Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: The Numbers Game

Feb 23, 2009 | Tzvi Fleischer

By Tzvi Fleischer


The Numbers Game

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have released semi-official casualty figures for the Gaza campaign, and found no more than one-third of those killed were civilians. This is contrary to numerous media reports based primarily on claims by Hamas and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). The IDF lists by name more than 1,200 Palestinians killed during the conflict, accompanied by Palestinian Authority ID numbers and the circumstances of their deaths.

The IDF says it has positively identified 580 as members of Hamas or other terrorist groups. Israel classifies about 300 individuals – women, children under 15 and older men – as civilians, even though some of the women on the list have been identified as being actively involved in the conflict. Another 320 names, all combat-age males, have yet to be classified. But the army says it expects the same pattern of two-thirds terrorists to one-third civilians will be found in those remaining names.

Meanwhile, the claims by PHCR have come under critical scrutiny. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) cross-checked the names on PCHR’s reports with Palestinian media – not the IDF – and found that numerous individuals identified as combatants there were listed by PCHR as civilians.

It also found that a large number of young men were listed by PCHR as killed by Israel without a classification as civilian or combatant. However, when figures were given to the media, these were included in the number of civilians killed.

The IDF also noted some clear examples of misreporting, citing several cases where Palestinian sources had claimed individuals killed were “medics” and thus civilians. But the IDF says it has evidence that these “medics” were Hamas fighters. In the most egregious case, it was claimed that Anas Naim, the nephew of Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naim, had been a medic with the Palestinian Red Crescent when he was killed on Jan. 4. However, a picture of Naim with a grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov, clearly representing him as a Hamas fighter, has been published on a Hamas website.

The sad part is that discussing all of the above is almost certainly a losing battle. None of it will be reported widely in the mainstream Western media. And the Hamas claims that almost all those killed were civilians, or at best, the PCHR claims that more than two-thirds of those killed were civilians, will likely be cited as gospel in most future reporting and discussion of the conflict.

The Truth about UNRWA

One piece of necessary revisionism about the conflict has happily been reasonably widely reported. Thanks to some investigative work by Canada’s Globe and Mail, UNRWA, the controversial UN agency which looks after the welfare needs of Palestinian refugees, has admitted that contrary to widespread reporting, Israeli fire did not strike a school at Jabaliya housing refugees on Jan. 6. Israeli counterfire against Hamas mortars shot from next to the school fell nearby, but the school grounds and buildings were not directly hit. While UNRWA head John Ging now says that he had never claimed that they did, the Globe and Mail showed that UN reports had made this claim, and Ging had strongly implied it as well.

It had originally been claimed that 42 people died from Israeli fire in or near the school, but the same IDF report into casualties noted above disputes this. The IDF claims to have established that in fact 12 people died, and nine of these were Hamas fighters.

Meanwhile, there has been considerable criticism of UNRWA for politicising its responses to the Gaza conflict. There were other incidents when Israel was mistakenly blamed by UNRWA. For instance, UNRWA publicly blamed Israel when an aid convoy was hit at the Erez crossing on Jan. 8, leading to the death of one UNRWA employee. But both witnesses and an IDF investigation established that IDF fire was not responsible and the attack probably came from Hamas.

It was also frequently noted by commentators around the world that UNRWA spokesmen were much more vehement and unrelenting in their criticism of Israeli military action, and inclined to at most criticise Hamas rocket fire as an afterthought. Their spokesperson also cast doubt on Hamas’ illegal use of civilian infrastructure for military operations, despite overwhelming evidence.

These tendencies lend weight to the findings of a new report written by James Lindsay, who was UNRWA’s chief legal counsel from 2000 to 2007, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Lindsay calls for reform of UNRWA, citing evidence the agency does not do enough to avoid employing members of Hamas and other terror groups, gives aid to Palestinians who do not need it, uses racist and inflammatory textbooks in its schools and has politicised its role by making one-sided pronouncements on the conflict well outside its humanitarian mission.

Andrew Whitley, head of UNRWA’s New York office, responded to the report by citing the old chestnut that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

But his most telling reported remark was that, “Someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” In other words, he argues that UNRWA’s politicisation of its role, its hiring of Hamas members, and its repeated failure to condemn Hamas rocket fire into Israel while condemning all Israeli responses to it are all justified because Israel is an evil occupier (even though it is completely out of Gaza). You cannot get more politicised than that.



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