The New York Times tucked a remarkable statistic into the tail-end of an article on WikiLeaks’s latest document dump, one with ramifications for the ongoing delegitimization campaign against Israel: for most of the last century, the normal civilian-to-combatant wartime fatality ratio has been 10:1.
Civilians have borne the brunt of modern warfare, with 10 civilians dying for every soldier in wars fought since the mid-20th century, compared with 9 soldiers killed for every civilian in World War I, according to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This elicits an obvious question: if civilians routinely account for 90 percent of all casualties in modern warfare, why is the world up in arms about the civilian casualty rate in last year’s Israel-Hamas war in Gaza — which, by even the most anti-Israel account, was markedly lower?
If one accepts the Israel Defense Forces’ statistics, then noncombatants accounted for only 39 percent of Palestinian fatalities — less than half the standard 90 percent rate noted by the ICRC. Nongovernmental organizations obviously cite a much higher civilian casualty rate. But even they put it below 90 percent.
According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israeli forces killed 1,390 Palestinians in the war, including 759 noncombatants, 349 combatants, 248 Palestinian policemen, two in targeted assassinations (bizarrely, these aren’t classified as either combatants or noncombatants), and 32 whose status it couldn’t determine. The policemen are listed separately because their status is disputed: Israel says the Hamas-run police force served as an auxiliary army unit; Palestinians say the policemen were noncombatants.
Omitting the 34 whom B’Tselem didn’t classify, these figures show civilians comprising 74 percent of total fatalities if the policemen are considered noncombatants, and 56 percent if they’re considered combatants. Either way, the ratio is well below the 90 percent norm.
The most anti-Israel accounting, from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, lists 1,417 Palestinian fatalities, including 236 combatants, 926 civilians, and 255 policemen. But even these figures, if we assume the policemen were noncombatants, put civilians at only 83 percent of total deaths — less than the proportion the Red Cross deemed the norm back in 2001. Treating the policemen as combatants lowers the rate to 65 percent.
Whichever numbers you choose, the civilian casualty rate was high. But as the ICRC data make clear, high civilian casualty rates are normal — indeed, inevitable — in modern warfare, in which combatants often don’t wear uniforms and fight from among the civilian population, making them hard to distinguish from noncombatants. Judged against this global norm, the IDF, far from demonstrating callous disregard for civilian casualties, has actually been unusually successful at minimizing them.
But there’s an even more important lesson to be learned here: if critics truly want to change this norm, they must stop making this modus operandi so profitable for the terrorists. As long as terrorists know that fighting from among civilians will result in opprobrium not for them but — because of the inevitable civilian casualties — for any of their victims who dare to fight back, they will have every incentive to keep doing it.