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Israeli Rights Group Says Most Gaza Offensive Casualties Were Civilians

A leading Israeli human rights group says most of the people killed in Israel's offensive in Gaza eight months ago were civilians - many of them children. Those findings contradict statistics from the Israeli military, which has said most of the casualties were militants.

The organization behind the report, B'Tselem, is considered a leading human rights group in Israel. Its findings are in line with those of major rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which also issued reports in the months since Israel launched its 22-day assault on militants in Gaza.

B'Tselem says 773 of an estimated more than 1,300 people killed in the offensive, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, were civilians, including 320 children under the age of 18. It says 330 combatants were killed.

B'Tselem's director, Jessica Montell, tells VOA her group's figures suggest the army has underreported the number of civilian casualties.

"The cases themselves warrant scrutiny, introspection, I think, on the part of Israeli society and criminal investigations, as well, regarding conduct of Israeli forces. I would say what is almost as disturbing is the picture put forward by the Israeli military," she said.

Israel's army has all along disputed allegations that its forces wantonly killed large numbers of innocent people. The military's casualty figures say 709 of those killed were combatants. The official figures say 295 civilians died.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Captain Elie Isaacson says the military used overt and covert intelligence sources to gather its casualty statistics.

"There's no way that a human rights organization can possibly have the means, can possibly have the techniques, and the resources we have, in order to get the most accurate possible statistics, he said. "We know that they rely on all sorts of Palestinian sources many of whom have a vested interest in making the numbers of civilian casualties appear higher than they are."

Israel says its forces operated in accordance to international law during the assault, which targeted Islamist militants who had been launching rockets and other attacks at communities in southern Israel for years.

The aim of the Israeli operation in December and January was also to weaken Hamas, the Islamist group that seized power in Gaza after Israel withdrew its forces and settlements from the enclave.

The offensive enjoyed wide support among Israelis, and reports like that of B'Tselem have drawn the attention mainly of leftists in the country. But, B'Tselem's Jessica Montell says the continued reports of atrocities warrant action by Israeli society as a whole.

"Of course, the residents of southern Israel who were living in bomb shelters for months, and even years, have a right to live also in safety and dignity," she said. "It is a very essential conversation, that Israel needs to conduct, among ourselves, of what is justified, what is necessary, what is legal and moral, and what even is effective in order to keep our citizens safe."

Since the Israeli assault, rocket attacks from Gaza have continued, but in fewer numbers than before the operation.