One of the most common and misleading tactics deployed against Israel by its critics is to compare the number of dead Israelis and dead Palestinians, and use the figures to portray Palestinians as victims of Israeli aggression.
Vox's Max Fisher, who is on a campaign to convince people that Israel bears primary responsibility for the absence of peace in the region, pushed the argument this week to show that the conflict was “lopsided.” The Legal Insurrection blog has rounded up other examples of liberals and critics of Israel making similar arguments emphasizing comparative death totals.
In a sense, it's understandable why opponents of Israel seek to make such arguments, because it allows them to flash a simple statistic that could be persuasive those who are uninformed about the actual details of the conflict. But no objective observer should take moral arguments rooted in raw casualty statistics seriously, and below, I've given five reasons why.
1. Comparative death totals don't say much about the morality of the various sides in a conflict
If you want to talk about lopsided death totals, check out this chart of German and American deaths during World War II.
According to the National World War II Museum, the war claimed between 6.6 million and 8.8 million German lives, compared with 418,500 American lives. That translates into a ratio of German to American deaths of at least 16 to 1, and as high as 21 to 1. Yet nobody is going to argue, based on these statistics, that Nazi Germany should be able to claim the moral high ground over the U.S. in the war.
To be clear, I'm not saying that the current conflict and World War II are the same. I make this point at the outset to establish that comparing raw death totals of parties in a conflict, devoid of context, says absolutely nothing about the morality of the various sides involved in a conflict. Nor does it reveal which side was the aggressor.
2. Raw totals don't differentiate among civilians and terrorists
Another problem with looking at raw death totals is that they don't say anything about who is being killed -- a Palestinian terrorist and an Israeli child each count as one death as far as overall casualty statistics are concerned. A further look at data from B'Tselem, which Fisher and others rely on, found that between September 2000 (when Palestinians launched a campaign of terrorism known as the “Second Intifada”) and May 2014, 2,384 deaths on the Palestinian side were of “Palestinians who took part in the hostilities and were killed by Israeli security forces”; 683 were "Palestinians killed by Palestinians"; another 288 were “Palestinians who were the object of a targeted killing” (in other words, Israel identified terrorist leaders and successfully eliminated them); and 702 were Palestinians killed in cases where it's unknown whether they were involved in fighting. So, depending on how one wants to look at the numbers, at least 3,067 and perhaps 3,769 of those Palestinians included in the raw total numbers of 7,561 were either combatants or killed by other Palestinians. This isn't to say that there aren't Palestinian civilian deaths, but for reasons detailed below, the responsibility for those deaths lies with Palestinian terrorists and their supporters, not with Israel.
3. Israel takes tremendous precautions to protect its own citizens
During the “Second Intifada,” Palestinian terrorists carried out a wave of suicide bombings, killing hundreds of Israelis at nightclubs, cafes, buses, and other locations throughout Israel, such as at a hotel during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Eventually, over the objections of the international community, Israel built a security fence that has proved successful in virtually eliminating the capacity of terrorists to carry out suicide attacks. Being deprived of their ability to massacre Jews through suicide bombings, Palestinians turned toward indiscriminately firing rockets at Israeli civilians.
Terrorists have launched more than 11,000 rockets into Israel since Hamas took over Gaza in 2005, according to Israel Defense Forces. In the current conflict, Hamas has been using longer-range rockets, firing at Israel's capital city, major population centers, and its international airport, among other targets.
To protect its citizens, the Israeli government has been sending out sirens warning them of approaching rockets so they can get to shelter — the warning time ranges from 15 seconds in the southern parts of Israel closer to Gaza to 90 seconds for most of central Israel. In addition, Israel has developed the “Iron Dome” anti-missile system that has been shooting down rockets heading toward populated areas. Add these precautions to the fact that Israel has a citizenry trained in how to behave calmly during a crisis, and this accounts for the fact that there's only been one death recorded on the Israeli side during the current conflict.
But somehow, the way the issue is being portrayed by critics, it’s as if Israelis should somehow feel guilty and morally conflicted about the fact that they aren’t at greater risk of being hit by rockets.
4. Palestinian terrorists put their civilians in harm’s way
Palestinians have had a tradition of glorifying death and viewing those who die in the process of killing Israelis and Americans as heroes. On Sept. 11, 2001, Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate the attacks that killed 3,000 Americans, even handing out candy. Over the years, Palestinians have named streets after suicide bombers and thrown parades in their honor. In this 2012 report from Hamas-controlled Al Aqsa television, a Palestinian man explained the desire of children to follow in the footsteps of a slain Hamas leader: “Allah be praised, all the young Muslims in Gaza love martyrdom, just as our enemies, the Jewish dogs, love life.”
Video of the IDF calling off an airstrike due to the presence of civilians
Given this foundation, it isn't surprising that Hamas terrorists have been caught over the years firing rockets from schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods — and using houses to meet and store weapons. It's a win-win for a group that has no regard for human lives. Because Israel seeks to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, Hamas has more freedom when it operates near civilians. Here, for instance, is video of the IDF calling off an airstrike because there were too many civilians in the area. On the other hand, when Israel is forced to attack a site, and there are inevitable casualties on the Palestinian side, it serves as a propaganda victory for Hamas, because Israel's opponents in the media will then use the casualty counts to de-legitimize Israel. This, in turn, generates more international pressure against Israel to cease its military operations.
In the current conflict, Israel has tried to limit Palestinian civilian casualties by dropping leaflets, making phone calls, sending text messages, and dropping lighter mortars on building roofs as warning shots ahead of attacks on terrorists. Israel has taken such actions even though all of these precautions can give terrorists time to flee. Meanwhile, Hamas has urged Palestinian civilians to disregard Israeli warnings and remain in their homes.
When one side takes precautions to protect its civilians, and another side takes actions that put its civilians in harm’s way and then advises their civilians to remain in harm’s way, is it any wonder that the resulting casualty figures are lopsided?
5. The reality of Israel’s military edge actually shows that it’s acting morally
Another way that opponents of Israel attempt to use comparative death totals is to portray Palestinians as defenseless victims of Israel’s powerful military. But the reality of Israel’s vast conventional military edge actually demonstrates that it’s acting morally. The best weapons Palestinians have available to them right now are long-range rockets from Iran and Syria — and they are firing them indiscriminately, where they would inflict the greatest damage on Israelis were they to make landfall. In contrast, Israel has the military capacity to completely level Gaza to the ground, and instead, its military is using a tiny fraction of its might to launch limited attacks on specific targets — on terrorist commanders themselves, as well as rocket launch sites and rocket storage sites.
If Israel were to abandon its domestic protective measures and call off its military actions in Gaza, it would surely change the casualty statistics. But it would also represent a dereliction of duty by Israeli leaders if they didn’t take actions necessary to protect their citizens.