Thursday, March 19, 2009

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP (AP) - The final tally of Palestinians killed in Israel’s recent war on Gaza’s Hamas rulers is 1,417, including 926 civilians, according to a Palestinian human rights groups that published the names, ages and other information about the dead on its Web site Thursday.

Israel disputed the findings by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), saying it believes the majority of the dead were combatants or legitimate targets, but offered no evidence. An Israeli think tank said its analysis of the PCHR’s data suggests the number of civilians is lower than the rights group claims.

Israel waged a three-week war in Gaza, ending with a unilateral cease-fire Jan. 18, in an attempt to weaken the Islamic militant Hamas and halt persistent rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli border towns.

After a week of air strikes, Israeli tanks and ground forces entered the territory, flattening several neighborhoods and industrial areas near the border. Some 15,000 houses and hundreds of businesses were destroyed or damaged, according to independent assessments.

Human rights groups have accused Israel of using excessive force, noting that heavy civilian casualties were inevitable in densely populated Gaza. Israel said Hamas militants intentionally operated from residential areas in order to use civilians as human shields.

The PCHR said in a statement that the large number of civilians among the dead is proof that Israeli troops “used excessive and random force through the entire period of aggression, violating the principle of distinction (between combatants and civilians).”

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev rejected the allegation. “Israel, during the military campaign, made every possible effort to target enemy combatants only,” he said.

The PCHR said its list, including determining the number of civilians, is based on thorough research. It said among the dead were 926 civilians, including 313 minors under the age of 18 and 116 women. The group counted 236 combatants and 255 members of the Hamas security forces.

Of the security forces, 240 were killed on Dec. 27, the first day of the war, when Israeli aircraft unleashed massive strikes on Hamas security compounds, the report said.

During the war, the group’s field workers were deployed at seven Gaza hospitals, recording names and other information about the dead as the bodies were brought in, said the group’s deputy director, Jabr Wishah. After the war, researchers checked all those initially listed as civilians, interviewing their family members and neighbors and collecting ID numbers, medical records and death certificates, he said.

Researcher Mohammed Ghannam said he would sometimes change a classification after a follow-up visit.

For example, the Dughmush family in Gaza City insisted Hamdan Dughmush, 19, was watching clashes between Hamas gunmen and Israeli soldiers when he was killed near his home.

However, neighbors told Ghannam that Dughmush was planting a roadside bomb, and the researcher said he moved the young man from the “civilian” to the “combatant” column.

In another case, a 16-year-old initially listed as a civilian because of his age was later labeled a combatant because of circumstantial evidence, Ghannam said.

In a reverse example, one member of the Hamas military wing was listed as a civilian because he was killed at home, along with 21 other members of the family, when an Israeli airstrike flattened the building on Jan. 6, the researcher said.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said after the war that more than 700 Hamas members were among the dead and Israel had their names. However, Israel has not released its own list of Palestinians killed, and hasn’t said when it would do so. It remains unclear how the military, without access to Gaza, would compile a thorough list.

Still, Regev said that “the overwhelming majority of casualties were Hamas operatives and others who were, under international law, legitimate targets.”

Also Thursday, the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, an Israeli think tank, presented its own analysis of the PCHR data, based on preliminary lists, not the final one published Thursday.

Researchers Yael Shahar and Don Radlauer said they did not dispute the final tally, since they have no access to Gaza, but they believe the number of dead combatants is higher.

They said they found 314 confirmed combatants _ 78 more than PCHR listed. Their figure is based on checking the PCHR’s list against those claimed as dead fighters on Web sites of militant groups.

The researchers also classified 518 of the dead as unknown, arguing that not enough information is available to put them in either category. They noted that about 80 percent in the group of unknowns were men, including many in their 20s.

This gender and age distribution refutes allegations that Israeli forces targeted Palestinians randomly, the researchers said. “We are being accused of not aiming, of indiscriminate attacks, and the demographics clearly contradict that,” said Radlauer.


Additional reporting by Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank.


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