The numbers game

Practically all “martyr statistics” depended on the word of one man – Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Kudra.

A Palestinian father reacts at the Shifa Hospital morgue after his son was killed in an explosion. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian father reacts at the Shifa Hospital morgue after his son was killed in an explosion.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most effective weapon that Hamas wielded against Israel throughout Operation Protective Edge was its manipulation of civilian casualty numbers and images. The distorted information was used to provoke hate campaigns against Israel and/or Jews worldwide and to misrepresent Israel’s self-defense as a calculated massacre of helpless civilians.
Some of the ploys were cynical beyond belief.
Photos of dead bodies from the Syrian civil war were recycled as Gazan victims of Israeli malevolence. Even pictures of the Fogel family children, slaughtered inside their Itamar home in 2011 by Palestinian terrorists, were presented as Arabs murdered by Israeli troops.
Footage from the emergency room at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City was rerun continually as if chronicling new incidents. Patients brought in due to disease, accidents and domestic violence were exhibited as casualties of deliberate Israeli barbarity.
But none of this rivaled the numbers game.
Practically all “martyr statistics” depended on the word of one man – Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Kudra. Unchallenged, he could raise numbers capriciously and exponentially.
His assertions became gospel, parroted religiously by most media organizations, and he could finagle the ratios of combatants versus noncombatants, of children versus adults, of men versus women. The “Israel disproportionality” canard, smacking of the medieval blood libel, was thus crucially underpinned.
The upshot was that Hamas provided the so-called “objective data” with which Israel was walloped. It was Hamas that told foreign onlookers that Israel targeted small children and elderly women.
Nevertheless, painstaking analysis of available figures is under way at the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center near Herzliya. Its in-depth breakdown of the data reveals that nearly half of the Gazan fatalities were terrorists killed in action. Whether or not they wore uniforms or something akin to them, it was clear Hamas had ordered that they not be identified as fighters.
In fact, the ratio of noncombatant to combatant casualties in Gaza (approximately 1:1) is uncommonly low in the history of urban warfare and attests to extreme caution by the IDF (especially given Hamas’s predilection for using noncombatants as human shields and firing from residential areas including schools. In addition, the terrorists’ fire often accidentally fire into their own population centers.
The dawning realization that the picture painted by Hamas is a bit too pat to withstand even sympathetic scrutiny has led some news outlets – and hardly ones that could by any criteria be regarded as sympathetic to Israel – to step back from the assumption that Gaza disseminates truth and that Israel merits automatic censure.
According to an exhaustive analysis by The New York Times, “the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll. They are 9% of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34% of those killed whose ages were provided.
“At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71% of the population and 33% of the known-age casualties.”
Here we must interject that Dr. Kudra doesn’t always provide information on ages, and his accuracy, when he does, is not readily verifiable.
Similarly, under the heading of “Caution needed with Gaza casualty figures,” the BBC admitted that “we do not yet know for sure how many of the dead in Gaza are civilians and how many were fighters. This is in no sense the fault of the UN employees collecting the figures – their statistics are accompanied by caveats and described as preliminary and subject to revision. But it does mean that some of the conclusions being drawn from them may be premature.”
To be sure, sifting through statistics lacks the dramatic immediacy of Hamas’s blood-and-gore propaganda.
Often corroboration comes too late. In Operation Cast lead, Hamas insisted that all but 50 fatalities were innocent civilians. Years later it owned up that it lost between 600 and 700 fighters (which was what the IDF maintained all along).
Unfortunately, the bigger and more blatant the lie, the harder it is to set the record straight. Still, Israel cannot neglect this seemingly Sisyphean quest for the truth.