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How Many Gazans Really Died in the War?

When Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, I was working for a newspaper in the west of England, and one of my jobs was editing the page or two of foreign news we carried each day. When reports of a "massacre" in a town called Jenin started appearing on the wire services one afternoon, I was skeptical. The claims by anonymous Palestinians of Israeli soldiers lining civilians up against walls and shooting them not only didn’t ring true, they reeked of propaganda.

Claim and counterclaim are part of the "fog" of any conflict, but I felt my paper shouldn't publish accusations so serious -- and so inflammatory -- without at least a modicum of independent corroboration. I relayed my concerns to the deputy editor, who took a  less skeptical view of the massacre claims. "Run it," he said. "Those ****ing Israelis, they think they can do what they like."

I didn't run it -- at least not the version he wanted me to. I left in the facts as they were known, including reports of IDF troops causing civilian casualties, but I excised the more outrageous claims against the Israelis, including all references to a “massacre.” I didn't see what I was doing as necessarily pro-Israel. I guess I was just clinging to the quaint notion that my paper should stick to reporting the facts.

When, some time later, it emerged that there had indeed been no massacre in Jenin (the Palestinians  claimed that first thousands, then hundreds had died; the final estimate by the UN was 55, including “a number” of civilians [see point No. 4 under Annex IV of its official report]), I felt vindicated and pleased that I hadn’t contributed to the orgy of hatred directed at Israel over a “war crime” that never happened.

Unfortunately for Israel, editors at supposedly reputable news organizations around the world with immeasurably more influence than my small paper, including CNN and the BBC, were less circumspect in reporting the false allegations. (The behavior of the British press was especially disgraceful, as Tom Gross wrote at the time for National Review). In this case the lie got not halfway, but the whole way around the world before the truth got its boots on, and it’s a lie that’s still widely believed to this day.

Clearly unchastened by the Jenin experience, the world’s media has been reporting with a similar lack of skepticism on the casualty figures coming out of Gaza in recent days. Most outlets are reporting a figure of 1,200-1,300 Palestinian dead, while omitting Israeli claims that two-thirds of this number were Hamas fighters. The BBC, maintaining its inglorious record of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is also reporting as fact that 400 children were killed, with no evidence to support that figure. This is the same BBC that continues to report that “most” of the 1,000 or so Lebanese killed by Israel in the 2006 war were civilians, in the face of reports from multiple sources that perhaps half the dead were Hezbollah fighters.

Now the first serious challenge to these figures has emerged, in a story in the Italian newpaper Corriere della Sera that has been widely reported by the Israeli press -- including here, here and here -- but so far mostly ignored by the world’s media. Journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi quotes Palestinian medical staff as saying that no more than 500 or 600 Palestinians died, most of them young men. He says he visited several of the major hospitals in Gaza and found large numbers of empty beds. Cremonesi -- who knows his way around Gaza, and was briefly kidnapped there in 2005 -- also relates Palestinian accounts of Hamas using civilians as human shields, firing from UN facilities, and commandeering ambulances to avoid being targeted by Israeli forces.

Clearly the numbers don’t add up, so who should we believe? Cremonesi’s report is persuasive -- particularly the account of the empty beds -- but stands alone among reports from Gaza. And even if there was something approaching unanimity on the total number of dead, disagreements will remain as to how many were combatants and how many were civilians.The IDF and the Red Cross are carrying out detailed investigations into casualty numbers. While the Israeli military has clearly killed civilians, it says most of those deaths were unavoidable and the consequence of attacks on legitimate targets. It should also be noted that the IDF is investigating allegations of war crimes, and its troops are subject to the full force of the law.

Hamas, by contrast, clearly bears responsibility for many of the civilian deaths, and clearly has an interest in inflating the numbers. And don’t hold your breath waiting for Hamas to launch investigations into claims that its fighters stole food and medical supplies, and tortured and killed members of the rival Fatah organization.

There’s very little coming out of Gaza in the way of impartial accounts, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the sources inside the territory on which the media is largely relying are far from neutral. What the media disingenuously describes as "Palestinian" sources are, in fact, Hamas sources. Hamas controls everything in Gaza, including the hospitals.

Then there are the supposedly neutral foreign relief and medical workers, such as Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, who in between ward rounds was doing the rounds on CNN, the BBC, and elsewhere, where he was portrayed as something close to a Mother Teresa figure. Little Green Footballs and other bloggers have reported how Gilberts, an acknowledged supporter of terrorism, took part in an apparently staged video purporting to show the death of a Gazan child. He isn’t just some Hawkeye Pierce figure, railing against the futility of war: he’s a regular Che Guevara, throwing his lot in with the killers in Hamas to further his anti-Semitic and anti-Western agenda.

Sadly, the UN is not neutral in Gaza either. UNRWA, which is responsible for Palestinian refugees, is part of the fabric of Gazan society. It employs thousands of Palestinians, and operates, like every relief agency, under the writ of Hamas. Some of its international staff are no doubt simply toeing the Hamas line so that that they can help the people of Gaza, but others, in line with semi-official UN policy, are clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and hostile toward Israel.

And so we come back to the mainstream media, through which the accounts from sources on both sides of the conflict are filtered. And the media has shown time and again that, thanks to a heady mix of stupidity, gullibility, and bias, it can’t be trusted to report the facts accurately. I’ve yet to see a piece in the MSM recalling the “lessons of Jenin,” and cautioning against jumping to conclusions over Gaza.

The truth about what happened in Jenin is known to a relatively small group of people -- serious observers of Middle East politics, Israelis, and supporters of Israel who make it their business to stay informed. Others -- Arab regimes and their apologists in the media and academia -- know the truth but choose to conceal it or actively lie. Most non-partisan people still believe there was a massacre, because it was widely reported on TV and on the front pages of newspapers and websites around the world, while the truth leaked out slowly, months afterwards and far from the headlines.

Ultimately, people will believe what they want to believe about who died in Gaza, and how they died. Opponents of Israel will refuse to accept that most of those killed were lawfully-targeted combatants, or that most of the civilian dead were the victims of Hamas’ actions. Similarly, supporters of Israel find it hard to believe that its troops may have killed innocent people unnecessarily. But the media has a responsibility to give the same prominence to the claims of the Israeli government as it does to the claims of terrorist propagandists, and to report on accounts, such as Lorenzo Cremonesi’s, that run counter to the established narrative. So far, predictably, it’s failing miserably on both scores.