The PJ Tatler

The Media's Shameful Lack of Objectivity on Civilian Casualties in Gaza

On his Fox News show on Saturday night, Geraldo Rivera conducted a “two-way” with John Huddy, one of the network’s reporters in Gaza. During their exchange, Huddy matter-of-factly stated that 40 percent of those killed in Gaza as a result of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge were children. He didn’t cite a source, and he didn’t say “Hamas claims….” He just rattled off the number as if it were the Dow Jones closing figure – final and indisputable. (The clip is here – click on the 10:33pm segment if it doesn’t play straight off.) Having failed to question or verify the 40 percent claim, Rivera then repeated it in an exchange with Danny Danon, who resigned as Israel’s deputy defense minister last week after opposing a proposed ceasefire with Hamas.

Rivera is far from most conservatives’ favorite Fox presenter, and he can be hard to take seriously as he veers between Kent Brockman-esque pomposity and Ron Burgundy-esque histrionics. However, he’s normally solidly pro-Israel, so it was troubling that he didn’t challenge Huddy’s 40 percent figure, which seems implausibly high – even Gaza’s notoriously exaggeration-prone, Hamas-controlled Health Ministry puts the figure at around 25 percent. Fox, along with the rest of the media, has a duty to ensure that casualty figures are reliably sourced and as accurate as possible, given the key role that civilian deaths, and those of children in particular, play in shaping attitudes towards any conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

No-one knows exactly how many Gazans have been killed, nor how many of the dead are civilians, nor how many of those civilians are children. As well as ensuring that health officials stick to the party line, Hamas also keeps a tight grip on information coming out of the territory from other sources. The New York Times, for one, appears to be tailoring its coverage to suit the demands of the terror group. There are suspicions that the Times is playing ball with Hamas in order to be allowed to continue operating in Gaza – not that it would need much encouragement, given the Times‘s legendary anti-Israel bias, but the one-sidedness of its reporting this time is particularly egregious.

Israel is unable to produce its own estimates of casualties inside Gaza. It only releases its own casualty figures for operations like the one currently underway after they’ve been concluded, and, as this Times of Israel Report details, it concedes that it can do little to counter the likely exaggerated figures from Hamas. 

Of course, one dead civilian, let alone a child, is one too many. But innocent people will inevitably be killed and injured when Hamas launches its rockets from densely populated residential areas, and stores them in UN-run schools. And in conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, as in no other conflict anywhere in the world, the body count is the most important factor in the propaganda war, with Israel’s opponents pointing to the disproportionality in dead and injured as proof in itself that Israel is in the wrong.

Unfortunately, the same media that unquestioningly broadcasts Hamas’s civilian-heavy death tolls seems far less interested in examining why so many civilians are dying. On Sunday, the BBC aired a typically harrowing report from inside a Gaza hospital. While the reporter was talking to medics, there was a deafening roar as a salvo of Hamas rockets passed over the hospital, clearly launched from close by. To his credit, the clearly startled reporter said something to the effect of “but that doesn’t help the situation.”

It struck me that the BBC had something of an exclusive on its hands here: “We capture the moment Hamas launches rockets from outside a Gaza hospital – is this why so many civilians are dying?” But I haven’t seen the clip repeated, and I haven’t been able to find it online (if a PJ Media reader comes across it, please let me know); perhaps the BBC, its mind made up about the rights and wrongs of this conflict, didn’t appreciate the significance of the incident – or perhaps it was fully aware of the significance, and realized that making a big deal out of it would undermine the narrative that Israel is mostly to blame for dead Gazan civilians.

A couple of days before that, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, watched Hamas rockets streaking towards Israel, and noted that some of them fell short and landed in Gaza. Again, this was an aside to the main report, and there was no suggestion that Hamas rockets might be responsible for some Gazan deaths. This was a particularly glaring oversight given that, during Israel’s last incursion into Gaza – Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 – the BBC and other media outlets made hay out of claims that a local BBC reporter’s son had been killed by an Israeli missile, only for the UN to conclude months later that the boy had most likely been killed by a stray Palestinian rocket.

In Britain we’re used to broadly hostile media coverage of Israel from the BBC (and Sky News is no better) and the established print media. In the U.S., the New York Times notwithstanding, the media is generally more supportive of Israel, and Fox News more so than most – so when a Fox host starts parroting Hamas propaganda, it’s time for Israel to start worrying.

Each time Israel and Hamas go to war, international pressure inevitably grows on Israel to end its military action as the civilian death toll rises. If the numbers of dead civilians, and children in particular, are exaggerated then world opinion may force Israel to end its latest operation before Hamas has been sufficiently degraded to prevent it from mounting large-scale rocket attacks and kidnap operations against Israel in the future. That means Israel will have to conduct another round of airstrikes, and perhaps another ground invasion, sooner rather than later, which in turn will mean more civilian deaths, more outrage, and many more civilian deaths in the long run than if Israel were to strike a decisive blow against Hamas this time.

The media is fond of talking about the “cycle of violence” in the Middle East. What those reporters and anchors don’t seem to realize is that by broadcasting exaggerated claims about civilian and child deaths, while at the same time refusing to honestly address the issue of who’s responsible for those deaths, they’re doing more than anyone to perpetuate the cycle.