Page last updated at 01:28 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Counting casualties of Gaza's war

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Jerusalem

Body of Said Siyam is carried through Gaza on 16/1/09
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said 1,314 Gazans were killed

In any conflict the number of deaths - of combatants and civilians - is a highly sensitive topic.

Numbers can be used for propaganda purposes by all sides and they can play a role in determining perceptions of whether the sides have kept within international law's rules of keeping civilian casualties to a minimum.

In the Israeli offensive on Gaza, far more Palestinians, including women and children, were killed than Israelis. But the exact figures have been disputed.

During the fighting, the main source for the number of Palestinian casualties came from the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

It said 1,314 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, 412 of them children.

These numbers are being used by international organisations, like the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

However, with very few international workers and journalists allowed in Gaza during much of the conflict, it has been difficult to verify the figures independently.

Concealing casualties?

A spokeswoman for the ICRC, Anne-Sophie Bonefeld told the BBC: "We are working with Ministry of Health figures and at a later stage will make our own assessment."

Israeli artillery shell explodes over Gaza on 16/1/09
Israel barred international journalists from Gaza for much of the conflict

Israel contests the Palestinian fatality figures, saying the numbers came from Hamas, which controls the Ministry of Health. But it has not formally put forward an alternative number.

Israeli sources have told the BBC they believe 700 Hamas fighters were killed during the three week offensive - and they say the figure of 300 or so dead children is exaggerated.

But other numbers have been quoted in the Israeli media - ranging from around 900 to 1,200 dead.

An Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said Hamas had adopted a deliberate policy of concealing casualties among their combatants.

Hamas has said 48 of its fighters were killed. The Popular Resistance Committee says 34 died and Islamic Jihad said it lost 38 men.

'Less deaths'

Last week a journalist from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Lorenzo Cremonesi, quoted a doctor in Gaza's Shifa hospital, who said the number of Palestinian civilian deaths "does not exceed 500 or 600".

The two fathers rushed to their daughters. Mayar and Noor were sitting where they had been working, still in their chairs. Their heads had been blown off
Jeremy Bowen

The doctor, the article says, is not named because his life would be at risk.

The article was seized upon in Israel.

Mr Cremonesi later told the BBC the doctor had told him the dead also included youngsters aged 17 to 23, described by the doctor as "Hamas recruits who were literally sent to be massacred".

It was not clear whether the doctor was including these people in the civilian death figures.

As a seasoned war correspondent, Mr Cremonesi said that as a general rule in conflict, for every one person killed, another three are seriously injured.

That ratio would correspond roughly to the figures quoted by the Ministry of Health on 19 January of 1,314 dead, and 5,300 injured.

But Mr Cremonesi said he became concerned when he visited hospitals which were not as full as he expected.

While he was in Egypt waiting to get into Gaza, he said he had seen ambulances carrying out injured people - but again not as many as he might have thought.

However, he pointed out that Hamas fighters killed in the conflict may not have been taken to hospital, but to secret hiding places - and that it was impossible to know how many of them had died.

Methodical checking

Mr Cremonesi stressed his article was not meant to diminish the impact of the Israeli bombardment, which he said appeared to be "collective punishment" on the civilian population.

Destroyed building in Gaza City

But now another organisation has given an account of the death figures.

The Al Mazen Centre for Human Rights has been working to verify the number of fatalities.

Its numbers are much closer to those of published by the Ministry of Health.

The Al Mazen Centre says it only confirms a death after it has interviewed individual families, and methodically checked names, ages and addresses.

It has told the BBC that 1,268 people were killed, among them 288 children and 103 women.

Dr Issam Younis, the Director of Al Mazen, said his field workers were documenting every death.

"We investigate every case, we meet their families and relatives to have details from the first source and we verify every case."

Dr Younis said 85% of those killed were not combatants, whom he defined as those taking up arms against Israeli troops.

"When a policeman is bombed on his morning march, he is not a combatant," he said.

Many in Israel would contest that definition.

The Al Mazen Centre is currently investigating 43 other cases, some of which reportedly involve the deaths of minors.

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