Tweeting Conor Powell

Hamas carefully manages civilian casualty statistics in Gaza as a tool of war. It embeds its men and materiel among civilian facilities such as hospitals, mosques and UN schools. When Israel targets weapons depots and sources of fire, these facilities may be targeted with resulting casualties.

Yet Hamas itself frequently turns out to be the direct cause of the civilian casualties, as in the case of Jihad Masharawi in 2012 and other incidents this time around. The media nevertheless attribute the responsibility for every such incident to Israel. See, for example, this Washington Post story along with the embedded statistics by Sudarsan Rhagavan.

Yesterday was a bad day for civilian casualties in Gaza. The Wall Street Journal reports that “UN blames Israel for shelter attack.” The editors of the New York Post provide the sane response in “Obama’s friendly fire.”

It’s important to get both the facts and the moral calculus right. I don’t think anyone has done a better than Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal column “Palestine makes you dumb” (behind the Journal’s subscription paywall). He writes in part:

Consider the media obsession with the body count. According to a daily tally in the New York Times, NYT -1.40% as of July 27 the war in Gaza had claimed 1,023 Palestinian lives as against 46 Israelis. How does the Times keep such an accurate count of Palestinian deaths? A footnote discloses “Palestinian death tallies are provided by the Palestinian Health Ministry and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.”

OK. So who runs the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza? Hamas does. As for the U.N., it gets its data mainly from two Palestinian agitprop NGOs, one of which, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, offers the remarkably precise statistic that, as of July 27, exactly 82% of deaths in Gaza have been civilians. Curiously, during the 2008-09 Gaza war, the center also reported an 82% civilian casualty rate.

When minutely exact statistics are provided in chaotic circumstances, it suggests the statistics are garbage. When a news organization relies—without clarification—on data provided by a bureaucratic organ of a terrorist organization, there’s something wrong there, too.

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the numbers are accurate. Does this mean the Palestinians are the chief victims, and Israelis the main victimizers, in the conflict? By this dull logic we might want to rethink the moral equities of World War II, in which over one million German civilians perished at Allied hands compared with just 67,000 British and 12,000 American civilians.

The real utility of the body count is that it offers reporters and commentators who cite it the chance to ascribe implicit blame to Israel while evading questions about ultimate responsibility for the killing. Questions such as: Why is Hamas hiding rockets in U.N.-run schools, as acknowledged by the U.N. itself? What does it mean that Hamas has turned Gaza’s central hospital into “a de facto headquarters,” as reported by the Washington Post? And why does Hamas keep rejecting, or violating, cease-fires agreed to by Israel?

The media blight is universal. Take, for example, FOX News Channel’s man in Gaza, one Conor Powell. FOX anchors regularly turn to Powell for his hysterical recitation of civilian casualties. I gave Powell a try on Twitter earlier this week. Here is what turned out to be my Twitter soliloquy.

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