The numbers killed in Gaza, at least according to the international media, continue to rise. Several journalists and analysts have already suggested that the civilian casualty figures released by Hamas and/or the Palestinian Authority should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, they should, but this is nothing new. There’s a hunger for facts and figures which drives media and any number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Too often, journalists and diplomats will accept figures coming from a self-declared authority regardless of how rigorous or politicized data collection is.
Sometimes, incompetence and negligence combine to lead to inaccuracy. In 1997, while working in Tajikistan, I met with the head of the Tajik Bureau of Statistics. Tajikistan was in the midst of a civil war and it was the poorest former Soviet republic by far. And yet the Tajikistan Bureau of Statistics was churning out complete datasets, information which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund incorporated into their reports, as would the international press should anything in Tajikistan become newsworthy. When I asked the chief how he managed to do it, he was uncharacteristically blunt. “I make them up,” he told me. But if the U.S. government would give him computers and fund his operation, he could try to be accurate. In the meantime, any report using Tajik statistics would be corrupted by the equivalent of “garbage-in, garbage-out.”
Sometimes, organizations simply don’t care if faulty statistics pollute their reports. The notion that sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqi children has become part of progressive folklore, a statistic often trotted out to excuse any sort of coercion against dictatorial, anti-American, or rogue regimes. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.
The idea that sanctions were killing innocent Iraqis was the central pillar of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s influence operations. He repeatedly claimed that United Nations sanctions had killed more than a million. There were many groups in the United States which latched onto such figures and amplified them. The U.S.-based International Action Coalition, for example, claimed that the economic embargo upon Iraq had killed 1.4 million people by 1997.
Thousands did die, but not the numbers bandied about in the press and simply because of sanctions: There was plenty of food available; Saddam just refused to allow it to be distributed to Shi‘ites and other populations he disliked. All the while, he exported UN-provided baby formula for profit.
While pundits accepted Saddam’s line and news agencies like CNN dutifully broadcast images of sick and dying children (all the while knowing the inaccuracy of their narrative), Iraq expert Amatzia Baram compared the country’s population growth rates across censuses and found Iraq’s growth rate between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent) and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent) proved that there had been no death on the scale Iraq claimed.
So how did the claim of more than a million sanctions-related deaths in Iraq persist? In 1999, UNICEF released a glossy report that found that sanctions had contributed to the deaths of one million Iraqis. The devil, however, was in the details—and in the UN’s capriciousness. Because the Iraqi government did not give UNICEF researchers free access, UNICEF decided to take statistics provided by Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Health, which it accepted uncritically. More on the whole episode, here. When Saddam Hussein fell, however, and the exaggeration and inaccuracies of the claims of more than one million sanctions-related deaths including 500,000 children was exposed as a fraud, no major outlet bothered to publish a retraction let alone question whether bad statistics were worse than no statistics.
In Gaza, it’s déjà vu all over again. CNN and other outlets cite statistics provided by the United Nations with regard to Palestinian casualties, never questioning where and how the UN was able to gather and confirm such numbers. In reality, the UN simply parroted the figures provided it by Palestinian authorities or Hamas-controlled organizations. While there is no doubt Palestinians have died in the current operations, it seems it’s the Jenin Massacre all over again. Remember that one? Palestinian officials duped the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Samantha Power, and countless European foreign ministries. Nor does the media ever stop and question the notion of civilians to Hamas. Hamas violates the Geneva Convention in that its members do not wear uniforms and it fires from civilian areas. Even Israeli human rights groups—B’Tselem, for example—embrace a restrictive definition of combatant which enables the classification of many Hamas activists as “civilian.” As far as Hamas is concerned, every person not in uniform is a civilian.
There’s a tendency among the media to engage in moral equivalency and promote the idea that the Hamas and Palestinian claims on one hand, and the Israeli narrative on the other are equally valid. This is nonsense, especially given the long history of Palestinian politicization of statistics. This article, for example, decisively shows how the Palestinian Authority manipulates—and in some cases has even recalled—demographic statistics in order to ensure they conform with a political narrative the Palestinian Authority finds expedient and to which American diplomats respond.
More Gazans have died in the ongoing conflict—one their elected government initiated with kidnapping attempts and missile launches—than Israelis, but count me dubious about the numbers of deaths reported in the Gaza Strip. When deaths of non-combatants do occur, that is tragic, but that is also war. To accept such statistics from a terrorist group either directly or laundered through organizations like the United Nations without the capacity for independent confirmation is foolish. It promotes not truth but propaganda. And given previous errors—from a half million dead Iraqi babies to hundreds dead in Jenin—it suggests the media simply does not care to learn from its previous mistakes.