Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, of the victims of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq whose age and gender could be determined, 46 percent were women and 39 percent were children. The study, based on data from Iraq Body Count, covered the period from March 2003 to March 2008, but specifically excluded airstrikes carried out during periods of intense fighting, such as the initial U.S. invasion and the 2004 battle of Fallujah. In other words, it excluded those periods when fire was likely to be heaviest and most indiscriminate due to the need to protect troops at risk.
By contrast, according to statistics published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 12 percent of all Palestinians killed in Gaza were women and 23 percent were children (239 women and 459 children out of 1,976 fatalities). Thus even if OCHA’s numbers are accurate, the percentages of women and children killed in Gaza were far lower than the percentages killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. Yet one would expect them to be higher, for at least three reasons.
First, unlike the NEJM study, OCHA’s figures cover the entire war, including periods of intense fighting when soldiers’ lives were at risk. In other words, they include the battles involving the heaviest fire, which NEJM’s study excluded. Second, the NEJM figures referred only to airstrikes, which utilize precision weapons; OCHA’s figures also include people killed by non-precision weaponry such as artillery fire. Third, though the claim that Gaza is one of the world’s mostly densely populated places is nonsense, almost all the fighting took place in dense urban areas: Since Hamas’s strategy depends on massive civilian casualties, it locates its rocket launchers and tunnels mainly in such areas. In contrast, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq weren’t limited to dense urban areas.
In short, even if OCHA’s figures are credible, Israel comes off well by comparison with coalition forces in Iraq. But in fact, they aren’t. First, OCHA doesn’t say whether any of these “children” were combatants, though it’s hardly unheard of for 16- or 17-year-old Palestinians to bear arms. More importantly, however, it doesn’t say how many of these women and children were actually killed by Hamas rather than Israel.
As I’ve noted before, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched at Israel–475 out of 3,137–actually landed in Gaza, where, given the lack of either Iron Dome or civilian bomb shelters, they would have been far more lethal than they were in Israel. In one documented case alone, a misfired Hamas rocket killed 10 people in a park, including eight children.
Moreover, as I’ve also noted, Hamas’s practice of booby-trapping and storing rockets in houses, mosques, and clinics means that many Israeli strikes inadvertently set off massive secondary explosions. In other words, many Palestinian “victims of Israeli attacks” were likely killed not by the Israeli strike itself, but by secondary explosions caused by Hamas’s own bombs.
Americans rightly expect the world to understand that when U.S. airstrikes decimate a Yemeni wedding party or kill civilians in Iraq, it isn’t because the U.S. is bloodthirsty, but because mistakes happen in wartime, especially when fighting terrorists who don’t wear uniforms and operate from amid civilian populations. But Israel is entitled to that same understanding.
Instead, the White House, Pentagon, and State Department have all accused Israel in the harshest terms of doing too little to prevent civilian casualties. Given that Israel’s record on this score, as the NEJM study shows, is even better than America’s, that is the height of hypocrisy.
Originally published in Commentary