Analysis from Israel

Okay, it’s official: Even the BBC now admits the UN has been essentially collaborating with a terrorist organization to libel Israel. Of course, the venerable British broadcaster doesn’t say so explicitly; it even assures its readers that UN officials aren’t to blame for the misinformation they’ve been propagating. But it’s hard to reach any other conclusion after reading this analysis of Gaza’s casualty figures by the station’s head of statistics, Anthony Reuben.

As Reuben notes, the figures on Palestinian casualties cited by most news organizations come from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As of August 6, this agency was reporting 1,843 Palestinian fatalities, including at least 1,354 civilians; 279 hadn’t yet been identified. Thus civilians ostensibly comprise at least 73 percent of total fatalities, and since the UN excludes unidentified casualties from its calculations, it usually cites an even higher figure–currently 86 percent.

But as Reuben writes, “if the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women.” Quoting a New York Times analysis, he noted that men aged 20-29, who are the most likely to be combatants, are “also the most overrepresented in the death toll,” comprising 9 percent of Gazans but 34 percent of identified fatalities. In contrast, “women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71 percent of the population and 33 percent of the known-age casualties.”

So Reuben asked the high commissioner’s office how it explains this statistical anomaly. Here’s the mind-boggling response: “Matthias Behnk, from OHCHR, told BBC News that the organisation would not want to speculate about why there had been so many adult male casualties.”

In other words, confronted with a glaring statistical anomaly, the UN opted “not to speculate” about whether this cast doubt on the credibility of its claim that over 80 percent of fatalities were civilians. Instead, it kept right on feeding that number to journalists–most of whom promptly regurgitated it with no questions asked.

The statistical anomaly is compounded by other known facts: Terrorists don’t usually fight in uniform, so they arrive at the morgue in civilian clothing; the Hamas Interior Ministry explicitly ordered Gazans to identify all casualties as “innocent civilians” even if they aren’t; and Hamas has a history of mislabeling militants as civilian casualties: It did so during the 2009 war in Gaza as well, only admitting years later that, just as Israel claimed, most of the dead were militants rather than civilians. All this provides further grounds for suspecting that many male combat-age “civilians” were actually militants, and thus for caution about declaring them civilians. But the UN evinced no such qualms.

Finally, there’s the minor detail that some civilian casualties were caused by Hamas’s own misfired rockets. We know for certain about some such cases; for instance, an Italian journalist confirmed (after leaving Gaza) that one Palestinian rocket killed 10 Palestinians, including eight children, in a park in al-Shati. But there are undoubtedly many more that we don’t yet know about, because according to IDF data, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched–475 out of 3,137–landed in Gaza rather than Israel. That statistic is highly credible, because the Iron Dome system tracks every rocket’s trajectory to determine whether it needs intercepting, and couldn’t have achieved the success it did if its trajectory tracking system weren’t extremely accurate. And since Gaza has neither Iron Dome nor bomb shelters, Hamas rockets would be far more lethal there than they were in Israel. Yet the UN unhesitatingly blames Israel for all Palestinian casualties.

Reuben insists the UN shouldn’t be blamed for its misleading data, since “their statistics are accompanied by caveats and described as preliminary and subject to revision.” But that’s ridiculous. If the UN had doubts about the data’s veracity, it should have told the media it “would not want to speculate” about the civilian-to-combatant ratio. Instead, it opted to publish wildly exaggerated civilian casualty counts as unqualified fact while declining “to speculate” about the glaring statistical anomalies in its data.

In short, it collaborated wittingly and willingly with Hamas’s strategy to smear Israel by accusing it of massacring civilians. And most of the world’s media unhesitatingly played along.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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