Israel’s ferocious pursuit of Hamas in Gaza civilian areas has produced images with deeply disturbing optics. Appearing in near real-time, they swiftly led to the accusation that Israel is indiscriminately bombing and killing Gazan civilians. On October 12, five days after Hamas militants from Gaza invaded sovereign Israeli territory to murder, rape and behead approximately 1,200 Israeli civilians and military personnel, abducting approximately another 253 Israelis, a panel of self-appointed experts at the UN Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s “indiscriminate military attacks against the already exhausted Palestinian people of Gaza….There is no justification for violence that indiscriminately targets innocent civilians.”

Amnesty International and Britain’s The Guardian have repeated these accusations with impunity. In America, the usually careful National Catholic Reporter ran a January editorial that decried Israel’s “indiscriminate killing of civilians.” Even Israel’s staunchest supporter, President Joe Biden, voiced this judgment in early December, which major news media continue to report, despite the administration’s recognition that it was a mistake and its attempt to walk it back the next day. The President has not repeated the claim, but recently commented that Israel’s reaction was “over the top,” presumably referring to the casualties.  

The claim of indiscriminate bombing is no innocuous factual claim, but one with grave moral and legal implications. If true, Israel would be guilty of violating the Geneva War Conventions, to which it is a signatory. And if Israel is in fact engaged in sustained indiscriminate killing of Gazans, South Africa’s accusation at the International Court of Justice that Israel is practicing genocide would be strengthened.

The vast scope of death and destruction is horrifying—”gut wrenching” in the words of Secretary of State Blinken. And I would add, “heart-breaking.” No person who believes in the value of human life can be insensitive to the immense human tragedy unfolding today in Gaza. It should move us to tears. We have learned, along with Israelis and Gazans, that General William Tecumseh Sherman was correct: War is hell.

Yet has Israel really engaged in “indiscriminate” killing of Gazan civilians? 

To prove indiscriminate killing, it is insufficient to point to the destruction and carnage. ‘Indiscriminate’ connotes randomness, and in our military context, it means not distinguishing between combatants and non-threatening civilians, without thought to the harm caused. 

Demonstrating this harsh claim is true requires adducing evidence that Israel has bombed targets it knew had no military forces or installations. I know of no such evidence. Like all armies, the Israeli military makes mistakes, including unintentionally killing some Palestinians, and even other Israelis in friendly fire. Moreover, since the war’s onset, it has adjusted its tactics in an effort to decrease civilian casualties. If Israel were indiscriminately bombing innocent civilians as claimed, why would it adjust its tactics to cause fewer civilian casualties or warn civilians of impending fighting and urge them to evacuate the fields of battle?

There is something seemingly callous in using impersonal statistics to analyze the death of so many. Yet in this case it is the only way of determining whether the claim of indiscriminate killing is accurate, or merely represents emotional recoil.

There are approximately 2.3 million people in Gaza and 20,000-30,000 Hamas fighters, making the ratio of non-Hamas civilians to Hamas fighters somewhere between 77:1 and 115:1. If Israel’s killing of Gazans is indeed indiscriminate, the same ratio would hold for civilian vs. non-civilian deaths. Actually, it would be higher, since Gazan civilians are more exposed above ground than the Hamas fighters positioned below ground. Moreover, some of the deaths in Gaza surely result from Palestinian rockets that misfired and landed amidst civilians in Gaza instead of Israel. At Al Shifa hospital alone, misfired PIJ rockets caused 471 Gazan deaths on October 17, as estimated by the Gaza Ministry of Health, although this estimate is probably higher than the actual death toll. Israel estimates as of December 27, Hamas and PIJ had launched more than 12,000 rockets at Israel, of which 20% (2,400) misfired and landed in Gaza. 

The actual ratio of civilian to combatant deaths is nowhere near 115:1, or even 77:1. As of February 9, Gazan authorities estimate that close to 28,000 Gazans have been killed, of which Israel estimates 10,000 were Hamas fighters. The resulting ratio of civilian deaths to Hamas deaths is 18,000/10,000, or 1.8:1. If Israel bombed “indiscriminately”, how could this ratio be so low compared to the ratio of 77:1 ratio implied by the term “indiscriminate?” Even without taking into account Palestinian misfirings, this lower ratio augers for targeted, not random, bombings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad combatants and their infrastructures.

Is the civilian-to-combatant death ratio in Gaza worse than other full-scale conflicts of the last 100 years? In point of fact, the maximum Gaza ratio of 1.8:1 is lower than most other modern wars. In World War II it was approximately 2:1; in the Korean War it was 3:1; in the Persian Gulf War it was almost 9:1, and in the war in Iraq, it was 2:1.

The Gazan deaths are undeniably horrific and the optics are shocking. Nevertheless, these ratios indicate that the civilian/combatant death ratio in Gaza is no worse than other wars, despite the fact that the Gaza war is being fought exclusively in dense urban civilian areas due to Hamas’ strategy of positioning its military assets in and under schools, hospitals, and apartments in order to maximize civilian casualties for world sympathy. 

Because of the seriousness of these charges, our legal and moral judgments need to be based on facts, not emotional reactions, identity politics, social media chatter, or isolated video clips. Yes, “war is hell,” but there is simply no hard evidence, statistical or otherwise, that Israel is killing the civilians of Gaza indiscriminately.