiently as possible. There clearly is no international expectation that military losses in war should be on a one-to-one basis; most armies seek to decisively eliminate as many enemy forces as possible while minimizing their own losses of troops. There are NATO members who have been critical of “Israel’s disproportionate use of force,” while NATO armies take pride in their “kill ratios” against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moreover, decisive military action against an aggressor has another effect: it increases deterrence.14 To expect Israel to hold back in its use of decisive force against legitimate military targets in Gaza is to condemn it to a long war of attrition with Hamas.

The loss of any civilian lives is truly regrettable. Israel has cancelled many military operations because of its concern with civilian casualties. But should civilian losses occur despite the best efforts of Israel to avoid them, it is ultimately not Israel’s responsibility. As political philosopher Michael Walzer noted in 2006: “When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible – and no one else is – for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire.”15

International critics of Israel may be looking to craft balanced statements that spread the blame for the present conflict to both sides. But they would be better served if they did not engage in this artificial exercise, and clearly distinguish the side that is the aggressor in this conflict – Hamas – and the side that is trying to defeat the aggression – Israel.

28 Responses to Astonishing Statistic: How does this operation rank in the history?

  1. antidhimmi says:

    In WW2 the point of aerial bombardment both for the allies and the axis powers was to kill, demoralize and crush the civilian population. Bombing was so inaccurate that there was no way to target strategic installations without ‘carpet bombing’ and hoping that some of your bombs landed where you wanted them. The missiles that Germany sent to London certainly aimed at a general area target and of course they set London ablaze.

    Apparently the contemporary war theory is that when a population elects or tolerates a regime that makes war on its neighbors it should be insulated from the blowback that inevitably results or the “international community” will wag its finger and cry shame on you.

    Low level conflict such as random ‘home made’ missiles such as those used by Hamas are not considered serious acts of war worthy of retaliation unless, of course, they hit a school or a day care center. Then, for a day or two the press notes the seriousness of the violation and the UN calls on both parties to stop.

    Israel has been far too patient with Hamas thugs and should have punished them months ago for continuing their aggression. They need to pay a very high price for their doctrine of destruction and martyrdom. Israel is doing the world a favor.

  2. Orde Wingate says:

    If you want peace, prepare for war.
    Surprisingly enough, that’s the only language those criminal thugs understand.

  3. oao says:

    Surprisingly enough, that’s the only language those criminal thugs understand.

    not exactly.

    they don’t “understand” this laguage either. that’s because they are fanatics and they hate jews more than they love themselves.

    however, this is true of their masses who are uneducated and indoctrinated from childhood. it is not as true for the leaders and clerics, who will fight to the last of their grunts. hit them hard and you may get a period of quiet. until others take their place and the whole shabang starts agaian.

    the point is that the only way to stop the carnage is to send all jihadis to their virgins.

  4. Solomonia says:

    IAF Video: destroying launchers, tunnels, and a weapons storage depot…

    Courtesy of Richard Landes and the IDF, video of various IAF strikes against Gaza targets. The last one gets a nice secondary explosion :……

  5. oao says:

    Note the moderate turkish Erdogan. when push comes to shove, he knows what side he’s on. why, let him into EU.

  6. oao says:

    As to the insistence of arab dictators that Israel should be stopped, while they are using israel to distract arab street from their own oppressive regimes, they get scared shitless when the masses spill in the streets demanding that the arab regimes respond to israel. at that point they may lose control.

    so it’s not the pals they care about, but themselves. as to the masses, they don’t care either. they just respond instinctively to the sense of islamic supremacism that prohibits any infidel from doing anything to muslims (though not the other way around.

  7. shriber says:

    Note this fantastic analysis:

    “Israel Attacks Hamas —
    Here Comes the Hamas Propaganda Attack”

  8. E.G. says:

    To admit to this many dead policemen is a shame on every level. Can anyone think of a reason to doubt this figure?

