War’s death toll numbers don’t exactly add up

Berl Falbaum

With this column, I am going to discuss a development in the reporting of the Gaza war that is very difficult to accept but I ask you to join me and give it a try.

Hamas, yes that Hamas, the terrorist organization that started the war with unimaginable butchery October 7, may have “exaggerated” the death toll of women and children in Gaza.

Yes, like you, I did not believe that Hamas would ever do anything like that. Nay, not possible; it is simply unbelievable that Hamas, which beheaded civilians, burned some alive, riddled babies with bullets, and gang raped women, would engage in such deception. Not Hamas.

But now comes the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which parrots Hamas’s numbers, by releasing death toll statistics every few days. It recently reported that the number of fatalities among women and children may only be half of what has been reported.

Specifically, OCHA reported May 8, that 9,500 women and 14,500 children had been killed. A few days later, it said the numbers were actually 4,959 women and 7,797 children.

Trying to put some distance between itself and Hamas, OCHA stated, “The U.N. has so far not been able to produce independent, comprehensive and verified figures.”

A U.N. spokeswoman, Eri Kaneko, said that U.N. teams in Gaza have been unable to verify statistics because of “the prevailing situation on the ground and the sheer number of fatalities. For this reason, all figures used by the U.N. clearly cite the [Hamas] Ministry of Health in Gaza as the source. The U.N. will verify these figures to the extent possible when conditions permit.”

If only the U.N. had made this point as soon as the war began seven months ago.

In its defense, Hamas said it still expects to reach the original numbers when more bodies are identified. I guess we just have to wait.

Two points before I continue: First, this is not to suggest that the plight and suffering of Gazans is not horrific. Whatever the death toll, it is tragic, gut-wrenching. But, as I have written several times, Hamas, fighting from apartment buildings, tunnels under civilian infrastructures, medical clinics, mosques, is responsible for every single civilian death.

Second, this is not a pro-Israel argument/column but an indictment of simplistic, irresponsible, and, at times, bias journalism.

While not an expert on statistics, I was suspicious of the numbers from the start; they did not make sense, given how quickly they were increasing, but I held my “computer tongue.” However, Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at the University of Pennsylvania, argued from the beginning that Hamas’s figures were “completely faked” and “doctored.”

In articles, Wyner said the figures disseminated by Hamas and echoed by others were “statistically impossible.”

Also, months ago, a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy revealed major discrepancies in the fatality reports. The Institute said these most likely resulted from manipulation.

Even the “new” numbers might be met with skepticism because some of the casualties may have been caused by Hamas as were 500 in a bombing of a hospital first blamed on Israel.

In March, in this space, while not questioning the numbers, I wrote that I was appalled how the media, including some of the most “sophisticated and respected” outlets, were violating basic 101 journalistic principles in reporting civilian death tolls.

Specifically, I pointed out the media:

• Sometimes simply reported that the numbers came from the Hamas Health Ministry. Inexcusably, they did not follow-up with, “We could not independently verify the statistics” nor did they identify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

• At other times, they published the numbers without any attribution at all, a violation of a cardinal rule in journalism.

• They failed to differentiate between civilian and terrorist deaths.

• Finally, most insidious, often the numbers were attributed to “Gaza health authorities” or “Gaza health agencies.” This told me that the respective reporters, knowing that citing Hamas’s numbers might not be considered credible, used a euphemism. There are no “health agencies” or “health authorities” in Gaza except the Ministry.

The damage done by the media around the world is incalculable. For seven months, it has been inundated by Hamas’s propaganda. And, sadly, the “brainwashing” cannot be undone; that’s impossible.

The Hamas figures even, inexplicably, made it into President Biden’s State of the Union address in March when Biden, who previously had stated he had no confidence in the statistics, cited 30,000 fatalities. (Doesn’t anyone in the White House fact check the president’s speeches?)

We can be confident that Hamas will not alter its tactics. It has a “friendly” ally in the media and if Hamas manages to succeed in getting only some of its tainted messages through, it will savor the victories.

Journalist Eve Barlow posted the following on X (formerly Twitter):

“So, the UN is walking back the death toll in Gaza by half. By half. 50 percent.

“It will not make mainstream news. It will not be uttered by people for seven months until everyone considers it as fact. It will not be reported with sensationalist images or provocative language. It will pass people by.

“We live in an age of zero accountability and moral impunity. We live in an age where everyone has wrapped their identity up with righteousness, moral superiority, and having to be correct. Nobody can admit they were wrong in front of an audience. Everybody is frightened of the consequences of appearing to have made a mistake.”

How will the media respond to their failure in reporting war fatalities? Will they be more careful in the future? Will anyone apologize — anyone? (Worth noting: CNN described the change in the numbers by nearly a half a “clarification.”)

I know the answers to those questions but, if you have read this far, I think I have depressed you enough.

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