Understanding the Flawed Lancet Study on Gaza Casualties – The Forward
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Understanding the Flawed Lancet Study on Gaza Casualties – The Forward

The political dispute over civilian deaths in Gaza makes it harder, not easier, to understand how many civilians have been harmed in the past. nine months of warand how.

Those who study civilian casualties, as I do, understand that it is one of many metrics needed to understand the true human cost of conflict. They cannot paint the full picture on their own. By emphasizing political goals over scientific ones—for example, trying to prove that Israel is committing genocide—participants in this war of words are hindering the process that usually leads to reasonable estimates of civilian harm.

Often the discrepancies between the results of these processes and the initial estimates are glaring. Initially, it was estimated that around 200,000 people died in the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. Three decades later, the officially accepted figure is less than half this amount. The death toll from the Congo wars was initially estimated by a humanitarian NGO at 5.4 million. However, scientific analysis has shown that a rigorous study would only give I counted half of that number deaths. In the latter case, researchers ultimately concluded that the numbers had been inflated for fundraising purposes.

Yet, instead of understanding the importance of being cautious and precise when estimating casualties, scholars and activists involved on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war accept results that are patently flawed. The ambiguity inherent in much of international humanitarian law creates a political incentive for those who favor prosecuting Israel to obtain the highest possible estimate of civilian casualties. And it puts pressure on those who defend Israel’s war with Hamas to try to minimize civilian casualties, both in practice and in the headlines.

The latest case of this conflict making headlines: article in a respected medical journal Name of the scientific medical journal which stated that “it is not improbable to estimate that as many as 186,000 or more deaths can be attributed to the current conflict in the Gaza Strip” – a figure that far exceeds the 37,396 deaths reported by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

The document quickly spread on social media as evidence of Palestinian genocide. But it has significant data gaps that will be crucial to how we assess the true contours of the conflict.

The first of these flaws: the authors Name of the scientific medical journalThe study did not attempt to distinguish between civilian and military fatalities.

They are concerned about the idea of ​​excess mortality: how many more people have died in Gaza in the past nine months than would be expected under normal circumstances, and how many more are likely to die? Under this banner, there is no distinction between combatants and civilians; each death is presumed to have equal moral weight.

Indirect deaths are difficult to calculate, and the causes of their occurrence are difficult to work out. Scientists must take into account conditions during and after the conflict, which is nearly impossible to do effectively when war is ongoing. For example, one study on indirect deaths As a result of the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it turned out that the most common cause of death in the country is malaria, despite the armed conflict that has been going on for years.

What this means: We can estimate how many more people have died in Gaza since October than would normally be the case during that period. But we won’t have clear data for years to illustrate exactly why and how such deaths were related to the war.

Without isolating civilian deaths from military deaths, Lancet the authors fall into the trap set by Hamas, which does not distinguish between civilian and military casualties in its death toll reports and consistently refuses to provide reporters with estimates of military casualties. (This is a violation of humanitarian law principle of distinction(which requires the military to distinguish between civilians and soldiers.) Estimates of casualties have generally ranged from 6000 to 12000These numbers reflect inaccurate assessments of the operational impact of the war and the significant mixing of civilians and combatants in the Gaza Strip.

It goes without saying that a true count of civilian casualties must draw the most accurate line between civilians and combatants; failure to do so further muddies the already murky waters. It can also hinder accountability. In more than one third of cases Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the UN war crimes tribunal, reviewed the case, officials were unable to determine whether the victims were civilians or military.

Also disturbing: This LancetThe study notes that 30 percent of reported deaths in Gaza remain unidentified, but does not say what percentage of reported deaths are unverified.

The inclusion of unverified deaths is a particularly serious concern given the increasing reliance of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry on “information from credible media sources and first responders,” as well as self-reporting by relatives and reports published by the Gaza Government Media Office. There is no discussion of what constitutes a credible media source, as opposed to an unreliable source, or even a clearly politicized source. The United Nations itself found in December 2023 that the methodology used by the Gaza Government Media Office to report fatalities “is unknown.”

This does not mean that these numbers are wrong—it is simply wrong to assume they are correct without independent verification. The groups that produce casualty figures may have competing interests. It can take years to establish the true number of casualties from war, including by examining long-term health effects such as nutrition, fertility, and mental health. By instilling numbers that were not established through rigorous, well-understood processes into our collective consciousness, those behind studies such as Name of the scientific medical journalThis will make it harder for the public to accept any long-term results from these studies.

There are many examples of how this has worked in the past—including on October 7. Initial estimates suggested that around 1,500 people had been killed in the Hamas attack; estimates were later revised downwards, eventually settling on just under 1,200. Yet the 1,500 figure continues to circulate on social media: people remember the first reports they see better than the later, more factual ones.

The pursuit of accuracy—including openly acknowledging how much we still don’t know—is especially important in cases like this war, where charges of genocide are at stake. Genocide, as defined by international law, rests on two important requirements: intent and the destruction of a group in whole or in part. Setting aside the difficulties of establishing intent, what “in part” means has never been defined. Is it two percent of the group’s population—roughly the percentage of Gazan Palestinians, including civilians and combatants, killed in this war? If the threshold is higher, by how much and why?

Estimated death toll in Gaza as presented in Name of the scientific medical journal is a matter of modeling, not hard facts. In calculating their projection, the researchers assumed that for every direct death in Gaza, there would be four indirect deaths. They assumed that the war in Gaza would ultimately be deadlier than the recent wars in Yemen (which had a ratio of 1.3 indirect deaths to 1 direct death, according to the UN) or Ethiopia (at most 2 to 1). They may have good reasons for making this assumption, but they are currently unexplained.

Many, many thousands of civilians have died in Gaza. It is certain that many more civilians than soldiers have died. But the truth, which those who exploit these figures for political purposes ignore, is that establishing reliable and agreed-upon figures will take years, if the current politicization of estimates is ever overcome. The Bosnian Book of the Dead, a database of 96,985 deaths related to the 1992-95 war, was not completed until July 2006, more than a decade after the war ended. To expect that a hard and unchangeable death toll from Israel’s war with Hamas can be produced in real time is both unrealistic and misleading.

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