    They’re either considered as combattants who died fulfilling their duty (post hoc counterfactual) – and their death becomes a heroic one (no shame), or as victims lurred into one more evil Zionist/Jewish machination (big shame) that need to be avenged.

  9. […] Comment Is Free line about the IAF indiscriminately slaughtering innocent civilians. All the indications I’ve seen – and admitted by Hamas itself – are that the overwhelming majority of the casualties are Hamas […]

  10. Cynic says:

    oao,, Did you see the reports of Arabs in Northern Israel attacking the police because of Israel’s actions in Gaza?
    Israeli Arabs react with violence to IDF operations in Gaza

    Just of several reports.

    Eighteen police officers have been injured and more than 50 rioters have been detained

    Being nice to them and providing them with a democratic state and all mod. cons. is nothing compared to their ideology.

  11. Lauren says:

    Here in Israel, the news has shown several snippets of interviews with Palestinians in some sort of uniform emphatically stating that they were the “civilian” police (whatever that means).

    This is another well-worn trick of the palestinians. They are soldiers when they’re against civilians, but civilians when they’re up agains soldiers.

  12. oao says:


    yes, I saw that.

    there was never a doubt in my mind where their allegiance would go when push comes to shove and when they see opportunities. only fools deluded themselves that rights and democracy will tame them. jew hatred is in their blood and greed helps.

    in 1967 i went to high school in kiryat tivon, a small town in the galilee with a lot of arab villages around it. while waiting at the bus station, i saw a group of arab villagers pointing to various buildings and stores and say “this will be mine”.

    later i went to the university of haifa, which is a nest of arab hostile activism.

    if i were surprised at all, it was by how long it took them to expose their real faces.

  13. oao says:

    and here’s the west at its best yet again. never fails.

    note the criterion that UK’s FM, miliband, applies to israel: NOT ONE innocent death is acceptable.


  14. E.G. says:

    How to increase the (civilian) death toll without feeling guilty: by Haled Abu Toameh

    “Gheit also lashed out at Hamas and accused it of preventing wounded Palestinians from crossing into Egypt for medical treatment.

    Cairo, he said, offered to take scores of wounded Palestinians, but Hamas banned them from travelling through the Rafah border crossing.

    Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied the allegation, claiming that many of the wounded rejected an Egyptian offer to receive medical treatment in Cairo in protest against Cairo’s “support” for the IDF operation. He accused the Egyptians of taking part in the “siege” on the Gaza Strip by refusing to reopen the Rafah crossing.”

    Funny, I never heard of a Palestinian refusing treatment in Israel.

  15. The Spine says:

    Landes Gets It Right…

    Richard Landes, a scrupulous scholar of Christian religious messianism and professor of history at Boston…

  16. […] At the Augean Stables you can read Astonishing Statistic: How does this operation rank in the history? […]

  17. oao says:

    many of the wounded rejected an Egyptian offer to receive medical treatment in Cairo in protest against Cairo’s “support” for the IDF operation.

    hamas lie through its teeth, but i wouldn’t put it to some pals to refuse to go to egypt. they are indoctrinated with suffering for “honor” and fail to realize that they are used for the cause of islam. some of them want to be martyred too.

  18. oao says:

    Ahithophel Says:

    December 29th, 2008 at 11:39 AM
    It’s worth asking what is the difference between Israel’s military response to Hamas and America’s military response to the Taliban. If the differences are not significant or germane, it’s hard to see how liberals can defend and support our actions in Afghanistan while condemning the actions of Israel.

    In both cases, there is a dramatic “disproportion” in military technology, in the level of social-political advancement, and in the number of casualties. Yet the purpose of America’s and Israel’s responses is not to work some abstract calculus of proportionate justice, but to achieve military and security aims, and in any case these “disproportions” did not lead all (or even most) liberals to oppose the American action in Afghanistan. So why do they support the one and oppose the other?

