5

I would like to start with a profound acknowledgment of the tragic loss of life in the October 7th incident, and my deepest respects go to all those who have been affected. I have no intention of diminishing the significance of this event or the suffering it has caused.

In reviewing the available reports, including the detailed coverage by Haaretz, I noticed an interesting statistic: among the 1,100 identified victims, 360 were soldiers or police officers. This implies a civilian casualty rate of approximately 68%. This figure struck me because it is somewhat similar to the civilian casualty rate during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, as reported by the UNHRC, where about 65% of the 2,251 victims were civilians.

Given these numbers, I'm trying to understand the criteria and context used in classifying such tragic incidents. I'm particularly interested in how different factors, such as the proportion of civilian casualties, influence the perception and categorization of these events. Could you provide some insight into how these determinations are typically made and the complexities involved in such assessments?

2
  • 3
    Voting not to close as this is a good question and can be factually answered - "collateral damage" during conflicts is a well-studied field. (It really feels weird, and callous, to call the death of innocents as collateral damage, even if it is the riht technical term used in this field). But please update your answer with a link to the UNHRC report on 2014 Operation Protective Edge you have cited.
    – sfxedit
    Nov 10, 2023 at 13:55
  • 5
    Just because they target military/police doesn’t mean it can’t be a terrorist attack.
    – Joe W
    Nov 15, 2023 at 14:03

4 Answers 4

42

Targeting civilians vs civilian casualties

Putting aside numbers for a bit, the context here is clear. The 7th October massacre specifically targeted civilians for gruesome torture, murder, and kidnapping:

According to documents recovered from the bodies of killed militants, militants were instructed to attack civilian populations, including elementary schools and a youth center, to "kill as many people as possible", and to take hostages for use in future negotiations.

We have video evidence of this:

Other videos show attackers shooting at children, executing men in civilian clothing, throwing grenades into civilian shelters, and decapitations.

That's also the reason given in a joint statement why the US, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK consider it a terrorist attack:

In recent days, the world has watched in horror as Hamas terrorists massacred families in their homes, slaughtered over 200 young people enjoying a music festival, and kidnapped elderly women, children, and entire families, who are now being held as hostages.

Specifically targeting civilians. That's a terror attack.


Operation Protective Edge was a military operation to stop rockets being fired at civilian infrastructure. It included air strikes targeting military infrastructure as well as a ground invasion. It did not purposefully target civilians.

Targeting military infrastructure while accepting civilian casualties. That's a military operation.

The numbers

Now, looking at the numbers:

At least 1,400 Israelis were killed, including 1,033 civilians,[13] 275 soldiers[14] and 58 police officers.[8]

Police officers are generally considered civilian casualties unless they take part in military actions.

That gives us a civilian death rate of 73% for the Hamas terrorist attack (the civilians were the target, the soldiers were just accidental casualties).

For Operation Protective Edge we have calculations ranging from 65% civilians (from the anti-Israel UN HRC, based partially on numbers from the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza) to 36% (from Israel).


Civilian deaths vary widely between different wars. Some claim rates as high as 74% starting in the 80s, up to 90% in the 90s. Others claim averages of 50%.

For different wars, see eg Estimating the Number of Civilian Casualties in Modern Armed Conflicts–A Systematic Review. The Korean War eg has 74%, Vietnam 46%, the first Persian Gulf War 87%, the Yugoslavian wars 52-56%.

In a war where one party specifically hides its military operations under civilian infrastructure to use it as human shields, a higher than average civilian death rate can be expected.

21
  • 10
    Agreed. While there are many different definitions of terrorism, I would would argue that an operation whose main goal is to, quite literally, terrorize would be included by any of them … and if isn't, I would argue that definition is wrong. Nov 9, 2023 at 15:43
  • 17
    @Veegas respectfully, look at the circumstances of the 260 SuperNova victims. That's definitely killing civilians and the testimonials came too quickly and were too widespread to have been improvised on the spot by Israel, not when Hamas initiated 10/7. Denying civilian killings took place makes one wonder at the good faith of your question. Nov 9, 2023 at 17:14
  • 6
    @Veegas If despite extensive evidence you want to deny what happened on 7.10, I don't think anything I write would convince you. And frankly, I have no interest in any further discussion (feel free to look up the videos and photos yourself).
    – tim
    Nov 9, 2023 at 17:14
  • 22
    @Veegas When you put a pistol to a childs head and pull the trigger, that's intent. When you have attack plans targeting schools and orders to "kill as many people as possible", that's intent. When you attack a festival and murder as many civilians as you can, that's intent. When you hack of arms & heads of civilians, that's intent. That's not a military operation gone wrong, that's not collateral damage. I mean, seriously. How is that even up for debate?
    – tim
    Nov 9, 2023 at 17:51
  • 7
    Looking at this graph of unhrc resolutions, there are really only two conclusions 1) Israel is worse in regards to human rights than syria, myammar, belarus, and north korea combined. Or 2) There is an anti-Israel bias. I think it's pretty obvious that it is not 1).
    – tim
    Nov 10, 2023 at 18:07
15

While there are some specialized definitions of the word "terrorism," Wikipedia gives the most commonly used uses of the word:

Terrorism, in its broadest sense, is the use of intentional violence and fear to achieve political or ideological aims. The term is used in this regard primarily to refer to intentional violence during peacetime or in the context of war against non-combatants (mostly civilians and neutral military personnel).

Implicit in that explanation is intent.

There has to be an intent to create a fear of violence as a way to achieve desired political outcomes.

What is not a part of the definition is the ratio of civilian to military casualties.

