FRESH AIR

The media, Palestinian children and the numbers game

Nov 10, 2023 | Oved Lobel

Israel strikes Hamas targets in Gaza, 2021 (Photo: Nick_ Raille_07 / Shutterstock.com)
Israel strikes Hamas targets in Gaza, 2021 (Photo: Nick_ Raille_07 / Shutterstock.com)

Nearly all major Western media outlets are continuing their longstanding and insidious tradition when reporting on Israel of not only citing Hamas’ dubious casualty statistics – which, in addition to being inherently untrustworthy, do not differentiate between civilians and terrorist operatives – without qualification, but also emphasising the number of children Hamas claims are among the dead.

This is a grossly irresponsible journalistic practice and a form of barely disguised anti-Israel activism, adding an additional layer to the universal practice of juxtaposing Palestinian and Israeli casualties in every conflict as if these top-line numbers imply anything about the morality or legality of Israeli operations.

The purpose of constantly underlining the number of children among the dead, and this is if one accepts the number is real, is that the statistic by itself supposedly demonstrates Israel is committing war crimes and indiscriminately targeting civilians. It means nothing of the sort.

The reason children, defined as those under the age of 18, are overrepresented among Palestinian casualties is that approximately half of Gaza’s population is under 18. Both the overall birth rate and the fertility rate per woman in Gaza are among the highest in the world, while according to the CIA World Factbook, the death rate in Gaza is among the lowest. The UN even released a report in December 2016 on the exponential Palestinian population growth in the Strip. As an aside, these facts make an absolute mockery of those abusing the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s conduct.

The number of those under 18 killed tells us nothing about the war except that there are a lot of Palestinians under 18 in Gaza. Thousands of civilians are being killed because Hamas is completely embedded inside the civilian population, with tunnels, arms depots and rocket launching positions located in, under or adjacent to residential neighbourhoods, schools, mosques, hospitals and other civilian objects and infrastructure.

Many of these civilians are under 18, and when Gaza’s giant families all live together in or near a military target – and in Gaza, this often includes extended family, as well – many children will become victims of Hamas’ human shields policy. This is horrifically tragic, but it has no bearing on whether Israel is adhering to laws on proportionality when attacking legitimate military targets or the broader justice of the war.

But there is an even deeper problem with highlighting the number of children killed, because in the West this word is equated with non-combatants. While most of them certainly are, it is a documented fact that Hamas and its sister terrorist organisations in Gaza, like most terrorist groups, recruit and use children in their operations.

During the Second Intifada, several suicide bombings were carried out by Palestinians as young as 16, with multiple terrorist leaders, including from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), telling Human Rights Watch that they considered 16-year-olds adults. Hamas, PIJ and others run military training “summer camps” for tens of thousands of Palestinian children and adolescents with the express purpose of indoctrinating and recruiting them. These are very similar to Houthi “summer camps” in Yemen, where a massive proportion of Houthi casualties are under 18 because they indoctrinate and recruit children to use as cannon fodder.

Not only is the recruitment and use of children and adolescents for operations extremely well-documented and widely reported, including by Palestinian NGOs, but there have also been cases of Hamas’ Health Ministry editing the ages of terrorist casualties in both directions, including a nine-year-old operative listed as a 24-year-old and an adult operative’s age changed to 13.

The numbers also tell us nothing about the context of how some of these Palestinians under 18 were killed. Were some family members of terrorist operatives who were targeted? How many were accidentally killed due to their own family’s malfunctioning IEDs or failed Palestinian rocket launches, such as the hundreds reportedly killed in the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital car park?

Incidentally, there are hundreds of such failed rockets among the more than 9,500 launched at Israel that have fallen on Gaza, likely killing and wounding scores of Palestinians, many of whom would be under 18 by virtue of demography.

One might think the aforementioned facts might give reporters pause when throwing around these statistics, or at least suggest they should provide a little background and context.

The stories of children being killed in Gaza are indeed horrifically sad and tragic – even if we actually have no accurate numbers on the extent of this tragedy – and it is understandable that journalists want to highlight these terrible stories.

Unfortunately, the goal of at least some journalists appears to be primarily to draw some nonexistent moral equivalence between those Palestinians under 18 killed during legitimate Israeli military operations with the Israeli children brutally murdered or kidnapped by Hamas without even attempting to explain either the lack of reliable knowledge on the circumstances or numbers of such deaths or the essential context for why they are happening.

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