How do they know which of the casualties in Gaza are civilians?

How do they know which of the casualties in Gaza are civilians?

How do they know which of the casualties in Gaza are civilians?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 30 2008 5:37 PM

How Many Civilians Are Dead in Gaza?

Figuring out who's who among the casualties.

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Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for the fourth day straight on Tuesday. Gaza officials said that, as of Monday, 364 Palestinians have been killed, and the United Nations noted that at least 62 were civilians. How did the U.N. determine which of the victims were combatants?

Gender and age. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency came up with the figure by sending emissaries to visit hospitals and other medical facilities.  Under the Geneva Conventions and subsequent international law treaties, civilians are those who do not belong to the armed forces, militias, or organized resistance movements. But in Gaza City, UNRWA counted only female victims and those under the age of 18. North of the city, the agency attempted to get a more complete count by including adult men who were not wearing dark-blue police uniforms and whom community members identified as noncombatants.

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At a Monday press conference, an U.N. staffer clarified that the count was only meant to give a credible minimum figure rather than a hard total. Nor did the agency intend to suggest that all men killed in Gaza City were combatants. Making clear distinctions between civilians and militants is difficult since Hamas (which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, Israel, and other countries) engages in civic activities (like running schools) as well as military operations. Likewise, it's possible that some of the female victims and older children were Hamas combatants.

As a rule, the U.N. does not tally civilian casualties, relying instead on local governments for information. The agency made an exception in Gaza due in part to persistent questions from journalists who wanted to gauge the impact of the Israeli offensive on ordinary Palestinians.

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Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.