The consideration of the ratio of civilian to military casualties can be evaluated when ascertaining whether a war crime has occurred. But not every war crime is terrorism, nor is all terrorism a war crime. Although there is often a large overlap between the two.

2
  • 3
    Best answer. OP's premise is essentially wrong. One could make comparisons with Bataclan etc. to satisfy numerical curiosity, but that's not why this is called a terrorist attack. OTOH the size of the response is based on that. France decided to invoke the EU common defense treaty provision, and there was a lotta bombing of ISIS after that until ISIS held no ground. Likewise Israel declared war on Hamas with the stated endpoint of destroying Hamas entirely. Nov 9, 2023 at 20:36
  • 7
    This. If there was an equivalence to made to Israeli terrorism, not - alleged - IDF war crimes in Gaza, it would more on what happening in some of the West Bank killings by settlers right now: In Qusra, a village south-east of the city of Nablus, four Palestinians were killed by settlers on October 11th. The next day, during a funeral procession for them, two more were shot dead by settlers ... One Israeli officer branded the settler attacks “nationalist terrorism”. Nov 9, 2023 at 22:03
6

Numbers are not what determine terrorism.

@tim has already answered about the intent or target of the attack as more important.

In addition, note that Israel counts even off-duty military personnel as military casualties, not as civilians. So any IDF member, even in civilian clothing and without weapons attending, say, the music festival in their spare time and massacred there would be counted as a military casualty, not a civilian one.

While we do know that some soldiers and police were killed in action, as far as I know Israel has not released any numbers about how many of the "military" deaths were actually armed and on duty and how many would have been counted as civilian deaths by others.

I'm trying to understand the criteria and context used in classifying such tragic incidents.

Typically by intent and context. The 9/11 attacks are terrorism, even though in a different context an attack on the Pentagon would've been classified as a military attack or sabotage. But in the context of causing fear, largely civilian targets, and methods of undercover operatives using hijacking instead of soldiers in uniform conducting a military operation, it is generally considered a terrorism attack because that is what most of the individual elements fit to.

In yet a different context, a plane hitting a skyscraper would be considered an accident, even if the event resulted in the same number of deaths and those deaths were civilians.

Meanwhile, the piracy at the Somalia and other coasts is not classified as terrorism, even though it carries similarities - conducted by non-military groups in civilian clothing, targetting civilian ships, etc. - because we have a different category - piracy - that is more narrow and more fitting.

Coming back to Oct 7th, the closest category for this attack is terrorism. It could also be called a pogrom, but that term has largely fallen out of use.

0
-8

Question:

How is the October 7th attack classified as terrorism based on casualty statistics, and how does it compare to similar events?

Short Answer:

There is no consensus on the definition of terrorism.

Within the United Nations system, in the absence of a universally agreed definition of the term, various terminology describing the notion of "terrorism" can be found within its outputs. These are not generally intended to suggest the existence of an agreed definition of terrorism (although, ultimately, that is one of the sought but currently elusive goals of the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (Comprehensive Convention) discussed below). Instead, they are intended to act as guidance benchmarks to assist States in, e.g., carrying out actions requested or required by particular outputs and instruments. Various examples are considered here by way of illustration, drawing from a number of different sources.

Answer:

Historically, the dispute on the meaning of terrorism is as old as the laws of war. These laws of war were first codified in 1899. When Martens Clause which was introduced as a compromise to this dispute playing out between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be criminals subject to summary execution if captured, and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants,

The Martens Clause has formed a part of the laws of armed conflict since its first appearance in the preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention (II) with respect to the laws and customs of war on land:

More recently: a 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, see Article 1 Section 3: "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist régimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination" is considered by some to be pro-terrorism and specifically anti-Israeli. Since United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 ("Zionism is racism") was in effect in 1977 when that protocol was adopted.

14
  • 13
    No, no and no. The intentional murders, at close range, of hundreds of civilians on 10/7 and in many cases, the particular means and circumstances of those murders do not support the moral and legal uncertainty you are claiming here. Whatever Israel is up to in its own depredations against Palestinians. Otherwise, we might as well junk the term as Jorg's comments on the other answer. Nov 9, 2023 at 16:28
  • 4
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, I wonder why you would add the proximity disclaimer, " at close range", to your moral outrage to the mass murder of children and innocents ? Your rather biased and unreasonable position doesn't change the facts. There is no consensus on the definition of Terrorism and never has been one.
    – JMS
    Nov 9, 2023 at 16:40
  • 7
    -1 Sure, defining terror is not always easy. There are edge cases. It can sometimes depend on who is described, and who does the describing ("one mans freedom fighter"). But that just means that sometimes it's complex. That edge cases in the definition need to be refined. It doesn't mean that the term is meaningless. And it definitely doesn't mean that it's impossible to categorize the brutal slaughter and torture by Hamas.
    – tim
    Nov 9, 2023 at 16:43
  • 7
    The proximity means it can't be explained away as collateral casualties. Lots of people will argue that Israel is killing more civilians in Gaza. But until the IDF goes door to door to deliberately shoot civilians, they aren't the same thing. Yes, even if findings of war crimes happen later. No consensus, eh? We'll see the concensus on your answer. As Tim states above, there are edge cases and debatable cases. 10/7 isn't one of them. Nov 9, 2023 at 16:44
  • 6
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica So when Israel drops bombs on the Jabalya, the largest Palestinian refuge camp in Gaza over multiple days destroying 20 buildings killing many hundreds of people for the stated reason of killing a single Hamas figure. To your mind that's "collateral damage"? Those people got in the way? It's ok cause the plane which dropped the laser guided munition from an F-35 was likely a safe distance away?
    – JMS
    Nov 9, 2023 at 17:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .