The War of Numbers

by Judith Tucker
published in MER108

How many people have been killed and wounded in the course of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon? Precise numbers have been hard to assemble because of unsettled conditions, lack of free access to all areas, the incomplete recovery of bodies buried under the rubble, censorship and the tendency on the part of Israel and its supporters to view casualty statistics as a tool of anti-Israeli propaganda. Still, some have hazarded aggregate numbers: the Lebanese police, in early July, counted 10,134 Lebanese and Palestinians killed and 17,337 wounded; [1] Caritas, the Rome-based Catholic relief agency, had already issued “minimum established figures” of 14,000 dead, 25,000 severely wounded and 400,000 totally homeless on June 28. [2] As of the second week in July, relief workers on the ground in Lebanon had given up compiling casualty figures, but thought “the figure of 15,000 to 20,000 civilian dead seems very plausible.” [3] On July 13, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Charles Percy reported that US intelligence officials had told him that 10,000 people had been killed, while Lebanese officials were putting the death toll at 18,000 by mid-July. [4]

As the magnitude of the Lebanese and Palestinian casualties gradually sank in, various international relief agencies including personnel from the International Committee of the Red Cross accepted the estimates as more or less accurate. At first, the Israelis simply blamed civilian casualties on the Palestine Liberation Organization, “since they were the ones who had placed their headquarters and installations in populated civilian areas.” [5] Much of the US media has uncritically adopted this explanation as their own, as if Palestinians and Lebanese, unlike Israelis, have no right to defend themselves against a military invasion. Certainly no such indulgence has ever been accorded to the Palestinian fighters who shelled or attacked the well-armed Israeli settlements in the Galilee.

Subsequently, Israeli officials began to issue their own numbers. On June 23, Yaacov Meridor, the Israeli government coordinator of assistance to south Lebanon, told the Knesset that 250 people, “some of them terrorists,” had died in Sidon, a figure strangely at odds with the Israel Defense Forces’ “final figure” of 400 dead in Sidon given out at the same time. On July 5, Meridor reduced the number to a total of 231 Lebanese and Palestinians dead for all of Lebanon. By July 8, both Meridor and the IDF spokesmen agreed that a total of 331 civilians had been killed in Sidon, Tyre and Nabatiyya, although Meridor had just said, the previous day, that 1,200 “persons,” both “combatants and non-combatants,” had died in the camps. [6] The Israeli consul-general in New York, Naftalie Lavie, told the American public that the Lebanese invasion had left 700 wounded and some 300 to 400 dead. [7] Pinchas Harris, deputy surgeon general for the IDF, opined that the number of civilians dead outside Beirut was "under 400." Compared to the starts and stops of the casualty figures, those for "homeless" remained relatively stable at 20,000, a figure which apparently includes only those who had failed to find any temporary form of shelter. [8]

While settling on a casualty figure, Israeli officials attacked the credibility of all those who dared suggest that casualties were indeed much higher. When the Red Cross chief delegate in Lebanon, Francesco Noseda, quoted Lebanese and Palestinian estimates as more or less accurate, the Israelis protested vehemently. Noseda was recalled by the Red Cross from Lebanon, an unusual move in a time of crisis. [9] Foreign relief workers and medical personnel who agreed with these estimates were labeled PLO sympathizers or even “terrorists” themselves. [10] When Chris Giannou, a Canadian surgeon who had been working in a hospital in Sidon, gave testimony belying the Israeli figures, an Israeli official charged that the doctor “was suspected of belonging to a European terrorist organization.” The Canadian government lodged a protest with Israel, calling the accusation “totally unfounded,” but Israel reiterated the charge without any further evidence or specifics. [11]

Attacks on individual credibility are nicely supplemented by recourse to racist caricatures of Arabs. A spokesman for USAID in Washington, when asked about the reliability of various casualty figures over the telephone, replied: “Well, you know Arab figures.” Writing in The New Republic of August 2, Martin Peretz, weary of the “relentless trolling of the PLO and its partisans about civilian casualties,” uses the old trick of reporting how his “Arab friend” in Jerusalem “coyly” told him that “Arabs exaggerate.” Peretz offers, as counter-evidence, the Israeli concept of tohar haneshek, the “morality of arms,” which apparently lays down “self-denying rules of what is militarily permissible” for the IDF. Peretz does not offer estimates of civilian casualties by any independent relief agency or organization that come even close to supporting Israeli figures. There are none.

