Numbers alone can be misleading in understanding what is happening this week in Gaza. Such is the message of Asaf Shariv, consul general of Israel in New York, who offered an Israeli perspective to a gathering on Manhattan's Upper West Side on Thursday night.
He sought to provide information that is all-to-often absent or glossed over in much media coverage, which focuses, he says, on Palestinian civilian casualties and not on the realities that underlie the figures.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), are going to great lengths to minimize casualties to Palestinian civilians, he maintains. Those lengths include conducting radio broadcasts warning Palestinian civilians to evacuate areas where the IDF plans to strike and even placing phone calls to buildings where Hamas bomb-making labs are located to tell Palestinian civilians to leave the area before the IDF strikes to destroy the weapons, he says.
Also, one of the reasons for Israel's ground incursion is to minimize loss of civilian life on the Palestinian side.
"The easiest thing, if we didn't care about preserving Palestinian civilian life, would be to attack just from the air," he said. "[But] we want to make sure we are hitting terrorists, not civilians."
He dismissed as unfair and illogical the accusation, leveled by many critics of Israel in recent days, that Israel's response to years of Hamas rocket attacks on its civilians is disproportionate.
"When someone is hitting the center of your cities with rockets, the most proportional thing would be to hit back the center of their cities with rockets," he said in an interview following the gathering. "That would have killed a lot more of their civilians. A proportional reaction would be to aim at their civilians and Israel is not doing that."
Moreover, he argues that calculations pitting numbers killed on the different sides do not capture the bottom line: Hamas is intent on killing Israeli civilians and destroying Israel, and Hamas intentionally targets civilians, while the IDF goes to great lengths to avoid injuring or killing Palestinian civilians. To the extent that fewer Israelis than Palestinians have died in the current fighting, it's not because of Hamas's intentions. It's because Israel takes far better care of its civilians than Hamas does.
"We are keeping our population in shelters, we are not using them as human shields," he said. "Today, close to a million Israelis are sitting in shelters and 250,000 kids are not going to school. This week, [Hamas rockets] hit two kindergartens and a high school classroom. They were empty. If the kids had been in there they would have died."
The United Nations estimates that 25 percent of Palestinian casualties in the present incursion are civilian. Shariv said that as of this Wednesday morning, the IDF estimated the proportion of Palestinian civilians among those killed in the current incursion was "closer to 12 to 13 percent" and emphasized that most of those killed were being used as human shields by Hamas, which wages war from inside schools, hospitals and United Nations facilities.
He added, "When they hit [Israeli] civilians, there's celebration. When we hit [Palestinian] civilians, there's an investigation."
Today Shariv added that, according to IDF intelligence, Hamas leadership is lying about the proportions of militants to civilians killed in order to avoid demoralizing the militants.
"Yesterday a Hamas spokesperson said only [Palestinian] civilians had died, which shows [relying on Hamas for an accurate count is] ridiculous," he said. "They are burying militants immediately so as not to have an exact number."
Israel's goals in continuing the operation are twofold, according to Shariv.
"We want to make sure [Hamas] will not have the motivation to keep attacking us," he said. "And once this operation will end, we want to make sure they got hit so bad they won't be able to re-arm themselves by getting weapons from Iran through tunnels."
Regarding the passage of yesterday's UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, Shariv cited Hamas's stated refusal to adhere and their continuous firing of rockets as an indicator that the threat to Israel's people has not been removed and therefore the operation must continue.
Moreover, he maintains that defeating Hamas will open the door to negotiations with Arab moderates that cannot take place at present because of the threat of Hamas.
"Anyone who supports peace in the Mideast must support what Israel is doing now," he said.
During his talk, he cited the Encyclopedia Britannica's figures on numbers of German versus British civilians killed during World War II.
"In World War II, Germany killed 80,000 civilians in the United Kingdom," he said. "The United Kingdom attacked in retaliation and killed 2 million [German] civilians. Does that make Germany the right side?"