October 30, 2006

Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon


The perception that Israel's response to Hizballah attacks was disproportionate was largely a result of media reports on the casualty breakdown in Lebanon. Throughout the hostilities and after the fighting stopped, many news outlets unquestioningly accepted Lebanese claims that almost all Lebanese casualties were civilians, at the same time ignoring Israel's assertion that some 500-600 of the Lebanese fatalities were Hizballah fighters.

Because of the distinct possibility that Hizballah exaggerated the number of civilian casualties, the media's uncritical acceptance of Lebanese claims about the proportion of civilians killed demands a closer look. On August 25, the Lebanese Higher Relief Council, an official government agency, estimated 1,187 Lebanese deaths in total resulting from the conflict.

If, as AP reported, only 68 Hizballah were killed, then it would be true that "an overwhelming majority" of the Lebanese casualties were civilians. But the number of Hizballah fighters among the total dead is clearly much higher. Israel has a list of 532 Hizballah fighters, identified by name, who were killed in fighting through Aug. 6, and at the same time estimates an additional 200 fighters were killed beyond those listed.

Con Coughlin reported in the Daily Telegraph on Aug. 4: "Lebanese officials estimate that up to 500 [Hizballah] fighters have been killed in the past three weeks of hostilities with Israel, and another 1,500 injured. Lebanese officials have also disclosed that many of Hizballah's wounded are being treated in hospitals in Syria to conceal the true extent of the casualties."

These different assessments suggest that Hizballah losses may have been comparable in number to the civilian losses in Lebanon. Allegations that Israel used indiscriminate force and even targeted civilians should be viewed warily in light of this evidence.