It's the Mideast equivalent of "Dog bites man," but it took the media nearly a month to recognize its sheer obviousness: Hamas lies.
Hamas lies systematically, instructing civilians to misinform the foreign press. It lies habitually, with a formidable record of mendacity from previous conflicts. And it lies guiltlessly, convinced that the objectives of 'resistance' supersede quaint notions of truth-telling.
Nonetheless, since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge over a month ago, Western media have relied on Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry – as here, here and here – for casualty tallies. As one reporter told the Washington Post, when it comes to body counts, the Hamas Health Minister Ashraf Al-Qidra is "the only game in town."
For his part, Qidra has acknowledged that he considers any fatality who has not been claimed by an armed group as a civilian. And for its part, the Hamas leadership almost never admits its operatives have been killed – and instructs Gazans to do the same. Consequently, Qidra's running total labels three-quarters of Gaza deaths as civilians.
The result has been thundering condemnation of Israel for "indiscriminate" bombing (according to the United Nations Human Rights Council), and even targeting civilians deliberately (as per The Guardian). "The world stands disgraced," bellowed the head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency on July 30, in words run by The Guardian in a banner front-page headline the next day. Human Rights Watch charged Israel with "collective punishment," and even the United States – the Jewish state's closest friend – lamented, "Israel has to do a better job to avoid civilian loss of life."
After nearly a month, however, the media has belatedly cottoned to the Hamas game. Over the last week The New York Times, Al Jazeera and the BBC – none of them traditional redoubts of Zionist fervor – have begun casting doubt on their own previously reported statistics.
In a front-page story on Wednesday, the Times compared and analysed data provided by both Israeli and Palestinian non-governmental organizations. That analysis determined that the population most over-represented in the death toll – men ages 20 to 29 – were also those most likely to be militants: Though they make up just 9 percent of Gaza's overwhelmingly young population, they account for more than a third of its fatalities. By contrast, women and children under 15 – the least likely to be combatants – account for 71 percent of the population, but one-third of its deaths.
The following day Al Jazeera published the names – provided by the Hamas Health Ministry – of all of 1,507 known fatalities. Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar, one of Hamas's chief benefactors and diplomatic champions, and yet a breakdown of the names' age and sex reveals the same pattern: Men of combat age are disproportionately represented.
On Friday, the BBC's head of statistics released his own breakdown, based on data provided by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He concluded: "If the Israeli attacks have been 'indiscriminate', as the U.N. Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women." The U.N.'s figures, in other words, effectively disprove its own damning allegations of indiscriminate force.
In response, the office of the high commissioner offered merely that it "would not want to speculate about why there had been so many adult male casualties." It had no similar qualms, however, in republishing its own purely speculative estimates as hard data: the "Facts and Figures" section of its website says 1,407 Gazan civilians have been killed – roughly the same number cited by Hamas.
The U.N., after all, uses the Hamas-supplied figures as a starting point for its own, to which it adds information from media reports (which, again, often rely on those same Hamas numbers) and reports by Palestinian nongovernmental organizations. Many of those NGOs, however, are also of suspect credibility. The oft-cited and reassuringly named Palestinian Center for Human Rights, for example, defines anyone not actively conducting militant activity – say, a Hamas sniper on a tea break – as a civilian. Its figures for civilian casualties are higher even than those of Hamas.
Objective analysis of the available data reveals that rather than civilians making up the "vast majority" of Gaza deaths – as the media regularly reported – the proportion appears closer to half. Hundreds of dead civilians are hardly reason to celebrate, but a 1-to-1 civilian casualty ratio is remarkably low by the grim standards of war. Coalition efforts in Afghanistan, for example, produced a 3-to-1 ratio, and 4-to-1 in Iraq. Given Hamas tactics of firing rockets from densely populated civilian areas, the toll in Gaza could have been immeasurably higher.
Why, then, do the media continue to accept Hamas propaganda unchallenged? Partly because the death of any civilian – particularly children, who are half of Gaza's population – is heart-rending. Partly because the heat and fog of war make precise figures unknowable until well after the fighting. Partly because the narrative of a guerrilla militia confronting a modern military makes for compelling copy, and partly – perhaps mainly – because of Hamas intimidation and restrictions on the ground.
Hamas mendacity, however, is old news. During its first major clash with Israel in 2008-09, for example, the organization claimed that fewer than 50 of the dead had been combatants. Years later, it conceded that the total had been identical to that acknowledged by Israel: between 600 and 700.
It is therefore all the more extraordinary that journalists cast their usual skepticism to the winds and instead followed the script of an unrepentant, unreliable terror outfit.
Hamas has taken a beating in its latest battle with Israel, but so too has media credibility.