As the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire gets under way, journalists and non-governmental organizations, as well as officials and private individuals, will no doubt be tallying the losses and damage incurred on both sides since fighting began June 25, when Palestinian fighters from Gaza captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid. Care should be taken that factual reporting on the Gaza conflict fallout is not yet another casualty of the conflict.
Already in the days immediately preceding the cease-fire, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stated that since the summer, Palestinians have been "victim of a barbaric Israeli offensive that has left more than 400 dead and 1,500 wounded while thousands of homes have been destroyed."
His statement was quoted without challenge by major media outlets – the New York Times (Steven Erlanger, "Palestinians and Israelis Say They Are Open to Truce," Nov. 25), the Los Angeles Times (Richard Boudreaux, "Palestinians, Israelis start cease-fire," Nov. 26), and Agence France-Presse (Adel Zaanoun, "Israel rejects Palestinian offer to halt rocket attacks," Nov. 24). But is it true?
Not according to the United Nations and Palestinian NGO's. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, from June 25 until Nov. 22, "73 houses belonging to activists of Palestinian factions have been destroyed by IOF [sic] warplanes" ("Weekly Report: On Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, 16-22 Nov. 2006"). The report also states that during that same time period, "Hundreds of dunums of agricultural land and dozens of houses have been destroyed."
In addition, the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provides weekly reports on the situation in the West Bank and Gaza which include details and quantities of structures destroyed for each time period. In section three of each report, a table gives the number of structures demolished and damaged. It is simple to add up the numbers of Gazan structures reported demolished each week from June 21 until Nov. 21, which total 234. The number of homes is actually much less because the general category of structures includes government buildings, NGO buildings, mosques, shops, etc.
Ha'aretz Helps Fuel Inaccurate Figures
Unfortunately, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which is printed in both Hebrew and English, and is a trusted source for many foreign journalists, isn't helping matters. Its claims regarding the extent of destruction in Gaza also exceed those of the detailed reports by a Palestinian organization as well as the United Nations, hardly a friend of Israel.
For example, in a Nov. 15 Op-Ed entitled "Preparing for the next invasion," Amira Hass claims that during the six-day Israeli operation in early November in Beit Hanun known as "Operation Autumn Clouds":
Twenty-five houses also disappeared from the media. They were destroyed completely, while another 400 were damaged, some of them so badly they have to be demolished. All told, about one-tenth of the 4,500 residential buildings in the town were damaged.
This allegation was further inflated the next day (Nov. 16) in a Ha'aretz editorial entitled "Two miserable towns," which claimed that in Beit Hanun, "Some 450 houses were destroyed in the most recent IDF operation." Palestinian and United Nations sources indicate that Hass' figures for property damage are exaggerated. According to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 20 structures were demolished and 175 structures damaged in all of the Gaza Strip ("Protection of Civilians –– Weekly Briefing Notes," 1-7 November 2006). The OCHA report details:
According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, 18 Palestinian houses, one mosque and an NGO building were demolished, and more than 150 houses, 16 public institutions and nine shops were damaged.
In other words, approximately 3.3 percent of the residential buildings were damaged, not 10 percent, as Hass claims. Moreover, the Ha'aretz editorial statistic –– 450 destroyed houses –– is 25 times that of Al Mezan's figure of 18.
Foreign journalists shouldn't simply take Ha'aretz or Palestinian officials on their word. If they do, the casualties of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will continue to exceed lives and property.