- Associated Press - Friday, August 8, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - In the grisly math of the Israel-Hamas war, conflicting counts of combatants and civilians killed in Gaza are emerging - with the ratio perhaps more important to shaping international opinion of the monthlong conflict than any final toll.

The U.N. and rights groups operating in Gaza say about three-quarters of the around 1,900 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 450 children, with many perishing in strikes that killed several family members at a time.

Israel estimates that between 40-50 percent of those killed in Gaza were fighters.

While the overall count is not in great dispute, those doing tallies use different methods and standards to make that all important determination of who is a civilian.

The U.N. and human rights groups rely on witness accounts and community contacts of field researchers to distinguish civilians from combatants.

Mahmoud AbuRahma of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights said his researchers require at least two sources and count on their local ties to determine if someone was a combatant or civilian.

For its part, Israel has said it uses its own intelligence reports to determine who among the dead belonged to Hamas or other militant groups.

The ratio of civilians to combatants could be used by either side to promote their narrative of what took place in the conflict.

Israel faces growing international criticism over the large number of civilians killed in Gaza, with President Barack Obama and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both saying Israel could do much more to prevent harm to noncombatants.

Ban said this week that “the massive deaths and destruction in Gaza have shocked and shamed the world.”

However, a high ratio of civilian deaths does not necessarily point to a violation of the rules of war, said Sarah Knuckey, an international human rights lawyer at Columbia Law School in New York.

It might raise legal concerns, but “does not itself answer whether any party … violated the rule against disproportionate attacks,” she said. In judging if disproportionate force was used, each incident has to be investigated separately, she said.

In explaining the civilian casualties, Israel has accused Gaza fighters of launching attacks from crowded residential areas.

Brig. Gen. Mickey Adelstein, a senior Israeli army commander, said forces under his command “avoided attacking many, many targets” because civilians were present and that “Hamas took advantage of that issue.”

Adelstein told reporters Thursday the military estimated that between 1,700 and 2,000 Palestinians had been killed, but that Israel didn’t have the names of all the dead yet.

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