Reporters grapple with politics, erratic sources in reporting Israeli/Gaza death toll


Relatives of nine Palestinians from the Abu Nejim family mourn during their funeral in Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Aug. 4. Tallying the exact number of dead in the conflict has proven to be difficult. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

How many people have been killed in Gaza and in Israel since the conflict between Hamas and Israel’s military began in early July? And who are the dead?

As in any war zone, with its chaos and fast-moving events, the answers are difficult to know with precision. And as in any war zone, the answers emerging in Gaza are colored by charges of propaganda and media ma­nipu­la­tion.

Supporters of Israel say the raw casualty numbers coming from Gaza are suspect, both in size and in composition. They assert that the sources — the Hamas-controlled health ministry, pro-Palestinian groups, nongovernmental organizations — are partisan and have an incentive to inflate and distort the figures to influence international media accounts, and hence poison world opinion about Israel.

Palestinian and non-state organizations counter that they are making a good-faith effort to account for the dead amid difficult circumstances. “There are always a small number of cases where we can’t be sure,” said Catherine Weibel, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Jerusalem, which has been tracking the deaths of children in Gaza. “But we do not report [a death] unless we have verified and cross-checked.”

The competing claims have left news reporters in the middle, as the wary arbiters of information that is virtually impossible to verify independently. Given that Israel doesn’t supply its own estimates, and the unlikelihood of conducting its own count, the news media has largely stuck with reporting the most readily available figures.


Comrades cry next to the grave of Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin during a military funeral ceremony at the cemetery in Kfar Saba, Israel, on Aug. 3. (Abir Sultan/EPA)

Media perceptions are critical in every modern war, but this has been particularly so in recent Israeli-Gaza conflicts. Israel is sensitive to international criticism that it has used its firepower indiscriminately, resulting in a disproportionate number of civilian casualties. Unlike conflicts in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel’s current military campaign, Operation Protective Edge, is taking place amid intense Western media coverage, with reporters roaming relatively freely on both sides.

As of Monday morning, the widely cited Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said that 1,888 Palestinians had died in Gaza since the Israel Defense Forces began the current military campaign July 8.

But that estimate is fraught with an important sub-issue: How many of those killed are Hamas fighters, compared with civilians? There are also questions about how people have died, whether from Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages or by other means, such as errant rocket fire from within Gaza by Hamas itself.

The PCHR said 84 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians; Israel sharply disputes this figure. An Israeli government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said about half of those killed have been Hamas combatants, and the number could rise once Israeli intelligence sources vet all of names of those killed. This higher figure is consistent, he said, with what Israeli officials found in after-action investigations into Israel’s two most recent operations in Gaza, in late 2012 and in 2008-2009.

The most widely quoted media source on casualties in Gaza is the health minister, Ashraf al-Kidra, who gathers his numbers from local hospitals in real time. Kidra, whose main office is at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, generates his figures with the help of aides who sit in front of computers with phones and lists. One reporter describes Kidra, who produced casualty counts in the two previous Gaza conflicts, as “the only game in town.”

But keeping up with the dead and injured isn’t easy amid the chaos in Gaza. At least some of the dead never go to a morgue and are never officially recorded; the intermittent bombardment compels families to bury their relatives as soon as possible. Reporters have described frantic scenes in morgues, with workers scribbling notes on pads as to keep up with incoming and outgoing, with dead and injured left in hallways or courtyards.

A pro-Israeli group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), last month analyzed two weeks of casualty data released by the PCHR and found that 57 percent of the dead were males between the ages of 17 and 39. While it’s unclear whether these men were actually militants, the disproportionate number of young men of prime fighting age suggests that there may be more combatants among the dead than PCHR and other organizations have acknowledged, concluded Steven Stotsky, a senior analyst for CAMERA.

“Journalists have a responsibility to convey this uncertainty to their audiences and not present figures provided by Hamas and Hamas-affiliated sources as unqualified fact,” Stotsky wrote.

Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford said his news organization cites sources for casualty figures in longer stories, but not in every story. The reason, he said, is because the figures supplied by sources on the ground in Gaza — the Gaza Health Ministry, independent Palestinian NGOs and the United Nations — generally match.

There’s no independent way to determine the number of combatants killed, he said, because the Israeli military doesn’t make estimates and Hamas acknowledges only that it has lost fighters but doesn’t provide specific numbers.

Washington Post correspondent William Booth said he cites specific sources, such as Gaza health officials or U.N. agencies, when he enumerates deaths. To avoid the combatants vs. civilians issue, Booth says, he cites estimates the number of deaths of women and children from agencies in Gaza, given that these figures are proxies for civilian deaths generally.

The Post has also used general phrases, such as noting that the casualties have included “many civilians,” to avoid reporting possibly shaky figures.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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