Casualty numbers are a central feature of the global media coverage of Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza, with daily updates on figures being published by many major news outlets. The New York Times – which cites its sources as UNOCHA, the Palestinian Health Authority and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) – gave its most recent figures as 1,834 Palestinian deaths and 67 Israeli. The media’s ability to report reliable numbers, however, actually rests on the long-term professional work of established non-governmental organisations who for years have been meticulously and systematically documenting details of violent deaths, including each person’s name, age and demographic as well as the circumstances of their death.
The UN’s inter-agency Global Protection Cluster for the Occupied Palestinian Territories recently reported that since the start of Operation Protective Edge three NGOs have been working with OHCHR to collect and verify information on fatalities in Gaza. Data from these NGOs – the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, B’Tselem, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is being cross-checked by OHCHR and entered into a unified database of casualty information. This is one of the very few such databases the UN currently operates; the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is another.
Each of these organisations has been carrying out systematic casualty recording on a daily basis, employing transparent and well-tested methods, since long before the current military offensive began. While details regarding some victims may be uncertain or difficult to verify in the middle of hostilities (such as their civilian or combatant status, or the precise cause of death), the fact of that death, and its being a direct consequence of armed violence, is not in dispute.
Moreover the very act of recording the death in a timely manner, and in as much detail as current circumstances permit, means that any unresolved questions can, if necessary, be investigated later. That several independent NGOs are recording casualties to a high standard, and that this can be cross-checked and corroborated, means that fatality figures emerging from Gaza benefit from a degree of substantiation rarely witnessed in ongoing conflicts. When efforts are combined among multiple organisations, as here, they are also less affected by common data-collection biases such as limited coverage. These organisations and their staff, like many of their peers working in other conflicts, maintain an ongoing commitment to gathering accurate casualty data using clear and articulated standards.
The casualty information gathered and corroborated in Gaza allows for identification and public acknowledgement of the victims, thereby respecting the dignity of the deceased and their surviving loved ones. It also provides vital information for humanitarian response planning and for monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law. As in other conflict situations, the data being provided by casualty recorders will almost certainly play a crucial role in further investigations into allegations of possible war crimes. Casualty records include inofrmation about victims’ age, sex, cause and location of death. These details can have important legal implications in assessing whether parties to conflict are respecting the core IHL principles of distinction and proportionality.
Each of the three NGOs discussed here issues daily updates on casualty figures from the ongoing conflict on their websites. More information on B’Tselem and PCHR, both members of the Casualty Recorders Network, can be found on the casualty recording organisations database. A brief overview of all three organisations’ casualty recording work is provided below.
B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members, and has attained a prominent place among international human rights organisations. In December, 1989 it received the Carter-Menil Award for Human Rights.
B’Tselem ensures the reliability of information it publishes by conducting its own fieldwork and research, the results of which are thoroughly cross-checked with relevant documents, official government sources, and information from other sources, among them Israeli, Palestinian, and other human rights organisations.
Initial figures on casualties of ‘Operation Protective Edge’ from B’Tselem are available here.
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)
The work of PCHR is conducted through documentation and investigation of human rights violations, provision of legal aid and counselling for both individuals and groups, and preparation of research articles relevant to such issues as the human rights situation and the rule of law. It has made a list of all who died in the Gaza war of 2008-9 with name, age, sex, occupation, address, date of death, date of attack, place of attack, governorate and combatant/civilian status. It also documents human rights violations and extrajudicial killings by name in regular reports. Central to its work are databases and statistical analyses.
Statistics on the victims of the Israeli offensive since 08 July 2014 are available here.
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights
The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights is a human rights organisation which has worked closely with the UN to document and verify the casualties of the current conflict.
As part of their core programming Al Mezan is concerned with monitoring and documenting human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian territories. The collection of data is carried out by the Fieldwork Unit of the Center which consists of fieldworkers responsible for different sectors of the Gaza Strip. The Unit monitors and documents the human rights situation and gathers necessary information about human rights violations in the OPT, perpetrated by both Israel and Palestinian entities. Al-Mezan has provided identifying information on casualties of the most recent Israeli offensive to the United Nations.