By Mitchell McCluskey and Richard Allen Greene, CNN
(CNN) — Israel believes that it has killed two Palestinian civilians for every Hamas militant in its intense campaign to eliminate the armed group from the Gaza Strip, a ratio an IDF spokesperson described to CNN Monday as “tremendously positive.”
The AFP news agency first reported the Israeli assessment on Monday, citing a briefing for foreign media by senior Israeli military officials. Asked about reports that about 5,000 Hamas militants had been killed since October 7, one of the officials replied, according to AFP: “The numbers are more or less right.”
Asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett about the details that emerged in the briefing, IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus said: “I can confirm the report.” Conricus cited the challenges of fighting in a densely populated area.
According to figures compiled by the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, almost 16,000 people have died since October 7. The ministry’s figures don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians. Conricus’ statement implied that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the conflict.
Conricus added: “I can say that if that is true – and I think that our numbers will be corroborated – if you compare that ratio to any other conflict in urban terrain between a military and a terrorist organization using civilians as their human shields, and embedded in the civilian population, you will find that that ratio is tremendous, tremendously positive, and perhaps unique in the world.”
Contacted later by CNN, Conricus sought to clarify his remarks, saying the IDF could not confirm the numbers cited by AFP and had only meant to say he had seen the news agency’s report.
“I confirmed that I saw the report. I didn’t confirm the numbers yet,” Conricus told CNN on Tuesday.
According to the AFP report, an unidentified Israeli official said that it was hoped the ratio will be “much lower” in the next phase of the war. “I’m not saying it’s not bad that we have a ratio of two to one,” the official was quoted as saying.
Conricus’ remarks sparked a backlash however, with a United Nations spokesperson on Tuesday describing them as “tasteless.”
“We’re not in the business of establishing those kinds of ratios, which I think are tasteless, to say the least,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary general.
Meanwhile, Rep. Seth Moulton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who served in Iraq, told CNN Conricus’ comments were “dead wrong,” citing a study commissioned by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which said for every civilian killed, about 10 terrorists are recruited.
“By that number, Israel so far killed about 5,000 Hamas terrorists but in the process they’ve recruited about 100,000 new adherents. And this is bad news for Israel,” Moulton said.
The IDF estimates that Hamas was comprised of around 30,000 fighters before October 7, when it launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostage. In response, Israel has vowed to eliminate the group once and for all.
Barak Ravid, a CNN political and foreign policy analyst, said Conricus’ comments about the “positive” ratio of civilian-to-militant casualties may not have been a good choice of words.
“I don’t think the fact that 10,000 civilians (were killed)… is positive in any way,” Ravid told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, adding that, “Israel was facing a dilemma in the last 24 hours” with regards to increasing pressure from the United States and its call for more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told journalists during a press conference on Saturday that the military has killed “thousands of terrorists.” The Israeli military has not officially published any estimates of those killed.
AFP reported that the Israeli military official, when asked to confirm reports that around 5,000 Hamas militants had been killed, replied: “The numbers are more or less right.”
Conricus said the IDF aims ultimately to obtain accurate numbers of civilians and combatants killed, and said he thought the figures would be known before the end of the war.
He clarified the definition of Hamas militants, saying that when the Israeli military reported how many fighters it had killed, it was referring to combatants. “Our definition is combatants, people who are fighting,” he said. In Gaza, thousands of residents are employed in Hamas-run administrative agencies but carry out civilian duties.
More people have died in the ongoing war than in any of Israel’s past conflicts with either Hamas or other Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip.
During the 50 days of hostilities in Gaza in 2014, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, of whom 1,462 were believed to be civilians, according to the United Nations. That equates to a ratio of 1.8 civilians for every non-civilian.
A top US State Department official told Congress last month that while it was difficult to assess casualty figures while conflict was ongoing, she believed that the true death toll could be even higher than what is being publicly discussed.
“It is very difficult for any of us to assess what the rate of casualties are,” said Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. “We think they’re very high, frankly. And it could be that they’re even higher than are being cited. We’ll know only after the guns fall silent.”
The US is piling pressure on Israel to limit civilian casualties as outrage about the death toll grows globally and at home in the US.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday emphasized that the protection of civilians in Gaza is crucial to Israel’s long-term success against Hamas.
“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” he said. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
Austin’s comments came the day after Israel resumed its combat operations against Hamas in Gaza.
Austin added that he has “personally pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties” and “shun irresponsible rhetoric” while expanding access to humanitarian aid.
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This story has been updated with additional context.