Premature Palestinian empathy syndrome

By Eric Rozenman/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: In the pictured July 10 posting titled “These are the names of 21 children killed in Gaza,” Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Ishaan Tharoor lists the names, ages, and places of death of the 83 Palestinian Arabs killed in the first three days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, with the children identified by boldface type. Credit: Screenshot of Washington Post website.

A Washington Post foreign affairs blogger, Ishaan Tharoor, listed the names, ages, and places of death of the 83 Palestinian Arabs killed in the first three days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (“These are the names of 21 children killed in Gaza,” July 10, 2014), with the children identified by boldface type.

Tharoor noted that Israel said it was trying to minimize civilian casualties, but nevertheless, “civilians are dying.”

In a quick check of the first 24 names, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America’s (CAMERA) Israel office found that one through three were Hamas members. Numbers five through 12 were individuals who rushed into a house previously evacuated after an Israeli warning. (In violation of the laws of war, Hamas uses Gazans as “human shields.”) 

Number 17 was a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, like Hamas a U.S.-designated international terrorist organization. The fatalities listed 18 through 22 were family members of his. And number 24 apparently was another terrorist, affiliation not confirmed.

Much news media coverage of the first week of Protective Edge fixated on “disproportionate” casualties—166 Palestinian Arabs killed, more than 1,000 wounded in 1,300 Israeli airstrikes; no Israelis killed, more than 160 wounded, some seriously, in southern Israel alone after approximately 800 Palestinian rocket attacks. Such lopsided statistics—especially when illustrated with video or photographs of Gaza’s wounded and grieving—appear unfair, evidence of Israeli aggression.

But reporting appearances without context is not journalism. The ratio of Palestinian dead to Israeli airstrikes was 1.25 in 10. That—plus a CAMERA analysis of an Al-Jazeera television report indicating that Palestinian fatalities were disproportionately males of combat age (“Reporting of Casualties in Gaza,” July 14)—suggested that, as with Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 to January 2009 and Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Israel was taking care to minimize noncombatant casualties.

Yes, “civilians are dying in Gaza.” But given Israel’s dropping of warning leaflets, pre-attack phone calls and text messages urging evacuation, and calling off strikes when civilians (especially children) plainly are present (“IAF Pilot calls off strike on Gaza target after spotting children nearby,” Ynet News, July 13), a “disproportionately” smaller number of civilians than otherwise would have died might be expected.

In any case, in war, proportionality deals with the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective. Given the objective—defeat of the Confederacy, overthrow of Nazi Germany and its Axis partners—the minimum legitimate force may be hugely disparity and include, for example, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese killed by U.S. bombing before the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has nothing to do with equivalent or “balanced” casualty rates.

In 2009, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority government of Sri Lanka crushed the rebels of the Tamil Hindu minority—the pioneer suicide bombers of the Tamil Tigers. Government forces ended 31 murderous years of insurrection and terrorism, failed offensives and peace talks by killing tens of thousands of people, gunmen and non-combatants. Government loses, though significant, were proportionately much smaller. 

The U.N. Human Rights Council has called for an investigation of war crimes allegedly committed by both sides. The Sri Lanka government condemned such charges as biased. Regardless, this possible disproportion was not too newsworthy, judging by relatively sparse coverage.

Israel invests billions on warning systems, shelters, and missile defense for its own people, issues warnings to Palestinian Arabs, and uses precision munitions. The Hamas rulers of Gaza have let symbiotic NGOs (non-government organizations) spend hundreds of millions of U.S. and European foreign aid to entrench indirectly their theocratic rule. Subsidies from Iran, Qatar, and elsewhere in the Middle East have gone not to improving life in the Strip or even warning systems and bomb shelters but for anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish incitement, weapons, and underground fortifications.

For real disproportion, look to the more than 150,000 Syrians murdered, mostly civilians, and millions more made refugees in a civil war in which all sides target noncombatants. Look to Iraq, where people, again mostly non-combatants, die by the hundreds per week in similar intra-Arab, inter-Muslim slaughter. Or look to Israel, where—unlike any other U.N. member state—the vast majority of its population, 5 million people, now must live within range of a 15-to-90-second dash to a bomb shelter.

Superficial media reports focusing on “disproportionate” Palestinian casualties seem to assume that Israelis are equal in culpability to those attacking them. These reports imagine that the Palestinian public—despite its leaders’ repeated rejections of “two-state solutions” in exchange for peace—is an innocent bystander, and somehow the most newsworthy victim in the Middle East.

Eric Rozenman is the Washington, D.C. director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.

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Posted on July 14, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion.