Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

The Gazan War, Misleading Statistics and Bad Analogies

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Among the strategies for unfairly criticizing Israel’s conduct in the Gazan War are claims based on statistics and comparisons to other wars. In some cases the criticism is explicit with Israel accused of a brutal campaign, while in others it is implicit but equally evident. However, many of the statistics are deceptive or meaningless and many of the analogies faulty. Here I will present three examples of journalists who employ this strategy in misleading ways.

(1) In a recent column published in the New York Times, “Gaza Deaths Surpass Any Arab Loss in Wars With Israel,” Liam Shick notes that around 20,000 Gazans have already died in the current war, which “has already surpassed the toll for any other Arab conflict with Israel in more than 40 years.” Shick claims that about “19,000 Egyptians, Syrians and others” died in the 1967 Six Day War and about the same number of “mostly Syrians and Egyptians” died in the 1973 war. He essentially blames Israel by charging that “The high death toll reflects how Israel has chosen to wage the war, using thousands of airstrikes, heavy bombs and artillery in a small territory densely packed with civilians who cannot escape.”

These comparisons are spurious and problematic. The 1967 and 1973 wars were fought between armies on battlefields. The Egyptians and Syrians were not terrorists who massacred civilians and then hid themselves among citizens in Cairo or Damascus. Of course the death tolls differ, as far more civilians die because Hamas terrorists store weapons and hide in, and then fight from, tunnels beneath apartments, schools and hospitals. Had the Egyptians and Syrians fought that way, many more than 19,000 would have died.

Shick tosses out another metric based on US wars: “Some military experts said more people had been killed more quickly in this war than during the deadliest stages of the US-led wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.” Shick does not tell us what these “deadliest stages” were and what these “experts” are referring to, so the comparison is useless. In any case, the Afghan war was very dissimilar, fought over vast regions of Afghanistan with low population densities. Much of the fighting was in small towns. In some of the larger cities, such as Kabul, where US forces teamed up with Pashtun, Uzbeq and other ethnic militias, the Taliban withdrew without a fight. These conditions are so different from the war in Gaza that we learn nothing by comparing the two about whether the Gazan war has seen higher or lower casualties than analogous conflicts.

The same goes for the war in Iraq. At the outset the US forces fought the Iraqi army and won a quick and decisive victory in a conventional war, which again is very different from a war against terrorists. In the ensuing Iraqi occupation and campaign to put down insurgents and civil strife, which is more similar to the Gazan conflict, casualties were much higher. President Bush estimated 30,000 Iraqi civilians died, the medical journal Lancet put the total civilian deaths at over 100,000, and quotes one estimate at more than 650,000 (!). Perhaps Shick’s experts mean the Second Battle for Fallujah, which involved insurgents of various factions and urban warfare. However, the total number of insurgents was 1,000-3,000 according to most estimates, compared to 30,000-40,000 Hamas fighters. Much of the population of Fallujah, estimated to have been 300,000, fled the city before the war such that only 30,000-90,000 remained during the campaign, compared to 2.2 million Gazans. It makes sense there were far fewer casualties in Fallujah. All this tells us little about how many deaths we should expect in the Gazan War.

(2) Julia Frankel, writing for the Associated Press, in a column “Israel’s military campaign in Gaza seen as among the most destructive in recent history, experts say,” (also published in the LA Times, which substituted “deadliest” for “most destructive” in the title), adduces other wars to suggest Israel’s excessive use of force: “In just over two months, the offensive has wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria’s Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine’s Mariupol or, proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II.”

Let us take up these examples one by one:

Why the Syrian civil war in Aleppo should shed any light on the Gazan conflict is not clear, and Frankel makes no case why it is relevant. That it took place in a city does not mean much. The number of Syrian rebel fighters, 6,000-10,000, was again far fewer than Hamas, and the population of Aleppo in 2012 was far below that of Gaza, as much of the population fled. The rebels had neither tunnels nor hostages. Even so, over 30,000 died in the conflict.

