Gaza’s Missing Bodies

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 8 2009 1:14 PM

Gaza’s Missing Bodies

How carelessly is Israel killing civilians in Gaza? Let's ask the hospitals and the United Nations.

In Dense Gaza, Civilians Suffer

Among the total dead—between 320 and 390, according to the United Nations—Palestinian medical officials say that 38 were children and 25 were women. The United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees said 25 percent of those killed had been civilians. ( New York Times , Dec. 31 , paragraph 6)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Sounds bad. Or how about this:

Israel Deepens Gaza Incursion as Toll Mounts

Palestinian medical officials estimated that the death toll during the war reached 550 on Monday. The United Nations estimated that about a quarter of those killed were civilians. ( Times , Jan. 5 , paragraph 8)

It's amazing how high the ratio of civilian to combat injuries can be. For example:

Gaza Hospital Fills Up, Mainly With Civilians

In recent days, most of those arriving at Shifa appeared to be civilians. On Sunday, there was no trace here of the dozens of Hamas fighters that the Israeli military said its ground forces had hit in the past few hours in exchanges of fire. The exact reason was not clear. Many ambulance drivers refused to go near the fighting. It also seemed possible that Hamas and Israeli fighters were still battling at some less lethal distance. It was difficult to know whether fighters were spread out at other hospitals. ( Times , Jan. 4 , paragraph 16)

And now, today:

U.N. Suspends Food Aid Into Gaza

The United Nations suspended its food aid deliveries into Gaza on Thursday after one of its contract drivers was killed during an Israeli attack ... ( Times , Jan. 8 , paragraph 1)

Those nasty, reckless Israelis. All they seem to hit is one civilian or rescue worker after another. In fact, you have to read all the way down to the very bottom of today's 30-paragraph story to find this:

But Palestinian residents and Israeli officials say that Hamas is tending its own wounded in separate medical centers, not in public hospitals, and that it is difficult to know the number of dead Hamas fighters, many of whom were not wearing uniforms.

Oops! No wonder the Times couldn't find those Hamas fighters at Shifa. The fighters aren't at the hospitals. So we don't really know how many of them have been wounded—or killed, since they aren't in uniform, even if we had access to all the bodies. So we don't know what percentage of the dead or wounded are civilians. All we know is that the percentage is lower than you'd guess from counting patients at the hospitals.

Every life is precious. The bloodshed in Gaza is awful, and I hope it ends today. But the ratio of civilian to combat injuries and casualties being reported out of the war zone is inflated, and we simply don't know by how much. It makes one side look more careless than it actually is. And the other side, by concealing its dead and wounded, is controlling the inflation.