The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts


Palestinian relatives of eight members of the Al Haj family, who were killed in a strike, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on July 10. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

There's at least one clear asymmetry to the conflict, however. By Friday morning, 100 Palestinians had died as a result of Israeli military action, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with hundreds more wounded. To date, there have been zero reports of Israeli deaths due to Palestinian rocket fire, though Magen David Adom, Israel's national emergency medical service, said Wednesday that 123 people had been treated – 80 percent of them for shock or anxiety – since the start of the operation.

These are not surprising figures. During 2012's Operation Pillar of Defense, 167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, according to human rights group B’Tselem, who said that less than half of that number were believed to be taking part in hostilities. The same report said six Israelis had died: Four civilians and two members of the Israeli security forces. In the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the pattern was also evident. According to numbers released by the Israeli Defense Force, 1,166 Palestinians died during that conflict, 709 of which the IDF said were  "Hamas terror operatives." Thirteen Israelis died, three of whom were non-combatants.

The death tolls in these sort of conflicts are often imprecise and disputed, but few people would argue with the core takeaway: When Israelis and Palestinians fight, Palestinians are far more likely to die than Israelis are. Why could that be? Here are four factors.

The weapons

Hamas is able to launch missiles farther into Israel than ever before.
Hamas is able to launch missiles farther into Israel than ever before. (Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

In conflicts like the current one, militants in the Gaza Strip fire a large amount of rockets into Israeli territory. According to the IDF, around six rockets are being fired at Israelis every hour. However, many of these rockets are not sophisticated, and they either fail to land in populated areas or lack the firepower to cause casualties when they do: Sometimes, the payloads are removed from missiles in a bid to increase their range.

The original "Qassam rocket," named after the Izzaddine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed branch of Hamas, and fired during the Second Intifada, were rudimentary affairs, designed to be made cheaply and easily, though they were crudely effective within a limited range. While these missiles are still produced and fired from Gaza, in recent years the Palestinian militants have been able to get their hands on better equipment: The IDF announced this week that an M-302 missile, manufactured in Syria, had landed near Hadara, 70 miles north of Gaza. Such a missile has a range that allows it to strike anywhere in Israel, though its accuracy is limited and its use appears to be rare so far (for a map showing the ranges of Hamas' missiles, click here). Hamas is also believed to possess surface-to-air missiles that could be used against Israeli military aircraft.

Even with these new weapons, Israel clearly outguns Palestinian fighters. Israel has F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and armed drones, all of which are capable of firing into Gaza with remarkable firepower and considerable accuracy.

The defense systems


A girl leaves a bomb shelter after a siren warning of incoming rockets was sounded in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on July 9. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Over the years, Israel has invested significant amounts into protecting its civilians. Most buildings are required by law to have bomb shelters, and warning sirens are used to tell people when to head to them. In communities near the Gaza Strip, extra fortifications exist, including bus stops with concrete roofs for those caught out in the open when sirens start. In recent years, there has also been the "Iron Dome," Israel's renowned missile defense system which can shoot down threats while they're still in the air. The IDF says that about 90 percent of the system's targets have been shot down, vastly decreasing the risk to Israeli civilians.

Palestinians don't have their own Iron Dome. In fact, they don't have much in the way of bomb shelters, either. William Booth, The Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, who is currently in the Gaza Strip, says that "sometimes people can see and certainly hear an incoming missile, but it doesn't give them time to run and since missiles are guided — run where?" Israel has often criticized Hamas for not doing a better job of protecting its own citizens and failing to provide more bomb shelters.

The Israeli military does make some efforts to warn the occupants of buildings it is targeting  – either with a phone call or a warning missile, a practice known as "roof knocking" – but those warnings are not always successful.

The terrain


An Israeli tank outside the northern Gaza Strip on July 10.  (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The Gaza Strip is a relatively small area, just 139 square miles in total. However, it contains 1.8 million people, according to a CIA World Factbook Estimate. For reference, it's roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., with three times the people.

While the population density of the Gaza Strip is perhaps exaggerated (it may not be comparable to Manhattan or Hong Kong, for example), it clearly plays a role. Many of the targets of Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip live in densely populated areas like Gaza City or Khan Younis. Israel does make efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and has said that Hamas hides its weapons caches and launchpads within civilian areas. The IDF has accused Hamas of using "human shields."

Conversely, many of the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel fail to hit anything. The southern part of Israel is the most sparsely populated area of the country, largely consisting of the Negev desert. The main target for Palestinian missiles in previous years was the relatively nearby city of Sderot, with a population of about 24,000, though new mid- and long-range missiles may now mean that more populous cities such as Tel Aviv are targeted more frequently.

The attitude


An explosion follows an Israeli air strike on July 11 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

As mentioned above, the Israeli military does go to some lengths to avoid causing unnecessary deaths. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out the way they plan. For example, when the Israeli military recently "knocked on the roof" of a building in Khan Younis, a group of young men apparently ran into the building.

These men may have been hoping to protect the building by their presence, a tactic that has apparently been tried before. They may have been hoping to be martyrs. Either way, their presence did not stop the building from being destroyed. Hamas said seven people, including three minors, died in the attack.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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