The battle of Mariupol in Ukraine is also a problematic comparison. The population was about 450,000-500,000 before the Russian attack. Again, much of the fighting was between the Ukrainian and Russian armies, not Ukrainian terrorists hiding within the city. Ukrainian officials claim that 25,000 civilians were killed in the three months of the siege and that 90% of buildings were destroyed, although some estimates are far higher. The Associated Press itself, for example, estimates the deaths at 75,000. Russia disputes these figures, but if the Ukrainians or Frankel’s own Associated Press are correct, the Mariupol casualties were far higher than the Gazan count.

Frankel claims there has been more destruction “proportionately, than the allied bombing of Germany in World War II.” What this “proportionately” means is totally unclear. Proportionate to the German population? The area of Germany? The length of the war? Unknown. In fact the allies killed 500,000 Germans, most of them civilians, deliberately attacking population centers to maximize casualties, and also destroyed over 60 cities. All this was much more destructive than the Gazan war.

(3) The BBC, never known for its objective perspective on Israel, recently published a column by Merlyn Thomas, “Israel Gaza: What Gaza’s death toll says about the war,” quoting various “experts” who claim such things as an “exceptionally high’” pace of killings and characterize this war as “unprecedented both for the number of people killed and for the indiscriminateness of the killing.” The author concedes “Each conflict is unique in the way it is fought.” This is undoubtedly true, and should have obviated comparisons to other conflicts. But Thomas cannot resist continuing in the next sentence with the assertion that “the experts the BBC has spoken to agree that the rate of killing in Gaza is significantly bigger than in others fought recently.”

Which others? The author compares the Israel campaign to the “brutal” US bombing of Vietnam, and then suggests: “By contrast, US-led coalition air and artillery strikes killed fewer than 20 civilians per day, on average, during the four-month offensive to drive IS out of the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, according to Amnesty International. It is unclear how many civilians lived there at the time, but UN officials estimated that there were between 50,000 and 100,000.”

So let’s do the math. If we assume only 10 civilians were killed per day, not 20, that means 1,200 were killed over four months in Raqqa. If the population was about 75,000, a midpoint between those estimates, that means 1,200 out of 75,000 civilians died, or 1.6%.  If 20,000 civilians have been killed in Gaza out of 2.2 million, that is 0.9 %. And if we can trust Israel’s figures that 8,000 Hamas fighters have died, that means the civilian death total is 12,000, or .054 %, far less than Raqqa. This “contrast” between the apparently measured US-led campaign against the Islamic State and the Israeli Gazan campaign actually shows the opposite of what Thomas and her “experts” believe.

What these journalists do not say, other than briefly mentioning the tunnels and Hamas’s hiding among the population, is that the holding of hostages complicates the situation enormously, as does Hamas constantly firing rockets against Israel’s civilian population. Israel cannot take its time with a slow siege as the US and its allies did against the Islamic State and against Iraqi insurgents, and as the Syrians did against rebels in Aleppo. This is another reason why the comparisons to other such wars are problematic.

Granted, these journalists are writing brief columns, and not offering detailed analyses of the wars they adduce for comparative insights. (The same, obviously, is true for this response). But that is exactly why they should not make facile comparisons meant to portray Israel’s response as excessive.

Every death is a tragedy, and I believe all good people suffer for each Gazan death. Whatever the total amount of deaths, it is too high. Hamas, not Israel, should be blamed for these deaths–for preaching genocide, massacring civilians, firing rockets indiscriminately, fighting from hospitals, storing weapons in schools, and using the civilians in Gaza as human shields.  If journalists want to make comparisons to other wars, let them compare what happens when a terrorist organization massacres civilians, takes hostages and violates numerous principles of the Geneva convention to what happens in conventional wars. The takeaway should be that the world must clamp down on terrorist organizations before they act because the consequences to civilians will be dire.

About the Author
Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies of New York University. His books include, "Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture" (1999) and "The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud," (2003)
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