Alan Silverstein

Hamas’s third line of attack — distorting the number of deaths of civilians

Hamas’s charter makes clear its aim of eradicating Israel and all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Hamas’s most recent initial line of attack was its monstrous assault against the communities along the Gaza-Israel border on October 7 — their brutal attack included rapes, beheadings, dismembering, burning people alive, and taking hostages of all ages. These acts were barbaric, akin to Nazi behavior.

Hamas’s second line of attack has been manipulation of the international press corps. With compliance from many in the media, Hamas has denied the shocking truths of the October 7 massacre. It has falsely accused Israel of planning “genocide” against the people of Gaza under Israeli control (in contradistinction to the face that that population was 350,000 in 1967 and is 2.2 million today). It has criticized Israel’s alleged “occupation” of Gaza even though the occupation infrastructure and all Jewish settlements were removed in 2005.

The third element of Hamas’s attack is the ages-old antisemitic “blood libel.” The form it takes in Hamas’s hands is the blatant lie that Jews have intentionally targeted and murdered innocent Palestinians. As noted by “Wall Street Journal” columnist Josh Zumbrun, non-state belligerents like Hamas “are often motivated to play down civilian deaths at their hands while playing up those at their enemy’s.”

The (uncorroborated) number of deaths announced by Hamas grows daily. This pattern proved “effective,” as was evident in its previous wars (2008-09, 2014, 2021). First, they brutally massacre Israelis — with a rain of rockets, terrorist infiltration through tunnels, and most recently the October 7 pogrom. Next they invoke a death count to erode global support for the IDF’s legitimate acts of self-defense.

In Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), Hamas claimed that Israel killed more than 1,400 “Palestinians,” a number that was intentionally misleading. The IDF did confirm 1,166 Gazan deaths — but of those, only 295 were civilians, 709 were terrorists, and the remaining 162 were unidentified. Even Hamas’s interior minister at the time, Fathi Hammad, later confirmed that the death toll included at least 600-700 Hamas “fighters.”

Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, documented that in Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls (May 2021), Hamas asserted that 248 people had been killed, including 66 children, but that in its count, Hamas did not distinguish between terrorists and civilians. In contrast, the IDF reported that among the 200-plus deaths had been 160 Hamas fighters. Furthermore, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center posited that the cause of nearly 25 percent of the Palestinian fatalities could be traced to misfired Hamas rockets.

An equivalent disparity in Hamas vs. Israeli reports of fatalities occurred in the 2014 conflict, when 2,800 alleged deaths were in question. The UN launched an investigation by 11 members of the High Level Military Group, a body composed of military leaders and officials from NATO and other democratic countries.

Placing the deaths into a military context, they concluded that “the majority of deaths were the tragic inevitability of defending against an enemy that deliberately carries out attacks from within the civilian population” — i.e., using civilians as human shields, a war crime.

The group’s report applauded Israel’s extraordinary efforts to minimize civilian casualties, noting that “Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives.” British Colonel Richard Kemp testified that “the IDF took exceptional measures to adhere to the laws of armed conflict and to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.”

In 2023, Hamas and its carefully controlled “Palestinian Ministry of Health” (PMH) again are employing a Gaza “death count” as propaganda. In late October, the Gazans’ report of 10,000-plus deaths was met with skepticism in the White House. Accordingly, Hamas produced evidence of 6,747 — not 10,000 —fatalities.

In the words of Israeli professor Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Hamas had again launched its habitual “numbers warfare.” First, in their report of the fallen, they blur the distinction between Gazan terrorists and innocent civilians (note also that Hamas terrorists often are not in uniform, but are dressed in civilian garb). In late October, IDF spokesmen estimated that several thousand combatants — at least 50 percent of the 6,747 total of deaths — were among the dead.

A significant percentage of the civilian “children” reported as having been killed in combat actually are not innocents. They are in fact active-duty Hamas soldiers; already at ages 16-18, they serve in active combat, after training and indoctrination in summer camps and youth movements.

It has also been shown that Palestinian deaths can be attributed to more than 1,000-plus errant Hamas and Islamic Jihad rocket launches, such as the one that landed near Al-Ahli Hospital on October 17. Failing to reach Israel’s borders, these missiles land in crowded urban areas, inflicting harm on civilians.

Other Gaza civilians have been shot and sometimes killed by Hamas when they disobey orders and try to flee to the safe zone in the south. Also, they often include in their count bodies in the Gaza morgues that appear to be the remains of frail folks who died of natural causes during the period of combat.

There were some civilians who were unintentionally — and regretfully — killed by IDF combat troops. But morally and under the laws of war, they too can be seen as victims of Hamas’s violation of international law, as they were being used as human shields.

Hamas has transformed civilian facilities into military outposts, enmeshing their terror apparatus within the general population. According to Prof. Michael, “these civilian buildings, housing, schools, and other public installations became Hamas military headquarters, launch sites, and weapon depots populated by Hamas personnel who used civilians as Hamas shields.”

Hamas’s “numbers warfare” has been assisted by the media. Prof. Michael notes that “no major international media or community figure attempted to verify…false reports regarding the war.”

He has asserted that “no one questioned” the PMH’s “claim of 30,000 Palestinian wounded [and receiving treatment], despite the fact that the total number of hospital beds in all medical facilities in the Gaza Strip, including UNRWA clinics, did not exceed 3,000 optimally.”

Similarly, going unquestioned was that “on November 5, the PMH reported 10,042 dead, and the next day, the number rose to 13,492. Did 3,000 people die suddenly in just one day?”

Prof. Michael concludes that Hamas’s “strategic goal is to deceive the international public through both creating and exploiting a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to distract from the real humanitarian crisis of the criminal kidnapping and holding of 241 Israeli and international hostages….”

The goal: to bring “international pressure on Israel to cease military operations to enable Hamas to ensure its survival.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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