Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Problems with Gaza casualty numbers gaining recognition

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In his article in The Australian (Rise of anti-semitism from this war is no accident, 11 Aug), Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), suggested that the world is beginning to understand that Hamas appears to be deliberately manipulating the number of civilian casualties in Gaza in order to win propaganda points:

"Hamas's illusion begins to crack. The reality behind it is far uglier, and more dangerous, than many have realised."

This is confirmed by no less an authority than, the BBC News' Head of Statistics, Anthony Reuben. He recently published an article (Caution needed with Gaza casualty figures, 8 Aug.) admitting that there is reason for scepticism and asking serious questions about the Gaza civilian casualties figures that were widespread through the mainstream media.

He explained that news outlets have been quoting from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which recieves its data from a group of humanitarian organisations known as the ‘Protection Cluster'. In its reports, the OHCHR qualified the data by noting that "Data on fatalities and destruction of property is consolidated by the Protection and Shelter clusters based on preliminary information, and is subject to change based on further verifications." Yet this weak acknowledgment of the potential problems with its data sources does not seem to get in the way of its harsh and biased condemnation of Israel's actions. The fact that much of the information on Gaza casualties originates from the Hamas-run Health Ministry is somehow, conveniently not mentioned.

Reuben pointed out that the New York Times' analysis of 1,431 casualties' names (Civilian or Not? New Fight in Tallying the Dead From the Gaza Conflict, 5 Aug.) as well as analysis of the list of names and ages of the dead published by al-Jazeera confirm that young men are significantly overrepresented among casualties - as I previously noted. (For more analysis of the disinformation about casualties' numbers and why they are unreliable, see my previous posts here and here)

He noted that by looking at the disproportionate number of young combat age men among the casualties in the reports, "... if the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate', as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women."

Reuben's investigation into the puzzle of the the high percentage of young male casualties led to some disturbing realisations, as Evelyn Gordon wrote in a piece for Commentary (Exposing the UN's Unreliable Data on Gaza Casualties, 8 Aug.):

"So Reuben asked the high commissioner's office how it explains this statistical anomaly. Here's the mind-boggling response: ‘Matthias Behnk, from OHCHR, told BBC News that the organisation would not want to speculate about why there had been so many adult male casualties.' In other words, confronted with a glaring statistical anomaly, the UN opted ‘not to speculate' about whether this cast doubt on the credibility of its claim that over 80 percent of fatalities were civilians. Instead, it kept right on feeding that number to journalists - most of whom promptly regurgitated it with no questions asked."

Reuben himself did not blame the UN for spreading unreliable information, but he too seems unconvinced by the response he received. Therefore, given the lack of clarity about the civilian/combat status of so many of the casualties, he advised reporters and commentators to be cautious when making claims about civilian casualties in Operation Protective Edge:

"In conclusion, we do not yet know for sure how many of the dead in Gaza are civilians and how many were fighters... it does mean that some of the conclusions being drawn from them may be premature."

However, though Reuben did not says so, there is solid evidence that the lack of clarity regarding civilian casualties is not a mere result of the complex nature of data collection, management and analysis in wartime. It is part of a deliberate effort by Hamas to obscure facts and information. And, as the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) have shown, it is part of Hamas' policy of ‘concealment and deception.'

ITIC reports now reveal that the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Interior in Gaza issued an announcement on 5 Aug. calling on Gazans to avoid publishing or spreading any information, including photos, about terrorists that were killed during Operation Protective Edge. The announcement reads:

"The ministry of the interior and national security [in Gaza] calls on all our [Palestinian] people and the resistance factions [i.e. the terrorist organizations] to be wary of disseminating information and pictures of fatalities of the resistance, and [about] mentioning details about [the circumstances of] their deaths as martyrs and where they died..."

Moreover, Hamas has even publicly maintained that every single Gazan killed counts as a civilian, not a combatant, because Gaza has "no regular army and no real military targets". A Hamas TV host announced over the weekend:

"We know that the Palestinian public is a civilian public. Even the [PA] Security Forces - traffic police and the civil defense - are all civilian forces. Even the Jihad fighters in the battleground are actually Palestinian civilians fulfilling their religious and national duty. This is why [we cannot make] the distinction and say ‘a civilian car', ‘a civilian target' and so on - since we have no regular army and no real military targets, as the occupation is trying to claim in its propaganda."

