Unpacking the Israeli campaign to deny the Gaza genocide

Unpacking the Israeli campaign to deny the Gaza genocide

A recent media flurry over the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza amounts to nothing more than genocide denial. This campaign to discredit the Gaza health ministry is simply a strategy to allow the Gaza genocide to continue.

by Jonathan Ofir, reposted from Mondoweiss, May 18, 2024

On Saturday, May 11, the Jerusalem Post under editor Yuval Barnea came out with a sensational headline:

“UN seemingly halves estimate of Gazan women, children killed.”

The article featured two graphics from the UN, one from May 6 and one from May 8, both clearly noting that approximately 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October 7, but the second specified that bodies that have been able to be identified were under 25,000. Out of these, the breakdown included 52% women and children, as well as 8% elderly. Earlier on, the UN noted that about 2/3 of fatalities are women and children.

Now, the game of genocide denial has begun.

The supposedly benign Jerusalem Post article quickly moved on to “questions of data accuracy,” citing Israel apologia outlets such as AIPAC’s thinktank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and its January report “that showed major discrepancies in the fatality reports” which suggested “manipulation.” The article also cited Abraham Weiner from Tablet Magazine claiming “fake numbers.”

The story was then picked up by others. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies picked up the story the same day, claiming now with certainty: “UN Halves Its Estimate of Women and Children Killed in Gaza.” Even Haaretz’s political correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky tweeted the graphics the next day (and still hasn’t removed it):

“Proof of how problematic it is that Hamas is the only body issuing numbers of the dead in Gaza. @ochaopt changed its figures of estimated dead in Gaza from 34,844 to 24,686, dropping the estimated number of women & children killed from 69% to 52%.”

Naks Bilal countered her:

“The UN hasn’t changed its figures. Stop spreading disinformation. The differences are down to identification (not the bodies themselves).”

Owen Jones too:

“You are spreading disinformation in the service of atrocity denial and should retract and apologise.”

But meanwhile, the spin spreads.

Next day (Sunday), the Jewish Chronicle:

“UN appears to halve Gaza casualty count for women and children — Doubts have been raised over the veracity of the Palestinian death count since October 7.”

Times of Israel, Tuesday, May 14:

“UN cuts by more than half the number of women, children ‘identified’ as killed in Gaza.”

At that point, the UN managed to issue a response to the non-story, which is even provided on CNN:

“UN says total number of deaths in Gaza remains unchanged after controversy over revised data.”

Reuters was on it, too, confirming the 35,000 number, but noting that “Israel last week questioned why the figures for the deaths of women and children has suddenly halved.”

Public-facing doubt, accepting numbers behind the scenes

The game of casting doubt on the death toll has been an early feature of this genocide, with Joe Biden kicking it off on October 27 when he said that he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using” — without saying why.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had to issue a statement in response: “We continue to include their data in our reporting and it is clearly sourced.”

But the damage was done, and the intentionally dehumanizing mantra of the “Hamas-run health ministry” was ubiquitous in Western media discourse.

And yet, senior Israel officials were using the Gaza Health Ministry’s death numbers internally for months after both Israel and the U.S. claimed those figures should not be trusted — as reported by Vice in January:

“According to a story in Mekomit by Yuval Avraham, who last year broke news about the Israeli military’s use of AI for targeting purposes, the numbers were accepted for inclusion in briefings to senior Israeli officials after intelligence services conducted operations and analysis to monitor the health ministry’s information collection methods and its internal communications and determined the statistics were credible. An Israeli intelligence official confirmed the Israeli government’s use of the Gaza ministry numbers to VICE News, while two officials from European intelligence services said they were widely used in official briefings internationally.”

The data collection methods and numbers were deemed credible internally:

“The secret services looked at the health ministry’s collection methods and determined the numbers were generally credible, so instead of collecting their own information they decided to use the [Hamas] numbers.”

Difficulty in reaching exact data in a genocide

Israel knows fully well that there is a difference between a body count and full identification. It took it many weeks to identify the bodies of the dead after the Hamas-led October 7 attack, and in mid-November, Israel actually reduced its rough estimate of 1,400 to around 1,200, and later to 1,139. The reduction of roughly 200 bodies from the count was due to hundreds of bodies being burned beyond recognition — where 200 were then said to have been Palestinians and not Israelis, as earlier assumed. This was undoubtedly due to Israel’s own indiscriminate bombing on October 7, also killing an unknown number of its own citizens.

Counting bodies, whether they are burned beyond recognition or not, is a much more straightforward task than actually identifying them, and with Israel’s methods of heavy bombing of civilians, the latter can become an enormously complex task. Gaza has been undergoing genocide since October 7, while Israel has since counted and identified its dead under relatively peaceful circumstances. Israelis may say that they have been at war since then, but the war on Gaza has had little bearing on the functioning of Israeli forensics teams. Gazans have to count their dead under fire, with Gaza’s health system all but decimated, not to mention with thousands still under the rubble.

Genocide denial

The main goal of this insidious “number questioning” is not to assess actual numbers. It is about denying a genocide.

If enough attention is given to the spin questioning the numbers’ credibility, it takes attention away from the fact that tens of thousands of people are being killed, that hundreds of thousands are facing an outright engineered famine, and that 10,000 people are missing under the rubble and probably dead.

It’s all a distraction meant to take our attention away from an event that is throwing us back a century into the past. Even the Holocaust’s count of Jewish deaths is widely varying, and that doesn’t deny it. Raul Hilberg’s seminal book, The Destruction of European Jews, summarizes Jewish deaths at about 5.15 million (between 4.9 and 5.4) — that is nearly a discrepancy of 1 million deaths when compared against the commonly-cited 6 million figure. But it doesn’t change the fact that it was a massive genocide. Only Holocaust deniers make a big fuss about such details.

But it is different when people spin the numbers strategically when the genocide is still happening in real-time. It is different when the perpetrators are doing the denying because they are seeking a license to continue with their conduct. Genocide denial as it is happening becomes one of genocide’s instruments.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli-Danish conductor, musician, writer and blogger, writing regularly for Mondoweiss.


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