Politics & Policy

Can We Trust the Casualty Numbers?

Probably not, if they come from Hamas.

‘Palestinian Death Toll Tops 900: Gaza Official,” blared an AP headline on Monday morning. Over at CNN, the headline was “Gaza death toll since airstrikes began is above 500, Palestinian sources 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. Israel thus “seriously questions Hamas’s figures,” but at this point — obviously — it has no way of doing the kind of intense forensic investigation needed to issue its own more precise estimate.

It’s time to recall another Israeli incursion in which Palestinians used casualty numbers seemingly plucked out of the air to justify its claim that Israel was employing “disproportionate force.” In the spring of 2002, after months of near-daily suicide bombings inside Israel, the IDF decided to make a major incursion into the Jenin refugee camp, which even Al-Fatah documents identified as “the capital of suicide bombing.” The civilian population was warned that an incursion was imminent and given several days to move to adjacent towns in the West Bank. Then Israel moved in with infantry soldiers who picked their way among mined buildings looking for weapons stores and hidden enemy fighters.

Palestinians, this time from the Fatah side of the street, immediately started to play to the international media. Several outlets, including Al-Jazeera for instance, quoted one Dr. Abu-Rali, director of a Jenin hospital, who said that “the western wing of [his] hospital was shelled and destroyed,” making for “casualties in the thousands.”

Nasser al-Kidwa, a Palestinian representative to the United Nations, told CNN: “There’s almost a massacre now taking place in Jenin. Helicopter gunships are throwing missiles at one square kilometer packed with almost 15,000 people in a refugee camp. . . . Just look at the TV and watch, watch what the Israel forces are doing. . . . This is a war crime, clear war crime, witnessed by the whole world, preventing ambulances, preventing people from being buried. I mean this is an all-out assault against the whole population.”

“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. In fact, the PLO itself had already revised its figures. In May 2002, a PLO spokesman named Kadoura Mousa Kadoura, who apparently had decided to “rebrand” the Jenin incursion, produced a list of 56 dead as part of his brief to Paul Martin of the Washington Times that the battle had been “a victory” in which “the Israelis, who tried to break the Palestinian willpower, have been taught a lesson.”

As for the Jenin hospital whose “western wing” was pulverized, an Israeli reservist doctor named David Zangen — who served in units during the Jenin battle and has done much writing contesting the myths propagated about the incursion — reports that “there never was such a wing and, in any case, no part of the hospital was shelled or bombed.”

Another tactic, along with inflated figures, is to exploit the shock value of dead bodies. Even if they have to be pulled out of morgues, bodies will be found and displayed to produce the horrible photographs that bring demonstrators into the streets and diplomats into urgent sessions. There may have been relatively few civilian casualties in the battle for Jenin, but that did not stop Hamas and Fatah-affiliated terror militiamen in the camp from “dressing the set,” so to speak, for the international press.

According to Ilan Sztulman, an officer in the IDF reserves who served in Jenin, “The Palestinians wouldn’t let anybody take the bodies out. They manipulate imagery. That’s how they fight. There were bodies decaying on the street. They stank. But if anybody approached the bodies they would get shot. They booby-trapped a lot of bodies. Some IDF soldiers got killed before they figured this out. So to get them out, the IDF soldiers began using a sort of anchor. It’s called a sapper’s anchor: You throw it; it gets stuck on flesh and if it doesn’t explode, you can come close.”

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 atlantic.com. “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.”

Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Other War: Israeli, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy.

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