Beware of “Body Count” Foreign Policy

Beware of “Body Count” Foreign Policy

The Israeli campaign in Gaza began as a response to the October 7 attack and its particular brutality. It is wrong, however, to view the Israeli fighting as a case of reciprocal brutality.

Prominent among the issues at stake in the war in Gaza is the scope of civilian fatalities. This is only natural. Whatever the political causes behind the war, human suffering rightly deserves the attention of public opinion and political leaders. For the Biden administration, the rhetoric around the death count in Gaza is taking on ever greater importance. President Joe Biden declared that “you can’t have another 30,000 Palestinians dead,” relying on the widely disseminated figure from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health. Senator Elizabeth Warren similarly blamed “[Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and his right-wing government” for killing “nearly 30,000 Palestinians.” The head of foreign policy for the European Union, Josep Borrell, has invoked the same number but mistakenly claimed that it represents exclusively civilian deaths. In fact, the Gazan authorities do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, so the number 30,000 includes both civilians and combatants.

Any death in war is tragic, especially civilian deaths. No one should make light of these losses. However, American foreign policy decisions appear to be increasingly driven by the rate of fatalities. It is, therefore, worthwhile to take a closer look at the numbers that may be less than they seem and not out of line with other cases of urban warfare.

Serious doubts have been raised concerning the credibility of the Gaza Ministry. Internal inconsistencies in the data, particularly concerning the gender ratio, suggest that it may be overstating the civilian death rate. In addition, the ministry does not identify which of the civilian deaths were caused by “friendly fire” from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other militants. This is far from a trivial factor: not all civilian fatalities in Gaza result from Israeli fire. On this point, it is worth remembering the reports about the rocket strike on the Al-Ahli Hospital on October 17, 2023. The Gazans immediately blamed it on Israel and announced a death tally of 471—well before any credible body count could be carried out—the international press immediately repeated this claim. Yet it quickly turned out that the damage had likely resulted from a misfired Palestinian rocket. Nonetheless, the victims at Al-Ahli are included in the 30,000 total and consequently attributed to the Israeli side, as if Hamas or its allies caused no Gazan deaths.

Despite these significant problems with the Gaza Ministry data, it is worth trying to evaluate the significance of 30,000 deaths, understood to represent a total of military and civilian fatalities. By now, Israel claims to have degraded Hamas’ military capacity by killing around 12,000 fighters, therefore putting non-combatant deaths at 18,000. Those figures translate into a ratio of military to civilian victims of 1:1.5. Hamas has disputed the size of its losses, conceding only 6,000, which would point to a ratio of 1:4 and approximately 24,000 civilians. In December, when all the casualty figures were lower, the ratio was reportedly 1:2. Whatever the precise figures, these ratios represent a narrow range.

Biden seems to want to link U.S. foreign policy to civilian death rates. Therefore, it is useful to compare the numbers in Gaza with civilian death rates elsewhere. This is the only way to determine whether Israeli actions have been, as the president put it, “over the top.”

During the Russian assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1994–95, 25,000-30,000 civilians were killed, but the count of combatant deaths is difficult to ascertain. During the Battle of Aleppo (2013–2016), civilian deaths numbered higher than 23,604 according to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, 76 percent of the total fatalities, producing a ratio of 1:3.2. Grozny and Aleppo are comparable to Gaza insofar as both involve the challenges of urban warfare where civilian casualties are sure to be high. The number of non-combatant deaths and the ratio of combatant to non-combatant deaths in Gaza are lower than both examples.

Turning to the Iraq War, determining the ratio of combatant to civilian deaths is complicated due to considerable variation in the counting of non-combatant deaths. The Iraq Family Health Survey cites 150,000 civilian deaths, while the British journal Lancet offers a much higher tally of 600,000. Using the estimate of 23,000 insurgent deaths, the ratio of enemy combatant to civilian deaths ranges between a low of 1:6.5 based on the Iraq Family Survey to a very high 1:26 for the Lancet estimate. 

These figures provide context for evaluating the developments in Gaza, where the ratio is likely between 1:15 and 1:4. If one relies on the Lancet data as a metric, one can only conclude that the Israelis are highly scrupulous in limiting civilian harm. Yet even using the lower ratio from the Iraq Family Survey, the Israelis are doing far better than coalition forces in Iraq.

One further reference point with which to frame the Gaza casualty rate is a 2022 report from the United Nations, which describes how, in wartime situations, close to 90 percent of casualties are civilians. Security Council document S/2022/381, a report from the secretary-general on “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” analyzes conflicts during 2021, stating that “the conduct of hostilities in urban and other populated areas increased the risk of death and injury for civilians.” In these areas, 89 percent of the victims were civilians, i.e., a ratio of 1:9, considerably worse than the casualty rate in Gaza. In other words, by UN metrics, civilian casualties in Gaza are low despite a widespread propaganda offensive claiming the contrary.

The Israeli campaign in Gaza began as a response to the October 7 attack and its particular brutality. It is wrong, however, to view the Israeli fighting as a case of reciprocal brutality. On the contrary, the rate of civilian deaths is comparable to or lower than in other urban warfare settings. There are also indications that the civilian casualty rate is declining further. This evaluation of fatalities is not intended to minimize the real, tragic losses in Gaza. It is, however, grounds for the United States to refrain from making policy decisions based on misunderstood casualty rates or uninformed public debate.

Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The opinions expressed here are his own.