The Gray Lady Quietly Retracts Yet Another Slander Against Israel

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November 30, 2023

A newspaper can hide substantial reporting failures by describing a story as "updated" rather than admitting to malpractice by printing a correction. A headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times told readers "Israel has killed more women and children than have been killed in Ukraine." Could it be true that the Israeli military, with its professed concern for protecting civilians, has actually perpetrated greater savagery than Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine?

Alas, the story was too good (or bad) to be true. By noon on Sunday, the headline in question disappeared from the digital version of the Times’s story. By late afternoon, the Times added substantial information that contradicted its initial claim and suggested the death toll in Ukraine has been an order of magnitude greater than in Gaza. The only indication of these changes was a small note beneath the author’s byline indicating the story had been "updated."

The Times built its initial story around a pair of data points that, when stripped of context, suggest Israel is conducting itself in a manner befitting Putin. For Gaza, the Times employed information from the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, which says 14,000 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 10,000 are women and children.

Trusting politically sensitive data from a Hamas-run agency can be problematic, to say the least. Like many outlets, the Times trumpeted the ministry’s claims in mid-October that an Israeli airstrike on Gaza’s al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza resulted in the slaughter of 500 Palestinians. The story fell apart within a day, since the relatively small crater in the hospital parking lot was consistent with a misfire by a Palestinian rocket, not an Israeli bomb. Forensic analysis from multiple sources concurred.

Even though the Times admitted that its coverage of the blast "relied too heavily on claims by Hamas," the paper and many of its peers still believe the Hamas-run ministry’s death tolls are reliable. This confidence persists even though the ministry never distinguishes fighters from civilians, and even though Hamas gunmen fight in civilian clothes. So the Times ran with the figure of 10,000 women and children.

Turning to Ukraine, the Times did not seek out an apples-to-apples comparison by comparing the Gaza figure to data from a Ukrainian ministry. Rather, it turned to a U.N. data set that has a very high bar for reporting fatalities. In fact, the U.N. agency responsible for the data warns readers it "believes that the actual figures are considerably higher." Nevertheless, the Times went ahead with the lower numbers—its story does not cite an exact figure, but the U.N. reports 9,806 civilian deaths in Ukraine, of which 2,756 were women and 531 children.

In the absence of a formal correction, one cannot know why the Times changed both its story and the headline above it. Yet the addition of a crucial passage provides a hint. After comparing the Gaza and Ukraine figures, the updated online version of the story notes, "The United Nations believes the true toll in Ukraine is considerably higher, however, and Ukrainian officials have estimated that more than 20,000 civilians died in the port city of Mariupol."

Mariupol is a coastal city that had a prewar population of roughly 400,000. Russian forces battered it relentlessly during the first 83 days of their invasion, ultimately forcing Kyiv’s last defenders to withdraw. An estimate of 20,000 dead in a city with one-fifth the population of Gaza is stunning. If confirmed, that figure alone would undermine the Times’s determination to cast Israel as more savage than Putin.

What’s more, the revised version of the Times’s story does not let readers know that Ukraine’s top war crimes prosecutor estimated in February the real civilian death toll may be as high as 100,000, but nothing will be certain until Ukraine liberates the territory the Kremlin now holds, enabling a full investigation to proceed.

Even if the precise casualty figures for Gaza and Ukraine were known, there is another stark difference to consider: The government in Kyiv has built bomb shelters in metro stations, underground garages, and other facilities, since it wants to minimize the number of citizens lost to Russian airstrikes. In contrast, Hamas dedicates its construction efforts to building tunnels for its fighters, often under schools and other civilian destinations.

In October, one curious journalist asked a top Hamas official, Mousa Abu Marzook, why Hamas built 500 kilometers of tunnels for its fighters, but no bomb shelters for civilians. The response? "It is the responsibility of the United Nations to protect them."

For Hamas, civilians play an indispensable role as human shields. They either deter Israel from striking, or they drive up the death toll, generating headlines in Western media and pressure on the Israeli government.

On Sunday, the Times seemed to recognize it was playing Hamas’s game and withdrew its false accusation that Israel was engaging in brutality worthy of Putin. That is far better than letting the accusation stand. Yet in the absence of transparency and accountability for the authors and editors responsible for such alternative facts, one should expect to see the same mistakes again and again.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at FDD. He is currently working on a coauthored book about the conflict between Israel and Iran.