    In my view, it has to do with the popular conceptions of the Taliban and the Palestinians. It would be amusing if it weren’t so pathetic, but the Taliban were disfavored among many of my colleagues in academia not because of their treatment of women or the cruelty of their theo-thugocracy, but because they had destroyed ancient Buddhist rock carvings. “Who are we,” they would ask, “to judge how a different culture treats its women? But who are *they* to judge Buddhism?!” The Taliban were/are hardly the cause celebre that the Palestinians have been for a long time now. Why is that?

    In some respects it seems as though the Palestinians are the “inner city poor,” in the minds of liberals, suffering under the oppression of the “Wall Street barons” of the Israeli Jews. It was hard to make the argument that America had oppressed Afghanistan, except in the vague sense in which (in the mind of the liberal) American business and culture has oppressed everyone everywhere. In other words, the complaint of “disproportion” is a red herring. Tthe Israelis are blamed for the military offensives largely because liberals believe that the Israelis are responsible for the conditions in which the Palestinians find themselves. Yes, there is a contentious history between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, but few in America (or in Europe) actually know that history. And few know the intricacies of Hamas/Fatah and the various parties in Israel. Instead there is the general perception that Israel put the Palestinians where they are and has kept them there. Also Israel seems to be perceived as a generally conservative entity, turning the Palestinians into the Che Guevara freedom fighting brigade. If the world thinks of the Palestinians that way, so will the Palestinians themselves, and they will (rightly) believe they have the world’s support and so they can get away with anything.

    As long as this is the case, I don’t think a peace process will succeed. The “groundwork” for peace will come not (only) through minor trust-building maneuvers, but through changing the way in which the parties are perceived. Israel needs to win the PR war before this issue can be resolved. Israel–and America, as Israel’s ally–needs to set forth the history of the many, many ways in which Israel and the US have sought to assist the Palestinians, and how the Palestinian leadership and the leaders of the nearby Arab and Muslim nations have *kept* the Palestinians precisely where they are. As long as Israel is blamed for the conditions prevailing in Palestine, they will not receive support for their military responses to Hamas’ attacks. The Palestinians will continue to be seen as the oppressed poor who are throwing stones at the restaurants that refuse to give them food, while the Israelis will be perceived as the wealthy restaurant owners who order their security guards open fire in response.

    When is the last time a United States President has educated the American public on this history? What better use would there be for President Bush’s last State of the Union address? It would not overturn the PR battle, but it would be a step in the right direction.

  19. Jason says:

    Police are responsible for maintaining law and order in their community. If the Israeli strike hit a Hamas police graduation ceremony, regardless of whether the policemen were Hamas men or not, it was a legitimate military target.

    The Police officers responsibility would be to stop rocket fire on their neighbor Israel. If they refuse to intervene for whatever reason, (most likely they agree with the rocket fire, or are afraid for their life if they were to object) they are complicit in letting the attacks proceed, therefore they are a legitimate target.

  20. s gerber says:

    Your blog is excellent, but it needs some editing.

    There are several misspelled words.

  21. Cynic says:


    In Gaza all officials are Hamas people. Have you forgotten what was done to the Fatah people after Hamas won the election?

  22. Cynic says:


    So juice and possibly moose limbs. Oops, now we’ve brought Alaska into the picture, ipso facto Palin.

  23. […] Here Richard Landes looks at the controversy over the number and kind of casualties that resulted from the initial Israeli bombings in the Gaza strip. […]

  24. E.G. says:


    Just saw a title: Caroline K.: From my window I can see the Russian Tea-house. Gives a new sense to Palindrome, no?
    Happy New Year!

  25. Cynic says:

    Happy New Year to U2
    Let’s hope it will be a happier year for us all.

  26. Solomonia says:

    Solomonia Gaza Roundup…

    Rather than put down innumerable individual headline links, here’s a collection of commentary and news about what’s going on. Haven’t been following things so closely? Here are some good places to start: Charles Krauthammer: The Necessity of Israel …

  27. […] the beginning of this operation I posted about the civilian casualty tolls, suspecting that they would be considerably lower than any other comparable aerial bombardment […]

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