Israeli pronouncements are clearly at odds with those of reporters, relief workers, and Lebanese and Palestinian officials and medical services. What is the origin of such discrepancies: First, for Israel, Palestinians are by definition not civilian, and are therefore not included in civilian death counts: “Relief agency directors believe that the Israelis count only the Lebanese as civilians and regard all Palestinians as combatants regardless of age or sex.” [12] It is a new concept, and not one which everyone can quickly grasp. Witness one journalist’s dialogue with Meridor, whom he asked why the number of dead in Sidon had been reduced to 265 from the previous week’s 380:

Patiently, Meridor explains that the problem is to separate civilian from PLO corpses. In death it is difficult to tell who is who. Patiently, the correspondent explains that he is not asking for a breakdown, he is only interested in total numbers. Meridor explains that the numbers quoted are total. But why have the numbers decreased by 115? Meridor now gets angry. “Because, as I told you, we can’t separate civilians from the PLO.” [13]

The 1,200 “persons” that Meridor once mentioned as having died in the camps have disappeared.

But thousands of Palestinians died in south Lebanon: Both ‘Ayn al-Hilwa outside Sidon and Rashidiyya outside Tyre were “largely flattened” by Israeli bombardment. [14] Giannou, the Canadian doctor who witnessed the attack, estimates that “at least 1,500 civilians” died in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. The “suffocating stench of rotting corpses” hung over the area after the Israeli attack, and one eyewitness saw 50 bodies buried in the rubble of just one building. [15] Scenes from Burj al-Shamali, another camp near Tyre, tell the same story: "Many families took shelter in the camp’s clubhouse, according to Mahmoud Marki and other residents. It now lies many feet under earth and rubble. Only a sickly smell suggests what might lie below. Marki says that more than 100 people are dead inside. There are 100 more in another shelter." [16] The Israeli forces are still not allowing journalists access to 'Ayn al-Hilwa and Rashidiyya, the scenes of most destruction and loss of life.

Palestinian casualties aside, Israeli estimates of Lebanese dead seem very low. The Israelis claim that 50-odd civilians died during the attack on Tyre. One old Lebanese man told a reporter: “If you believe that sort of thing, I cannot help you.... Look at the houses. They were flying white flags, but they were hit. Do you think we did not die?” [17] In Sidon, Western journalists who managed to get to the city from Beirut “found scores of unburied bodies and several mass graves.” [18] Giannou personally was witness to some 400 people killed in a few small blocks of Sidon and ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, a number which alone exceeds the Israeli figure for all of south Lebanon. [19] Israeli closure of all Palestinian medical facilities in the area, and the arrest of their medical personnel who had initially cared for the wounded, makes a fully accurate casualty count in the south particularly difficult. Israeli forces also limed and buried large numbers of dead in mass graves as a health precaution, but some feel the “burials have also been used to conceal the death toll.” [20] Oxfam, an independent relief agency based in London, issued a report in late July which dismisses the Israeli estimate of 400 civilians killed in the south as “ridiculously low.” “The exact number of dead in both Tyre and Sidon will probably never be known,” the report says, “partly because the bodies buried under the rubble may never be discovered, and partly because of the Israeli wish to conceal the true figures.” [21]

Israeli figures completely overlook those killed in the protracted attack on Beirut. Besieged, bombed and shelled, the people of west Beirut have been taking awesome casualties. On July 9 and 10, Western reporters visited the three largest hospitals -- the American University of Beirut Hospital, Mokassad Hospital and Barbir Hospital -- to get some sense of casualties. According to the hospitals’ directors, they had already seen 515 dead, 2,200 wounded seriously enough to require hospitalization, and 4,000 with relatively minor wounds. Ninety percent of these were civilians. This count does not include the dead who were buried immediately, those still in flattened buildings, or anyone who was treated or died in some 20 smaller hospitals in west Beirut. [22]

The next day, July 12, Beirut experienced what observers there considered the “single most destructive day and night in the capital in the last seven years,” “hundreds of buildings wrecked or burned,” “shells landing at a rate of 30 a minute,” “between 8,000 and 10,000 [shells] may have been fired.” Beirut radio’s preliminary reports put the casualty toll for that one day at 82 killed and 211 wounded. [23] The Times (London) of July 13 reported that 209 people had died in that one air raid. Hospitals not only counted the dead but also issued a complete list of their names and addresses. On July 27 and 28, Beirut suffered 30 straight hours of bombardment, the climax to seven days of unrelenting attacks on the city, which left at least 203 more people dead. [24] In the days following a massive attack, the toll tends to rise. The Lebanese and Palestinian wounded have suffered a high mortality rate in this invasion: Some 30 to 50 percent of the wounded die, more than double a “normal” wartime casualty rate. Doctors hold responsible the heavy Israeli use of lethal anti-personnel weapons, particularly cluster bombs. [25]

