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Israel's killing of journalists and denial can't hide the horrific toll in Gaza

After six weeks of continuous Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the real death toll is likely much higher than what has already been reported
Palestinians rally in the West Bank city of Nablus showing posters of journalists killed by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank, on 6 November 2023 (AFP)

It took just one mention of the more than 11,000 Palestinians killed in Israel’s war on Gaza - a number that has since risen to 14,000 - for senior Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev to revert to the line that these are "Hamas numbers". 

In a recent interview with Mehdi Hasan on MSNBC, Regev refused to acknowledge that Israel had killed children in its relentless and indiscriminate bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, suggesting that the hours of heart-wrenching footage aired daily could not be independently verified. 

It is true that over the past six weeks of war in Gaza, the process of gathering and verifying information and footage has become extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible. But the primary reason for this is Israel’s ongoing push to control the narrative.

Israel has totally sealed off the territory, refusing to grant permission for foreign journalists to enter the war zone. At the same time, at least 53 media workers have been killed in the war since 7 October, making it the deadliest conflict for reporters since the Committee to Protect Journalists began collecting data in 1992.

"You have a situation where you’re killing most of the registered journalists in Gaza, [and] you’re not letting other journalists in," Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an independent journalist who worked on an award-winning film about Israel’s killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022, said in an interview with Democracy Now.

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Nadim Houry, executive director of the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative, told Middle East Eye that Israel “is deliberately seeking to control information flow from Gaza”. 

“It is also trying to influence coverage through deliberate misinformation,” he added, noting that the world is “witnessing a full narrative war, with Israel deploying its usual arsenal”. He compared the situation to the lead-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when claims from the Bush administration were “parroted” by mainstream media without scrutiny. 

“This had devastating consequences [then] … And this is having devastating consequences today,” he said.

Brutal siege

Journalists and media workers who aren’t directly killed by Israel’s shelling have been paralysed by the devastation of communication networks, due to ongoing bombardments and the absence of fuel and electricity. At the start of the war, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant declared a full siege on the population of 2.3 million people in Gaza, citing a fight against “human animals”. 

Other journalists have lost their families in Israeli air strikes on civilian structures, including Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh, who received news of the killing of his wife, son, daughter and grandson while live on air.

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Despite the Israeli blackout on Gaza, the casualty numbers provided by local authorities and international organisations are widely seen as reliable, just as they have been in past wars

On rare occasions, the Israeli military has allowed reporters from international news networks to embed with its troops in Gaza, on condition that they surrender their materials to Israeli authorities before publication.

Israel's chokehold on information from Gaza is just one aspect of its efforts to control the narrative

“Any journalist, foreign journalist, going into Gaza is going in on three conditions: stick to Israeli tours, go where they want you to go, and see what they want you to see,” Muhammed Shehada, chief of communications at the Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, told MEE.

Journalists embedding with Israeli troops have been barred from speaking with Palestinians, Shehada added, pointing to some of the international coverage of the siege of al-Shifa Hospital, which did not include Palestinian voices - even as thousands were sheltering inside the facility.

Israel has long claimed that beneath the hospital is a massive Hamas command-and-control centre. A BBC correspondent who was allowed to film inside the hospital was shown weapons allegedly stashed there by Hamas, but a follow-up analysis by the news network cast doubt on these claims, with guns apparently being moved around and no clear evidence of a command centre.

'UN-supplied facts' 

Israel’s chokehold on information from Gaza is just one aspect of its efforts to control the narrative. Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, has taken his government’s campaign against “Hamas numbers” to another level. 

While sitting at the Security Council, Erdan recently launched a tirade of accusations against the UN itself: “Every number from the so-called Ministry of Health is Hamas. Many Unrwa workers in Gaza are themselves members of Hamas,” he said. “The time has come to bust the myth of UN-supplied facts.” 

His comments weren’t the least bit surprising. Since the beginning of this war, more than 100 Unrwa workers in Gaza have been killed in Israeli attacks, some of which have targeted schools-turned-shelters funded and operated by the agency. 

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This is despite the fact that all the agency’s staff in Gaza are vetted and their names shared with Israel, Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for Unrwa, told the New York Times.

Alessandro Accorsi, a senior analyst of technology and conflict with the International Crisis Group, told MEE that in past conflicts, while the Israeli army has been slow to release casualty figures, the data has “more or less” aligned with that of the Gaza health ministry. But the current war is different. As the tide of international public opinion shifts in favour of Palestinians, the international “blank cheque” Israel had at the beginning of the war to fight Hamas is running out. 

"If Israel had to confirm the death toll now, this would give a big push to calls for a humanitarian ceasefire," Accorsi said. 

Indeed, after six weeks of continuous Israeli bombardment of Gaza, many analysts warn that the real death toll is likely much higher than what has already been reported, due to the near-impossibility of tracking and documenting every case. Thousands of bodies are believed to still be trapped under the rubble, while others have likely been buried without official notice.

What Israel calls “Hamas numbers” could indeed be wrong - not because they are inflated, but because they do not capture the full extent of the horrifying reality on the ground in Gaza.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist, expert on security and the Sinai Peninsula, and author of Sinai: Egypt's Linchpin, Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare. Sabry has been living in exile since the release of his book in November 2015 and its quick ban in Egypt soon after publication. Sabry's writings were published by the Miami Herald, Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor and Global Post, as well as think tanks including the Atlantic Council and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Sabry was named a finalist of the 2011 Livingston Award for International Reporting, and was among PBS Frontline's team nominated to the Emmy Award for News and Documentary for their 2013 show "Egypt in Crisis."
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