2022 Shortlist

Mapping and documentation of all civilian harm during May 2021 Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: Airwars

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 09/12/2021

Credit: Emily Tripp, Joe Dyke, Shihab Halep


Founded in 2014, Airwars is a London based international not for profit watchdog NGO, which specialises in tracking and understanding conflict civilian casualties at scale. Our high quality work monitoring belligerents in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya has won extensive plaudits, and has helped in particular to shake up US and European military understanding of civilian harm.

The recent extraordinary series of New York Times investigations into civilian casualties from US actions drew heavily on Airwars research on Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria – including the building of an app by the Times that used Airwars assessments and locational analysis, to help their own field investigators to triangulate incidents of concern in Mosul. 

The Israel-Palestine project submitted here represents many thousands of team hours. Our comprehensive monitoring of secretive Israeli actions in Syria – the most extensive public record available – builds on almost four years of ongoing monitoring. And our research and analysis of the May 2021 conflict was produced by the entire research and investigation teams at Airwars over a seven month period.

It was the work of more than a dozen people including specialist investigators, researchers, analysts, data modelers, geolocators, advocacy officers, and web designers. In particular the project was led by:

Emily Tripp – research manager

Joe Dyke – senior investigator

Shihab Halep – chief researcher

Project description:

This entry is built around an interactive online map and report at Airwars.org comprehensively documenting for the first time all civilians killed and injured in conflict during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants. Published on December 9, the map and report were the result of six months of research, geolocation and mapping. The work represents the most extensive available public record of the 11-day conflict, telling the stories of human suffering in the voices of those affected, including granular details of incidents, images of the victims, and video footage of the strikes.

Impact reached:

Labelled by a New York Times visual investigator as “one of the most detailed and complete databases of civilian harm I’ve ever seen,” the map and report were shared thousands of times on social media, while Airwars’ social media accounts had hundreds of thousands of impressions. The work has also been shared by multiple stakeholders with large audiences, such as prominent journalists and commentators on foreign policy in the UK and elsewhere.

The interactive map, and accompanying report and database – available permanently and for free in Arabic, Hebrew and English – received positive coverage in more than 25 major news outlets, including The Times (UK), The New Arab, The Jerusalem Post, a New Lines investigation by Airwars staff, and The Intercept. As such it is expected to have a lasting impact both in the Middle East and globally. 

On a policy level, the resource represents a key advocacy tool during negotiations at the United Nations in February 2022 on limiting the use of wide-area effect explosive weapons in urban areas. The findings were for example discussed by civil society organisations and British and European parliamentarians in a recent panel discussion, highlighting civilian harm concerns.

Previously, Airwars’ extensive archive of civilian harm data has been used for public engagement; as a critical element of major investigations by others (for example the recent high impact New York Times series on civilian harm); as the basis of United Nations and international agency probes; and as part of wider efforts to seek justice and compensation for victims’ families. We expect that this will be the case for this project in 2022. Airwars will also seek to further engage with Israel Defense Forces, and with Palestinian factions, to better identify civilian harm events and trends, and seek future casualty reductions.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used a variety of open-source techniques to build comprehensive datasets of civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Gaza and Syria, as well as from civilian harm in Israel from Palestinian rocket fire.

This began with in-depth primary language research by our specialists in Arabic, English and Hebrew to create nearly 200 individual assessments, featuring 5,288 unique sources. This involves a complete review of all hyperlocal sources, including social media posts from affected communities, local journalism, and deeper research and academic reports. Each of these assessments were then reviewed multiple times, before the dedicated geolocation team mapped each individual incident often down to the exact location.

After building the archive, Airwars conceived of and designed the neighbourhood map in conjunction with the team at Rectangle, our regular design partners. This was plotted on Mapbox with shapefiles designed via QGIS, in consultation with Palestinians from Gaza to ensure local knowledge was properly reflected. The map included 3D protrusions based on neighbourhood to immediately identify which areas had seen the most bloodshed. Each area was linked to a database of images and individual assessments, so viewers would be able to scroll through images and stories of each civilian casualty.

We produced similar maps for victims of Palestinian rocket fire inside Israel, as well as of civilians killed by Israeli strikes in Syria since 2017.

Additionally, for Gaza we also mapped every single Israeli strike and every civilian harm incident onto a map of population density in the Gaza Strip, overlapping different datasets to illustrate a clear story. This is proving to be a vital resource for those seeking to explain the high risks associated with wide area effect explosive weapons use in urban areas.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The most difficult part of this project was the challenge of ensuring accuracy of information on the civilian status of individuals, while also remaining consistent with our approach used in all conflict monitoring to archive all locally reported allegations of civilian harm. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a particularly sensitive and contested one and the lines between civilian and militant are often deliberately blurred, both by the belligerents and by observers. As such, wrongly identifying a militant as a civilian, or vice versa, could have significantly negatively impacted the credibility of the entire research and data set.

In order to solve this problem, we carried out a series of measures, including:

– Scraping all the ‘martyrdom’ statements from the Telegram channels of the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and cross referencing these with every civilian reported to be killed during May 2021.

– Reviewing all official Israeli military and government claims regarding the status of those killed, as well as other Israeli research organisations that made claims about them.

– Regular contact with Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs to check facts.

– Multiple reviews of all assessments and comprehensive data quality checks to be certain all information was correct.

– Ensuring that all information available was clearly archived to ensure transparency and encourage feedback.

– Remaining consistent with our methodology used across all conflicts – whereby civilian casualty estimates are provided in ranges (lowest estimates, highest estimates) to take into account conflicting assessments of civilian status.

Although Airwars has a global reputation for the high quality of its conflict casualty reporting, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both a mature and highly polarised arena. It was therefore critical that our engagment bring both unique insights into the conflict; with the highest quality work. We believe we have succeeded in this.

What can others learn from this project?

The May 2021 conflict between Israel and Palestinian factions receieved high and welcome media coverage at the time – though this was necessarily episodic and limited, particularly when understanding casualty and violence trends.

Checking with local and international NGOs, it became clear that no one organisation was planning to build a comprehensive model of the violence, and that this was an expertise we could bring on this occasion. The project yet again shows the potential power of online and remote research in cases where political powers seek to use border crossings or battlefield restrictions to limit transparency and accountability. Gaza has been all but closed to the world since Israel imposed a blockade more than a decade ago. Due to Israeli restrictions, it is near impossible to get foreign human rights researchers into the Strip. This is a trend across the globe, with governments and militaries increasingly closing off access to seek to suppress coverage and dissent.

Yet the victims of the recent conflict deserved their individual stories telling in a comprehensive fashion. Our own researchers based in the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, the United States, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere worked together to overcome the physical distance challenges, and to document the stories of each victim. This again highlights the potential positive power of online research.

Another key aim of our project was to examine the May 2021 conflict in the context of broader military trends – in particular the high risk to civilians posed by urban fighting. With its own extensive modeling of recent urban violence at Mosul and Raqqa, Aleppo and Tripoli, Airwars was, we believe, well placed to bring this additional key global perspective to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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