Monday, February 05, 2007

Casualties in the Lebanon War

Not unsurprisingly, there is still considerable debate about the number of civilian fatalities resulting from Israel's bombing campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer. Unfortunately it is simply not possible to come up with a definitive number of civilians killed in the campaign. But a lack of definitive numbers does not support the contention that David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy puts forth (which I post nearly in full because of it's brevity):
During the Lebanon War last Summer, and ever since, just about every media source has reported that "most" (sometimes "the vast majority") of the 1,200 people killed in Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war were civilians. At the time, I pointed out that reporters actually had no way of knowing this, and that their sources--Hezbollah and the Lebanese government--had the incentive to inflate civilian casualties and (especially with regard to Hezbollah) downplay terrorist casualties.

My GMU colleague Peter Berkowitz notes in a completely different context (i.e., not discussing the media at all) that Israeli military analysts believe that 750 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the war. That figure is consistent with analyses I've read in various Israeli media outlets, in all cases just discussing the successes and failures of the war, not indulging in media criticism.

If Israeli military and intelligence estimates are correct, a slew of corrections is in order. Moreover, it's an extraordinary achievement by the Israeli military: if indeed Israel managed to battle a non-uniformed force hiding in civilian urban areas for a month, with an extremely supportive civilian population, with this low a military-civilian casualty ration, I believe this would be unprecedented in modern warfare. Quite a difference from the (as yet unretracted?) claims of the Juan Coles of the world that Israel was intentionally terrorizing the civilian population the better to permanently depopulate southern Lebanon, not to mention the Amnesty and Human Rights Watch claims of massive war crimes by Israel.

This is the entirety of the supporting text that Bernstein is linking to in his post:
Third, Israel killed roughly a third of Hezbollah's fighting force, about 750 out of a 2,000 to 3,000-man army (while 119 Israeli soldiers were killed).

Bernstein fails to link to anlyses that he's read which support this figure, which is unfortunate. Not because I don't believe that he's read any such thing, but because I would like to read those analyses for myself. Bernstein seems to accept matter-of-fact that the Israeli figures are correct. In fact he seems to be saying that only the Israeli figures can be correct, and that Lebanese, U.N., or figures of independent human rights organizations (most of which support a total casualty figure-including combatants-of about 1200) cannot be trusted. Clearly there is a disparity of numbers, but Bernstein leaves it up to me to go out and find the Israeli sources that support a figure of 750 Hezbollah fighters killed.

Bernstein also appears to imply that only the number of fighters killed can be questioned, and not the total of those killed in the war, civilian or combatant. Is it not at least possible that more fighters were killed than acknowledged by Lebanese authorities or Hezbollah, and yet the same number of civlians were also killed, raising the casualty figures in total? That possibility goes unmentioned. And without reading the original analyses that he's referring to, it's difficult to know if such an accounting is a possibility.

His call for a "slew of corrections" is absurdly premature. The entire following paragraph is premised on a single word, "if." Bernstein himself has offered no evidence that the civilian casualty figures are incorrect, only some evidence (possibly subject to bias, as all evidence can be) that more fighters were killed than Hezbollah claimed, which I've already stated does not necessarily undermine civilian casualty figures. Second, regardless of the total number of civilians killed, it is inarguable that the IDF was at least grossly negligent in attacking some civilian targets. In fact they were so negligent in some instances that it may be presumed that they intended to carry out such attacks without concern for the consequences for civilians. This includes mutiple attacks on convoys of civilians fleeing bombed cities in southern Lebanon, or deliberate attacks on civilian vehicles attempting to provide medical services or aid to wounded civilians, just to name two examples.

I for one do not know if Israel was attempting to "terrorize" the civilian population in an effort to depopulate southern Lebanon. But regardless of their intent, that appears to have been the effect, as nearly 1 million Lebanese were driven north from the zone of the fighting.

No "slew of corrections" or retractions is in order. Rather, this appears to be an instance of someone reading something they want very much to believe, and attempting to wield it against those who disagree not realizing exactly how ephemeral a rhetorical weapon it is they wield.

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