July 27, 2014

About The Gaza Casualty Numbers

The supposed number of civilian dead is used to batter Israel for daring to go after Hamas, an aggressive terrorist organization that regularly rains missiles down on Israel's civilian population. But when one considers where the numbers come from, are they worthy of acceptance?

The media has engaged in journalistic malpractice by reporting casualty figures for civilians coming from Gaza as gospel. The figures come from the Gazan Ministry of Health, which is controlled by Hamas. The Ministry of Health counts everyone not in uniform as a civilian. Most Hamas fighters don’t wear uniforms. The UN is sometimes sourced for the figures, but the UN gets its figures from … the Gazan Ministry of Health. Contrary to early reports that 80% or so of the early casualties were civilians, Al-Jazeera published names and ages, and about 3/4 were men of fighting age (16-50), compared to a rough estimate of 20% of the Gazan population (40% to 50% of which is fourteen and under). Some of those men were undoubtedly civilians, but it strains credulity to believe that 80% of the casualties were civilian but just-so-happened to be overwhelmingly fighting-age men. (Here’s the most recent analysis from the IsraellyCool blog). For that matter, how do we know that the Minsitry of Health isn’t counting deaths from natural causes as deaths from Israeli actions? A simple “the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health claims” before reciting casualty figures that the media has not itself verified would resolve the problem. Obviously, there have been civilian casualties, and I doubt that a more accurate count would change many minds about the conflict. Still, as co-blogger Ilya suggested to me, relying on Hamas for casualty figures is like relying on old East German economic reports showing it to be wealthier than West Germany. (I’ll leave for another time the perplexing question of why the only time the media indulges in day-by-day casualty counts is when Israel is involved. Quick… within a large margin of error, how many civilians did NATO kill in Serbia? Afghanistan? Libya?)

The point? The reported casualty numbers come from a source that has a vested interest in making Israel look bad and Hamas look good. But the reality is that accepting these numbers is at a minimum like accepting claims from Saddam Hussein's official spokesman, "Baghdad Bob" -- or taking official press releases from Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda as the unvarnished truth. I'm sure there are some civilian casualties. When even a Hamas-friendly news source like Al Jazeera presents information that calls into question the official numbers, it is the height of irresponsibility for the press to fail to inform the public of the source of their figures and their likely unreliability.

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