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Numbering the Dead

On January 14, day 19 of the Gaza war, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon faced a press conference in Cairo and flatly declared it “intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict.” Writing the next morning in an Arabic-language British newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Ban pressed the point. “Many have died and the civilians are enduring catastrophes,” he wrote, according to an English translation.

That view appears to have shaped much of world opinion on the war. The Lancet, the respected British medical journal, declared in a January 14 editorial that the “violence launched on Gaza” was “taking an unjustifiable toll on civilian populations.” Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, called the situation “shocking.”

Given that any war causes some civilian deaths, how many are “justifiable”? Indeed, how many civilians were killed in Gaza?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, partly because of disputes on who was a civilian. The Los Angeles Times, quoting Palestinian health officials January 15, reported 513 civilians killed, about half the total 1,015 deaths. The Guardian, the left-wing British daily, citing the more ideological Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said “at least 673” civilians had been killed, about two-thirds of the total. The Israeli military disputed both reports, offering a civilian toll of about 25%.

The critical question, though, is how any of those figures measure up against a “justifiable” total, whatever that might be. No one on either side suggested a yardstick.

Well, here is one way to measure: by comparing the Gaza toll to similar conflicts elsewhere. The civilian toll in Russia’s Chechnya wars was about 80% of total deaths by most accounts. The civilian toll in America’s Iraq War, although not entirely analogous, was about two-thirds of total deaths through 2007, according to published Pentagon figures. Those tolls are low compared to other recent wars, where civilian tolls can reach 90%, according to U.N. studies.

Every civilian death is horrific. And yet, even in the face of horror, facts matter.

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