The Israeli “homeless” figure of 20,000 is also seriously deficient. Even inside Israel, the press is puzzled: The Jerusalem Post (July 8) wonders how the figure can be so low when the combined populations of 'Ayn al-Hilwa and Rashidiyya, both “devastated,” was some 80,000. Caritas, with relief workers in the south, gave a contrasting estimate of 400,000 homeless. UNRWA, the only agency allowed by Israel to assist the Palestinians, reports 47,000 Palestinian refugees homeless in the south. This count does not include any Palestinians who fled to Beirut and the Bekaa as the invasion proceeded, nor any who lived in the towns and cities of the south not registered with UNRWA. Lebanese homeless are not included. The Red Cross no longer issues any aggregate estimates of homeless or displaced persons, but Red Cross bulletins report that a total of 256,000 people are being aided by the Red Cross in the south, Beirut and the Bekaa, a figure which by no means includes all those affected by the invasion. “The hope that humanitarian needs would stabilize has not been realized.... Taking into account the work of other agencies, the Red Cross has concentrated its relief on the most vulnerable groups.” (July 14 and 21). One of the reasons why the situation of Palestinians in the south did not stabilize as active fighting died down is clear: “The Israeli army made the problem worse by deliberately creating additional refugees after the end of the fighting. Demolition squads blew up shelters in the camps, destroying houses as well, and bulldozers knocked down rows of homes that had survived the battles.” [26]

The Reagan administration, with its empty calls for ceasefires, continues to support the Begin government’s barbarism in Lebanon. As the battle of Beirut enters its third month, the toll mounts. On August 1, west Beirut was subjected to “the most intense shelling to date.” The Palestinian news agency claimed the Israelis had fired some 185,000 projectiles -- an average of three a second -- and flown 300 bombing sorties over a 14-hour period. “The overwhelming impression among Beirut’s residents,” reported the Washington Post, “was that the Israelis in a single day had wrought almost as much destruction in some places as the various combatants had achieved in the 19-month civil war in 1975 and 1976.” [27]

On August 4, Israeli terror intensified still further, and encompassed all of west Beirut in “the heaviest assault yet.” [28] Lebanese officials conservatively estimated 800 dead and wounded, as hospitals, fire stations and hotels took direct hits from Israeli guns and warplanes. [29] "How many people have died agonizingly slow deaths under the rubble in Beirut?" asked John de Salis, chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. [30] As of August 10, the official police record of those killed in Beirut since June 13 was 3,934. [31] And Israel’s “most devastating and sustained aerial bombardments of west Beirut” were yet to come. [32]

Endnotes

[1] Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1982.
[2] ABC and CBS News, confirmed with Caritas Rome office.
[3] Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1982.
[4] Washington Post, July 18, 1982.
[5] Times (London), July 13, 1982, quoting from an IDF brochure issued in early July.
[6] Jerusalem Post, July 13, 1982.
[7] Jewish Press, July 9, 1982.
[8] Washington Post, July 15, 1982.
[9] Guardian (Manchester), July 5, 1982.
[10] Times (London), July 13, 1982.
[11] New York Times, July 17, 1982.
[12] Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1982.
[13] Jerusalem Post, July 16, 1982.
[14] Jerusalem Post, July 13, 1982.
[15] Boston Globe, June 20, 1982; World Vision International report.
[16] Sunday Times (London), July 11, 1982.
[17] Times (London), July 6, 1982.
[18] Times (London), July 13, 1982.
[19] Toronto Star, June 21, 1982.
[20] Washington Post, July 18, 1982.
[21] Times (London), July 27, 1982.
[22] New York Times, July 11, 1982.
[23] Washington Post, July 13, 1982.
[24] ABC News, July 28, 1982.
[25] Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1982.
[26] New York Times, July 19, 1982.
[27] Washington Post, August 2, 1982.
[28] Washington Post, August 4, 1982.
[29] CBS radio news, August 5, 1982.
[30] Washington Post, August 4, 1982.
[31] Washington Post, August 11, 1982.
[32] Washington Post, August 13, 1982.

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