Wednesday, January 14, 2009

About Those Gaza Death Tolls

Yesterday I made reference to what the news media have reported as 500 the most current estimate of civilian dead in Gaza, bearing in mind that things are changing daily there. (“Will the Real Terrorists Please Crouch Down and Hide Behind Their Wives and Children?”).

I realized at once that the civilian death toll may have been exaggerated, but I don’t much in the way of fact-checkers here to give me a hand, so I have to rely on the best reports I can find with limited resources.

By way of corrective tonight, I offer an article I saw by Stephanie Gutmann on that speaks to the issue of casualty numbers--as they are being reported by Hamas. “Can We Trust the Casualty Numbers? Probably not, if they come from Hamas.”

Guttman has this to say:
Once again, a high and asymmetric death toll will be invoked to justify a premature end to Israel’s campaign to wipe out arms-smuggling tunnels and otherwise weaken Hamas’s infrastructure. But can we believe the numbers? Who are the sources of these figures? The AP, for instance, continually quotes unspecified “medical officials.” Sometimes reporters offer up hospital administrators in Gazan hospitals, sometimes people like “Bassem Naeem . . . health minister . . . in Gaza,” who “told reporters that 42 percent of those killed were women and children.”

But Israeli officials point out that virtually every public official in the Gaza strip, including hospital administrators, is, in effect, a Hamas appointee. It is, after all, a totalitarian regime that has crushed any remnant of a free press and thrown dissenters off the roofs of buildings.
Guttman offers the comparison with the now demythologized “Jenin massacre” in the West Bank in 2002. After months of near-daily suicide bombings, the IDF went straight to “the capital of suicide bombing,” the Jenin refugee camp. With an eye to the international media, Fatah-connected spokespersons were soon reporting “casualties in the thousands”:

“All my nine children are buried under the ruins,” a resident of Jenin named Abu Ali told the Le Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly magazine. The weekly apparently did not do any checking; it dutifully reported Ali’s story of losing his children in a piece titled “The Survivors Tell Their Stories.” Newspapers in the U.K. went into a positive frenzy, running pieces like the Independent’s “The Camp that Became a Slaughterhouse.”

Finally, in August 2002, the U.N. sent a team to investigate charges of a massacre. The U.N. — no friend of Israel — found no evidence of a massacre, and it supported IDF claims that about 45 Palestinians had died, mostly men aged 18 to 45. It confirmed only three children and four women. Abu Ali’s nine children were not among them. “Fifty-two Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by the hospital in Jenin by the end of May 2002. . . . A senior Palestinian Authority official alleged in mid-April that some 500 were killed, a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of the evidence that has emerged,” the U.N. report said.

Amnesty International, also no friend of Israel, did its own investigation and came to a similar conclusion.
Guttman says that another tactic of Hamas is to exploit the tactic of dead bodies.

This tactic may be in use once again to defeat Israel’s Gaza offensive. A week ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, who has done more up-close reporting in the disputed territories than any other living journalist, asked, “Why are these pictures [of the dead] so omnipresent?”

“Hamas (and the Aksa Brigades, and Islamic Jihad, the whole bunch) prevents the burial, or even preparation of the bodies for burial, until the bodies are used as props in the Palestinian Passion Play,” he wrote in his blog on “Once, in Khan Younis, I actually saw gunmen unwrap a shrouded body, carry it a hundred yards and position it atop a pile of rubble — and then wait a half-hour until photographers showed. It was one of the more horrible things I’ve seen in my life. And it’s typical of Hamas.”

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