Perhaps I should start this article with a little cautionary tale. Years ago I was teaching a course about the history of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I had just said that the kingdom of Jordan already had a Palestinian majority when a young student raised her hand and asked me, very politely, how I knew. To my shame, I must confess that the question took me by surprise—here in Israel everybody and his neighbor had been saying this for years, as they still do.
When I recovered I told her she was right and offered her a deal. She would look into the matter and do a research paper about it. In return, I would release her from the final exam. She agreed, and a few months later I received the paper which neither confirmed not contradicted my original claim. It did, however, draw my attention to some facts that I, and presumably many others as well, had never thought about. First, there was and is no accepted definition of a Palestinian. One reason for this is that there are several different kinds of Palestinians—old ones, medium ones and new ones, all depending on the date at which they had arrived in the Kingdom. Second, Jordan being the only Arab country that has granted the Palestinians in its territory citizenship, there were many mixed marriages with offspring, making the question as to “who is a Palestinian?” even harder to answer. Third, the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior for its own reasons is keeping a very tight hand both on definitions and on figures, with the result that nobody knew
Another personal story. Back in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, my son had an American girlfriend who lived in Utah. One evening we were sitting in front of the TV when the phone rang. It was Christine. “Jonathan, there has been shooting in your town. Are you alright?” It turned out there had indeed been a few shots; but even though our town is rather small she, living on the other side of the world, knew it before we did.
These incidents made me reflect, as never before, on information, numbers, and our frequent tendency to accept them without further thought. For example, the accepted number of those who died in the American Civil War is 600,000. That, however, conceals the fact that 400,000—fully two-thirds of the total—were not killed in action but succumbed to disease. When a violent coup overthrew the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauceşcu back in 1989 some otherwise reputable Western news organizations initially spoke of over 60,000 dead. How they ever arrived at that number remains a mystery to the present day. In the end, based on hospital reports, it turned out that the real figure was probably in the low hundreds.
In 1943 Colonels Klaus von Stauffenberg and Hennig von Tresckow estimated that “tens of thousands” of Jews had been killed. Both men had served on the Eastern Front. Both were leaders of the German resistance to Hitler and later paid with their lives for trying to blow him up. They certainly cannot be accused of trying to minimize what was not yet known as “the Holocaust;” yet by that time the true number of victims was already running into the millions.
Some of the discrepancies are the result of different definitions used by different people and organizations for different purposes. Others grow out of insufficient information amidst the usual confusion—the fog of war, as it is known. Others still represent deliberate fabrications. A very good example of the last-mentioned problem emerged in the spring of 2003 when the Israelis entered and partly demolished the West-Bank city of Jenin. A video camera, mounted on a one of those ubiquitous little machines that were then known as RPVs (remotely-piloted vehicles) and now as drones, caught a Palestinian “dead” man accidentally falling off the stretcher on which he was being carried, getting up, and walking away. Enough said.
And now, to Gaza. As the two sides seem to be moving towards some kind of agreements, things start to happen. Videos of IDF units being fired at from schools, mosques and hospitals are now available for anyone to watch. Foreign journalists who spent the last few weeks in Gaza are explaining how Hamas operators prevented them from doing their job, confiscated or broke their equipment, blacklisted them, and occasionally threatened them. Such tactics have always been common in war; why anybody can think that Hamas, a terrorist organization, should not use them escapes me.
Errors apart, and there undoubtedly have been some, the IDF has no incentive to deliberately target noncombatants. Why should it, given that doing so will not advance its goals and subject it to even more international criticism than that under which it is already laboring? To the contrary very often it uses leaflets, telephone calls, and even small missiles—so-called doorknockers—to warn people that their house or neighborhoods are about to be attacked and order them to leave. Probably no army in history has done more.
The IDF does not publish either the criteria it uses to decide whom to kill or the number of “terrorists” versus “civilians” it has killed. Under the policy known as “targeted killings,” some of the dead are identified by name. Since the main Hamas operatives have long gone to ground, though, their number is much too small to make a statistical difference. The rest are armed men who die either when they are caught in known Hamas facilities, such as command centers and rocket-factories, or else during the act of launching rockets or firing at IDF troops.
On the Palestinian side the best available single source is Hamas’ minister of health, Dr. Ashraf al Kidra. He works in a crowded office where he and his staff receive as many as 700 telephone calls a day, most of which carry information about fresh attacks. Each evening he holds a sort of press conference in which he spells out the figures for the preceding day. His data in turn form part of those collected by the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva which receives the reports of various NGOs in Gaza. As of the morning of 9 August the Office has reported some 1,843 deaths, including “at least” 1,354 noncombatants.
There are, however, problems with these numbers. First, as several international news organizations have noted, the percentage of women and children among the dead is much too small to justify the claim that the IDF is firing “indiscriminately.” The population of Gaza is the youngest in the world. Therefore, had the IDF indeed been firing “indiscriminately,” then women and children should have formed about 70 percent of the dead. In fact even the Palestinian data show that the figure is much lower. Second, Hamas, like so many similar organizations around the world, does not a regular army form. Many of its operatives do not wear uniform except when it suits them. As a result, to turn a dead “combatant” into a “noncombatant,” all one has to do is remove his weapon before filming him and informing Dr. Kidra. That, some foreign journalists have reported, was precisely what Hamas did. Conversely, the group with proportionally the highest number of casualties are young men aged 18 to 29—precisely those most likely to be killed in any war, big or small.
The moral? Beyond re-conforming the urgent need to treat “the fact of the case” with extreme caution, I am afraid there isn’t one.