Reports across the full range of BBC platforms, along with official BBC Twitter accounts, have consistently promoted figures sourced from what is usually described as the Gaza health ministry – or sometimes merely “health officials” – but without clarification of the fact that the Gaza health ministry is actually the voice of Hamas. To a lesser extent, figures attributed to the UN have also been quoted but without audiences being told where the UN gets its information or anything of the political motives of the organisations which are the sources of UN OCHA statistics repeated and promoted by the BBC.
Neither have BBC audiences been told about the guidelines put out by Hamas at the beginning of the hostilities which instruct social media activists to describe all casualties as ‘innocent civilians’ and to stress the number of women and children killed and injured. We can of course assume that staff at the Hamas-run “Gaza health ministry” which supplies the BBC with daily updates on casualty figures also received that memo.
The more or less standard phrasing used by the BBC usually goes something along the lines of this example:
“Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza on 8 July, more than 1,420 Palestinians have been killed and 8,265 injured, most of them civilians, according to the health ministry.”
The problem is, of course, that not only has the BBC not independently verified those figures as a whole or specifically the claim that “most” of them are civilians, it has also failed to make it clear to audiences that it cannot vouch for the figures it quotes.
The issue of civilian casualties is one of prime importance for Hamas because it forms the most effective part of its arsenal in the propaganda war aimed at persuading Western public opinion that it is the victim of ‘disproportionate’ and ‘indiscriminate’ Israeli attacks. The failure of the BBC (and to be fair, other Western media organisations too) to fact check the figures provided by a party with a vested interest in creating the impression of large numbers of civilian casualties before it publicises them is of course a very serious matter indeed. No less serious is the fact that the BBC also refrains from informing audiences of the vested interest of its source.
As has been the case in previous conflicts in Gaza, more accurate civilian/combatant casualty ratios will eventually come to light. In the meantime, however, information is already available which should prompt the BBC to question those helpful daily updates from the “Gaza health ministry”.
As our colleague at CAMERA Steven Stotsky already noted on July 14th, casualties from the first week of hostilities showed a disproportionate number of young males.
“Of the 150 male fatalities, 83 are between the ages of 16-39, 28 are over 40 years old and 20 are under 16 years old. For 19 not shown, the age was unspecified, although one of these was listed as a member of Islamic Jihad.
Notably, only about 12 percent of the total fatalities are female, though females make up half the population. Also, the median age of Gazans is reported to be around 15. Males under 15 make up just 13 percent of the total fatalities even though they represent half of all males in the Gaza Strip.”
Steven Stotsky continued his research and published additional information in a recent article appearing in Time magazine.
“Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.”
Gaza health ministry figures from July 31st, for example, also show a similar low proportion of female casualties relative to the fact that women make up half the population.
“The Gaza Health Ministry places the death toll from three weeks of the operation at 1,364 – of that number 315 children and 166 women.”
Readers may recall that when BBC Watch recently spoke to UNICEF about its casualty figures for children, the number of male casualties under 18 was well over double the number of female casualties. One of the terrorists wounded during the infiltration via cross-border tunnel on July 21st was a 16 year-old youth: an example of the fact that Hamas does use child fighters who, if killed whilst carrying out terrorist activities, would be classed as children.
One notable feature of this particular conflict is that terrorist organisations have been much more reticent than in previous years to publish obituary notices on their websites and social media – presumably as a matter of policy – and hence the task of cross-checking the names of casualties with those sites has been more difficult. Some information is already available, however, and the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre recently published some preliminary and partial findings.
“Out of the names of 152 individuals who were killed, that were examined by the ITIC, 71 were identified as terror operatives and 81 as non-involved civilians. The percentage of terrorist operatives among all those examined is 46.7%, while the percentage of non-involved citizens is 53.3%. This ratio may vary as the ITIC continues to examine the names of those killed in Operation Protective Edge.”
Another important factor relating to this topic is that at no point has the BBC attempted to help audiences put casualty figures in the Gaza Strip into context by clarifying the civilian/combatant casualty ratios of other conflicts.
“Since WWII, the average has been 3 civilians dying for every fighter killed. In some conflicts that number is higher, 4 or 5 civilians dead for every combatant. In Operation Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense it was 1-to-1 – and that’s a figure that has been agreed upon by the Palestinians as well.”
Additionally, all casualties in the Gaza Strip are by implication attributed to Israeli actions. The BBC has not made any attempt whatsoever to determine how many of the casualties in the Gaza Strip are the result of short-fall missiles fired by terrorists – as, for example, was the case when ten people including eight children were killed in Shati on July 28th. Neither has the BBC reported on the topic of Hamas’ reported summary executions of people it deems collaborators throughout the last month. Likewise, the BBC has shown no interest whatsoever in honestly reporting casualties caused by Hamas’ use of human shields or those caused by the Hamas practices of booby-trapping houses and storing weapons and explosives in public buildings.
Obviously the BBC cannot claim to be meeting its public purpose remit of “building a global understanding of international issues” until it begins to provide audiences with comprehensive, verified information on the issue of casualties in the Gaza Strip in place of its current practice of blindly repeating figures conveniently provided by a terrorist organization.