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Figures for civilian deaths in Gaza remains point of dispute

The war in Gaza will now continue in a battle between databases to determine who was killed and why.

The most contested number, the one that attracts the most stubborn insistence and ferocious rebuttal, is not the total fatalities on the Palestinian side, the more than 2,100 dead in the Gaza hostilities.

The controversy centers instead on the ratio of civilians to combatants, or as the Israelis call them “terrorist operatives.” This number will help shape public opinion about the way the war was waged, its cost in human life and whether the hostilities were worth the casualties.

In its most recent count, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 2,104 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 1,462 civilians, among them 495 children and 253 women. Those U.N. numbers would mean that 69 percent of the total killed were civilians.

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Israeli forces had killed “approximately 1,000 terrorists,” which would mean that far fewer of the 2,104 Palestinian dead were civilians - roughly 52 percent.

Israeli military forces pride themselves on being “the most moral army in the world.” The Palestinians say Israeli bombardment was frequently indiscriminate or directed at targets where the risk of civilian casualties was high. In Israel, critics charge that the U.N. numbers are inaccurate and biased, in part because the United Nations bases its reports on numbers generated by human rights groups working in Gaza, which they say cannot be trusted.

Reuven Erlich, the head of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, which has close ties to Israeli intelligence services, told the Jerusalem Post that one should be “suspicious of all figures from the Gaza Strip.”

Matthias Behnke, head of office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “We feel confident about our process. It is the most elaborate out there. We use a number of sources. We are on the ground in Gaza. We go out to verify. This puts us in the best available position to assess who is a combatant and who is a civilian.”

A final cease-fire to end hostilities in Gaza was only declared this week, and if past wars between Hamas and Israel in 2009 and 2012 serve as a guide, it will be weeks and perhaps months before complete tallies are released by all sides.

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