Half of Gaza war dead civilians: rights group

JERUSALEM Wed Sep 9, 2009 1:36pm EDT

An explosion is seen after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 13, 2009. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

An explosion is seen after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli human rights group said on Wednesday more than half of the Palestinians killed in the Gaza war were civilians, findings that dispute Israeli military statistics showing most of the dead were militants.

The figures issued by the B'Tselem organization were broadly in line with those in reports published by groups such as Amnesty International and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights after the 22-day Israeli offensive ended in January.

B'Tselem, in a new report, said 1,387 Palestinians were killed in the war -- 773 civilians, 330 combatants, 248 Hamas policemen and 36 people whom the group was unable to classify as combatants or non-combatants.

Among the civilian dead, B'Tselem said, were 320 minors under the age of 18.

The Israeli military has said 1,166 Palestinians were killed during the offensive it dubbed Operation Cast Lead -- 709 combatants, 295 civilians and 162 people whose status it was unable to clarify.

In a statement, B'Tselem said its researchers had visited Gaza homes to take witness testimony and collect documents to arrive at its casualty figures. It called on the Israeli government to initiate an independent investigation of the war.

"The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society," B'Tselem said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said in response to B'Tselem's findings that the group "does not have the tools, nor the intelligence capabilities" to provide a full picture of casualties.

"We are a big organization. We have a big intelligence corps and we have conducted a very thorough and full investigation (that showed) the vast majority of the casualties were Hamas militants," Leibovich said.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed during the offensive that Israel carried out with the declared aim of curtailing cross-border attacks from the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas Islamists.

The Israeli military has said it operated during the war in accordance with international law and had tried, as much as possible, to minimize civilian casualties.

In its mission statement, B'Tselem says it endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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