Gaza War

Counting casualties and comparing wars


The Associated Press recently made headlines by falsely claiming that the Israeli campaign against Hamas “sits among the deadliest and most destructive in recent history” and was even worse than “the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.”

The Washington Post argued that “Israel has waged one of this century’s most destructive wars,” while the Wall Street Journal contended that Israel was “generating destruction comparable in scale to the most devastating urban warfare in the modern record.”

That’s all the more impressive since, even accepting Hamas’ recent casualty count of 25,000 (tainted and inflated numbers in which there are no terrorists, only civilians, and fighting age men are listed as children), this is still probably one of the least violent conflicts in the region.

In 2016, the Washington Post described the Syrian Civil War, with a possible 250,000 deaths, as “the most destructive conflict in the region.” In 2020, the United Nations called the Yemeni Civil War, with 150,000 deaths, “the most destructive conflict since the end of the Cold War.”

And then there’s the current phase of the war in Sudan (which the media is currently uninterested in) in which 15,000 people have been killed over the course of last year, as part of a larger conflict that may have claimed as many as 2 million lives.

The Tigray War in Ethiopia over the last three years (which you may have missed because the media chose not to hysterically cover every single bomb dropped and protesters stayed home knitting instead of blocking traffic) may have cost the lives of between 80,000 and 600,000 people.

(El Pais, Spain’s newspaper, which did report on Ethiopia’s civil war, described it as “the deadliest of the 21st century” and then had to pivot to argue later that Israel’s Gaza campaign was worse.)

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In reality, every significant war and civil war in the region has had a much higher death toll than the Israel-Hamas war, including the Iraq-Iran War with an estimated 500,000 to 2 million deaths. And in nearby Africa, the Congo War has been blamed for 6 million deaths since 1996.

How does the media justify arguing that 25,000 is more than 2 million?

There are plenty of statistical gimmicks available to anyone who wants to argue that two plus two is really five. As the author of every dubious research study knows, to get the results you want, you manipulate your parameters. Media analyses selectively compare Israel’s campaign to battles, rather than wars, narrowly focus on very specific timetables, attempt to estimate per capita rather than gross figures. But drawing a circle around a particular area and going per capita works both ways; The Hamas attack of Oct. 7 killed 10% of the population of Kibbutz Be’eri, making it far worse per capita than anything in Israel’s response to those atrocities.

Statistical fudging is all in where the line is drawn to achieve a particular agenda.

For example, a New York Times headline declares that, “Gaza Deaths Surpass Any Arab Loss in Wars With Israel in Past 40 Years.” Of course, the last major Arab-Israeli war took place 50 years ago.

The 40-year figure is based on the Lebanon War, but the actual numbers for that war vary wildly, from the thousands according to Israel, 10,000 according to the CIA, 18,000 according to Lebanon and 30,000 according to Arafat and the PLO.

While the media at the time emphasized the highest estimates, in order to criticize the Israeli campaign against the PLO, they now use lower estimates to attack the Gaza campaign.

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The New York Times, after using the shaky Lebanon numbers to prop up the shaky Gaza numbers, admits that “as in Gaza today, researchers say the number killed in Lebanon may never be known with confidence because of the fog of war, even four decades later.”

The Times cites its own claim that “numbering the dead correctly is virtually impossible.”

That’s why the death toll for everything from the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars to the mass deaths in Sudan and the Iran-Iraq War are broad estimates with vast differences between them.

Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, warned that truth is the first casualty of war. And accurate casualty counts are the first and final casualty of every conflict.

The Lancet, the British medical journal, once courted controversy with its claims first that the Iraq War had killed 98,000 Iraqis and then over half a million, or 2.5% of the country. By 2007, a British data company claimed that 1 million Iraqis had been killed. These claims were quickly debunked and the claims are in the rearview mirror now that the debate over the war is over.

Now it’s politically convenient to accept casualty figures from a terrorist group whose main hope of survival lies in inflating civilian deaths while minimizing its own casualties.

The most troubling thing about the universal acceptance of the Hamas numbers is just that.

Estimated death tolls in the Syrian Civil War have varied wildly from the low six figures to over 600,000. Different organizations with different agendas have produced very different sets of numbers. And while many of those may be unreliable, there is at least a healthy debate.

When it comes to Gaza, the media cites no figures other than those of Hamas. And it insists at the same time that most of Gaza has been destroyed, its medical centers pulverized and its government shattered, and that this same system can not only be trusted but is also somehow capable of producing infallible statistics that don’t exist in any other regional conflict.

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The numbers for the Iran-Iraq War vary by 1.5 million, those of the Syrian Civil War and Tigray War by half a million, and yet somehow Gaza is the place where the numbers never vary and where a terrorist group got it just right. That’s something even America can’t do.

On Sept. 11, 2023, DNA testing identified two more victims of the original 9/11 attacks. After 20 years, 1,000 human remains are still unknown. The exact number of deaths from when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 is still being debated and it took months to nail down the death toll from the Maui wildfires. And yet somehow the medical experts at Hamas can produce better numbers in a shorter timespan in a war zone than we can while at peace.

How many died in Gaza? The real answer is that, like the other wars, nobody knows. Yet the media publishes absurd claims that a few months of fighting have somehow been more brutal than WWII or regional conflicts which claimed millions.

After the fighting there will be studies that will pump up the estimated total even higher by using excess-death statistics.

Surveys of empty houses, heat maps or satellite images will be used to estimate even higher losses without regard as to whether they reflect deaths or evacuations. Local research based on anecdotal accounts and statistical legerdemain will be used to bake a variety of faulty figures into a far more grandiose number than the current 25,000. Expect claims that will go as high as the low six figures to be reported on and treated as fact and history.

The end results will be deeply dubious but there will at least be some room for debate. There is little point in even debating the current numbers coming out of an arm of a terrorist organization.

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But what the debates will reveal is that, agenda or no agenda, we don’t really know. Wars and natural disasters are messy. People disappear, some uproot themselves and some it will turn out never existed but were a mistake in the records of an unreliable part of the world.

Palestinian Authority and Hamas numbers, including population figures and birth rates, have reflected political agendas, rather than reality. As have those of UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated to serving the “Palestinians” but locally staffed by Hamas, so there will be plenty of bad numbers to drown out the good ones.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once reportedly quipped. The media’s coverage has offered plenty of all three.

But what matters in war are outcomes of victory or defeat. The obsession with numbers in conflicts is an unhealthy distraction from the real issues.

The moral calculus between the Allies and the Nazis in WWII did not change based on how many German civilians were killed in the bombings and artillery shelling on the road to Berlin. The morality of the American Civil War was not measured in civilian deaths, and neither is any other.

A nation is actively evil when it sets out to exterminate a civilian population. Whether it is WWII or the Hamas war, only one of the two sides was engaged in a war of extermination.

The morality of a war is not measured in civilian casualties, but in deliberate civilian killings.

On Oct. 7 and in the months since, Hamas has engaged in the deliberate killings of civilians. Israel has not. The number games are meant to be a distraction from that simple fact.

Morality is defined by intent, not statistics.