For religious Jews, the word “numbers” brings to mind the fourth book of Moses, which records that Moses and Aaron were commanded to number the tribes of Israel (not including the Levites) by recording the names of every man twenty years of age and older who was fit for military service. They complied with that command, and we assume that they faithfully sought to be as accurate in their numbering as they could be.
Today, after the terror attack of October 7, another kind of numbering is going on: the Gaza Health Ministry purports to tell the world about the number of Palestinians who have been killed or injured by the Israeli counter-attack on Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza. There is, in this current case of numbering, very considerable doubt regarding accuracy.
First, let’s consider the source of the numbers, and then we’ll look at the actual numbers being reported.
The source is the Gaza Health Ministry which, like every other governmental agency in Gaza, is ultimately controlled by Hamas. Hamas, it is fair to say, has a total disregard for the distinction between truth and falsity. The Gaza Health Ministry follows the same policy.
The most glaring example of the Health Ministry’s embrace of convenient falsehoods is its reaction to the October 16 explosion near the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza. The Health Ministry trotted out one of its doctors who, in a voice trembling with indignation, asserted that the hospital itself had been bombed by an Israeli missile that had been intentionally aimed to hit the hospital, and thus constituted a war crime. The Ministry also alleged that more than 500 people had been killed in the explosion.
Every rational person in the world now knows that the story peddled by the Ministry was false from beginning to end. The hospital itself was not rocked by an explosion; a parking lot next to the hospital was. Although there were some deaths, nothing like 500 people died. And finally, and most importantly, the I.D.F. had nothing whatsoever to do with the explosion. Rather, a defective rocket fired from Gaza by an Islamist terrorist group allied with Hamas failed to reach its target in Israel and instead fell onto the parking lot and exploded. Did the Hamas Health Ministry ever correct its outrageously false statements? No.
That is the source we are dealing with when we read reports of the number of Palestinian casualties in Gaza. Now, let’s consider some of those numbers.
The Associated Press reports, as of November 2, that: “At least 9,061 Palestinians have been killed in the war, mostly women and minors, and more than 32,000 people have been wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday, without providing a breakdown between civilians and fighters.”
We know that approximately 1,500 Hamas terrorists who invaded on October 7 were ultimately killed in Israel. One would think that those dead terrorists would be included among Palestinians “killed in the war.” And, if they are included, they are dead enemy combatants whom the I.D.F. had every right, under the laws of war, to eliminate. The Health Ministry does not say whether those terrorists, who were killed in Israel, are included in the 9,061 number.
As the Associated Press notes, the Health Ministry does not say what number of Palestinians killed in Gaza itself were armed members of Hamas or other terrorist groups. Again, it is entirely appropriate for Israeli military forces to kill armed combatants enlisted in Hamas or any allied terrorist group. When armed terrorists attack civilians, those invaders are properly the targets of a counter-attack wherever they are found. The Health Ministry ignores the distinction between combatants and civilians.
The Ministry says that the 9,061 number includes “mostly” women and minors. Given that the Ministry flouts the distinction between truth and falsity (see, al-Alhi Baptist Hospital) I would suggest that that “mostly” be taken with a grain of salt as big as the Rock of Gibraltar. Let’s consider, nevertheless, the children or minors who have been killed.
What age does the Health Ministry consider to be the maximum age of a minor? The Ministry never says, and there is certainly no information about that in the Associated Press story referred to above. So, we’re left to guess at whether the Ministry perhaps thinks that a twenty-year-old is a minor, or an eighteen-year-old, or a sixteen-year-old.
But a machine gun or a rocket launcher in the hands of a sixteen-year-old is just as lethal as if it were wielded by a thirty-year-old. The laws of war obviously do not obligate the I.D.F. to first ascertain the age of an armed enemy combatant, before taking steps to eliminate that combatant. We’ve all seen pictures of Hamas fighters; some of them seem to be quite young. If Hamas is cruel enough to recruit children as armed fighters (and there can be little doubt about the extent of Hamas’ cruelty), those armed children are proper targets in an Israeli counter-attack.
No one wants innocent civilians, whether men, women, or children, to be killed. But we have seen two fundamental war crimes. First, it is a war crime—and also the domestic crime of murder—to intentionally kill unarmed civilians, as Hamas terrorists did repeatedly on October 7.
Secondly, it is a war crime for a combatant to hide among or underneath civilians, thus endangering civilians by using them as human shields. But war criminals are not granted immunity from counter-attack as a reward for their war crimes. If human shields are injured or killed in an appropriate counter-attack, the combatants morally and legally responsible for those deaths are the war criminals, not the forces that counter-attacked.
Hamas has created an elaborate military infrastructure within, next to, and underneath civilian facilities in Gaza; as stated, this is a war crime. The I.D.F. retains the right to counter-attack, provided that a proportional amount of force is used, considering the importance of the military target and the risk of harm to civilians. These are the dire choices that the brutality of the terrorists has imposed on Israel. Given the caution and care with which the I.D.F. operates, I think rational people can be confident that virtually every Palestinian civilian casualty is the moral and legal responsibility of Hamas and its allies.