Central to the charge that Israel’s conduct warrants an investigation by an “independent” commission to investigate whether it committed war crimes is the premise that Israel, in defending itself against rockets launched by Hamas into its territory, caused a disproportionate number of civilian deaths.

Since a commission appointed by the anti-Israel United Nations Human Rights Council is looking to convict, a fair investigation into the violence is in order. Unfortunately, in an article from last week entitled “The U.N. says 7 in 10 Palestinians killed in Gaza were civilians. Israel disagrees,” The Washington Post failed to provide the necessary context to allow a proper understanding of Operation Protective Edge.

The war in Gaza will now continue in a battle between databases to determine who was killed and why.

The most contested number, the one that attracts the most stubborn insistence and ferocious rebuttal, is not the total fatalities on the Palestinian side, the more than 2,100 dead in the Gaza hostilities.

The controversy centers instead on the ratio of civilians to combatants, or as the Israelis call them “terrorist operatives.”

In the second sentence the reporter, William Booth, mentions the “stubborn insistence and ferocious rebuttal,” but doesn’t acknowledge his own role in supporting the “stubborn insistence.”

Booth’s articles on Operation Protective Edge have often contained similar language describing “mounting Palestinian civilian casualties.” Furthermore, in other instances articles on which Booth was bylined listed casualty totals with no judgment as to their veracity. For example on July 19 a dispatch on which he had a byline reported:

The Palestinian death toll from the conflict rose Saturday to more than 330, including about 60 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. An additional 2,200 have been injured. The United Nations estimates that about 80 percent of the casualties are civilians, many of them children.

On July 28 another article which included Booth in the byline reported:

The conflict has killed more than 1,060 people in Gaza, more than 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel has lost 53 soldiers, the largest toll since its 2006 war with Lebanon. Hamas mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza have killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel.

Each article includes an estimate from the United Nations with no indication of the methodology, and those numbers are in turn reported with no qualifications or challenges. The death toll in one case was explicitly attributed to the Gaza Health Ministry, even though the Ministry is a part of Hamas and therefore unreliable.

Last week’s report deals with some of these objections, but in superficial fashion.

The Israel Defense Forces­ warns on its Web site that “media outlets have relied on Hamas’ statistics when reporting casualties in Gaza, but the terrorist group routinely exaggerates civilian deaths for propaganda purposes.”

But neither the prime minister’s office nor the Israeli military have provided any detailed, verifiable tally of their own to account for their contention that the conflict killed some 1,000 terrorists.

Booth demands proof from Israel but accepts numbers and estimates from Hamas and the UN without question! It isn’t just an Israeli claim that Hamas “exaggerates civilian deaths;” exaggeration was part of Hamas’ media strategy to use the term “innocent civilian” to describe any casualty of the war. This is important, not only because it confirms Israel’s charge, but also because later Booth quotes a Hamas official claiming responsibility for providing the body count:

But on Facebook and Twitter, one Hamas official, himself a physician, provided a minute-by-minute tally of the dead. From his post at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al Kidra was in the early days of the war the public face of casualty figures, often appearing on camera in hospital scrubs.

“All the world uses our numbers. We are the only source,” Kidra boasted in an interview during the height of the fighting.

This is the real news. An official of Hamas acknowledges that he was the ultimate source of casualty figures. He works for a terrorist organization whose announced intent is to mislead the media and yet Booth makes no mention of any reason to doubt Kidra’s numbers.

Aside from Hamas’ deceptions there’s another reason to trust Israel’s figures: recent history. After Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, Israel claimed that roughly half of those killed were combatants. Nearly two years later Israel’s numbers were confirmed … by Hamas. Initially Hamas’ intent is to demonize Israel so it exaggerates the number of civilian deaths, but eventually Hamas wants to give its martyrs their due.

There are two other points worth mentioning. Booth cited the first report of the Meir Amit  Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) which reviewed the first 150 casualties and was published at the end of July. But ITIC has done three more studies of the Gaza casualty figures. The fourth one was released last week and all four have shown a pretty consistent percentage of 46% combatants to 54% civilian fatalities. Historically, a civilian/combatant fatality ratio of 1 to 1 is almost unheard of.

Booth cites a Palestinian organization called al Mezan as a source for the casualty figures. Booth cites the organization’s work, and to show its independence observes, “Its communications director scrolled through a year’s worth of press releases from Mezan criticizing Hamas for extrajudicial executions, torture of prisoners and dubious arrests.” But as NGO Monitor showed, al Mezan may not have any specific loyalties in Palestinian politics, but it is anti-Israel. Statements from the group refer to the Israeli army as IOF (Israel Occupation Forces) as opposed to IDF (Israel Defense Forces).

Booth is not alone; many reporters rely on the dubious figures from the Gaza Health Ministry. But when he writes about how each side is trying to spin the numbers, he should give a complete picture of the spinning, including his own role in promoting Hamas’ propaganda.

[Photo: Middle East Eye / YouTube ]



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