Given that Hamas denies any Gazans can be considered combatants, it is not surprising that their officials do not given out reliable information about who is a combatant and who is not.

ITIC reports detail the disinformation tactics employed by the Health Ministry spokesperson, Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra, and his team at the al-Shifa Hospital, who are the ultimate source for almost all casualty number information provided the Arab and International media, as well as for human rights organisations. They intentionally seek to create the impression that only civilians were killed during Operation Protective Edge, in accordance with Hamas' policy of effacing and obscuring combatants' identities.

Israeli investigations allege that at least 47% of those killed were members of terror groups. The ITIC has published two reports (here and here) about its detailed investigations into partial lists of casualties which support a similar ratio.

However, Hamas' policy apparently includes, as Alan Dershowitz (Hamas' Phony Statistics on Civilian Deaths, 7 Aug.) noted, counting among the "civilians killed by Israel" Palestinians that Hamas has killed as collaborators, Palestinians killed by errant terrorist rockets which fell inside Gaza, Palestinians who dies of natural causes and so on.

Hamas' definition of "combatants" is incredibly limited and only includes armed fighters in uniform killed while fighting Israeli soldiers. That leaves out the tunnel diggers, people who hid terrorists' weapons and munitions in their homes, and many others who are actively taking part in Hamas' violence, but happen to wear civilian clothing.

Similarly, former senior British military officer Colonel Richard Kemp recently noted (Gaza's Civilian Casualties: The Truth Is Very Different, 3 Aug.), with some sarcasm, that:

"With few exceptions, reporters, commentators and analysts unquestioningly accept the casualty statistics given by Gaza's Hamas-controlled medical authorities, who ascribe all deaths to the IDF. Is anyone in Gaza dying of natural causes?"

If Kemp is right in his assertion that no one in Gaza is being listed as dying of natural causes, with all such deaths that occurred over the period of conflict being attributed to Israeli military actions, that would likely require a major adjustment of the casualty figures. Some back of the envelope calculations being published allege that among the 1.7 million people in Gaza around 15 people normally die every day of natural causes. If these people are being added to the Gaza war casualty count, there would be more than 400 people (15 per day over 30 plus day of fighting) on it whose deaths had nothing to with the war. Moreover, virtually all of them would be listed as civilians.

Kemp also noted that there appear to be numerous other ways casualty figures are being fudged, noting:

"Mass executions of ‘collaborators,' and civilians killed by malfunctioning Hamas rockets, are all attributed to IDF fire... We see a great deal of grotesque and heart-rending footage of dead and bleeding women and children but never so much as a glimpse of killed or wounded fighters. Nor do reporters question or comment on the complete absence of Gazan military casualties, an extraordinary phenomenon unique to this conflict."

It has recently reported that even the execution of a Hamas commander named Ayman Taha, allegedly for spying for an Arab country, was added to the casualty list and blamed on Israel.

Kemp later added an explanation to the twisted logic behind Hamas' policy regarding casualties:

"... all Palestinian civilian casualties in this conflict result ultimately from Gaza terrorists' aggression against Israel, and Hamas's use of human shields - the most important plank of Hamas's war-fighting policy.... the Palestinian body count is vital to Hamas's propaganda war that aims to bring international pressure on Israel and incite anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic hatred around the world."

This brings us back to Oboler's article. He also linked Hamas' lies about the identity of the casualties and the false claims on ‘disproportionality' to the steep rise of the antisemitic attacks and intimidation around the world (as documented by Jeremy Jones in more detail in an article over the weekend). Oboler note that Hamas' deliberate inflating of civilian casualty numbers and these threats to Jews worldwide are not only linked, but that this result appears to be intentional:

"The supposedly disproportionate civilian casualty rate has been used not only to justify and mobilise hostility to Israel, but also to defend outright anti-semitism including comparisons to the Holocaust... If the number of civilian casualties is in fact similar to other conflicts, or proportionally less than other conflicts, when comparing the rate of civilian to combatant casualties, then a lot of people have been working off a false premise... Unless people stop and take stock, Hamas may well achieve its real purpose, to harm Jewish people around the globe. The rise in anti-semitism is a key outcome of this war, and it seems it is far from an accident."