Why Palestinian death toll is higher

  • Article by: ADAM TAYLOR , Washington Post
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 9:07 PM

Analysis: Weapons, defenses and terrain contribute to death toll.

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Palestinians looked at a destroyed house where five members of a family were killed in an Israeli missile strike early Friday in the Gaza Strip.

Photo: Khalil Hamra • Associated Press,

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– In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

There’s at least one clear asymmetry to the conflict, however. By Friday, 100 Palestinians had died as a result of Israeli military action, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with hundreds more wounded. To date, there have been zero reports of Israeli deaths due to Palestinian rocket fire, though Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency medical service, said this week that 123 people had been treated — 80 percent of them for shock or anxiety — since the start of the operation.

These are not surprising figures. During 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, 167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, according to human rights group B’Tselem, which said that less than half of that number were believed to be taking part in hostilities. The same report said six Israelis had died: Four civilians and two members of the Israeli security forces. In the 2008-2009 war, 1,166 Palestinians died. Thirteen Israelis died, three of them noncombatants.

The death tolls in these sort of conflicts are often imprecise and disputed, but few people would argue with the core takeaway: When Israelis and Palestinians fight, Palestinians are far more likely to die. Four reasons why:

The weapons

In conflicts like the current one, militants in the Gaza Strip fire a large amount of rockets into Israeli territory. According to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), about six rockets are being fired at Israelis every hour. However, many of these rockets are not sophisticated, and they either fail to land in populated areas or lack the firepower to cause casualties when they do. Sometimes, the payloads are removed from missiles in a bid to increase their range.

In recent years, the Palestinian militants have been able to get better equipment: The IDF said this week that an M-302 missile, manufactured in Syria, had landed 70 miles north of Gaza. Such a missile has a range that allows it to strike anywhere in Israel, though its accuracy is limited. Hamas is also believed to possess surface-to-air missiles that could be used against Israeli military aircraft.

Israel has F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and armed drones, all of which are capable of firing into Gaza with remarkable firepower and considerable accuracy.

The defense systems

Most Israeli buildings are required by law to have bomb shelters, and warning sirens are used to tell people when to head to them. In communities near the Gaza Strip, extra fortifications include bus stops with concrete roofs. In recent years, there has also been the “Iron Dome,” Israel’s renowned missile defense system that can shoot down threats while they’re still in the air. The IDF says that about 90 percent of the system’s targets have been intercepted, vastly decreasing the risk to Israeli civilians.

Palestinians don’t have an Iron Dome or much in the way of bomb shelters, either.

The Israeli military does make some efforts to warn the occupants of buildings it is targeting — either with a phone call or a warning missile, a practice known as “roof knocking” — but those warnings are not always successful.

The terrain

The Gaza Strip is a relatively small area, just 139 square miles in total. However, it contains 1.8 million people. It’s roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., with three times the people.

Many of the targets of Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip are in densely populated areas. Israel tries to avoid civilian casualties, and has said that Hamas hides its weapons caches and launchpads within civilian areas.

Conversely, many of the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel fail to hit anything. The southern part of Israel is the most sparsely populated area of the country. New mid- and long-range missiles may mean that more populous cities such as Tel Aviv are targeted more often.

The attitude

The Israeli military does go to some lengths to avoid causing unnecessary deaths. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out the way they plan. For example, when the Israeli military recently “knocked on the roof” of a building in Khan Younis, a group of young men apparently ran into the building after the warning.

These men may have been hoping to protect the building by their presence, a tactic that has apparently been tried before. They may have been hoping to be martyrs. Either way, their presence did not stop the building from being destroyed. Hamas said seven people, including three minors, died in the attack.

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