Saturday, May 09, 2009

To the spielers go the victory

The PR wars accompanying and following contemporary asymmetric conflicts are growing more complex.

In TNR, Simona Weinglass has a fascinating account of rival tallies of the civilian death toll in the Israeli attack on Gaza early this year. In one corner, Khalil Shaheen of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), who during the war led a team of about 35 that "braved the crossfire to visit hospitals, interview victims' families, and document the location and circumstances of every single war casualty." The PHCR tally: 1417 dead, including 926 civilians, 255 non-combatant police officers, and 236 fighters .

In the other corner, retired Israeli intelligence officer Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, working from his home in Toronto, is meticulously working his way through PHCR's 1417 names, "comparing them to a database of thousands of terrorist operatives he has compiled, as well as whatever he finds on the Internet." So far, concentrating on the 255 police among the dead, he has compiled "a list of 171 people the PCHR defines as civilians that he claims he can prove are actually combatants affiliated with Hamas or other terrorist groups" -- for example, one whom past news reports describe as "a militant cleric who mentored suicide bombers and sent his own son on a suicide mission in 2001, killing two Israelis" and another who "was a Palestinian Resistance Committee operative and suspect in the terrorist attack against three American security guards in Gaza in October 2003."

Halevi's private research sheds some light on the assumptions and sources behind the Israeli Defense Forces' tally: 1,166 dead, 709 of them Hamas terror operatives, 295 'uninvolved Palestinians' and 162 men whose names had not yet been attributed to any organization.

Are Shaheen's methods suspect? No: they're just simple. Anyone who was not carrying a weapon when killed was a civilian. Are Halevi's methods suspect? No, they're just expansive: anyone who aided a terrorist or militant group was a combatant. The data he compiles is a matter of public record.

What's striking is the nature, duration and complexity of the battle personified by Shaheen and Halevi (whose names have a certain doppelganger resonance, given their two-syllable assonance). Here's Weinglass's endnote:
Both agree, however, that the war does not end when the fighting stops. "In every war there are two components," says Halevi. "The first is the battle itself, defeating the other side, and the second is presenting the facts of what happened." If a country is not vigilant, he warns, "The other side will rewrite your history."
An old truism has it that the victors write the narrative. Today, to an as-yet unmeasured extent, the dominant narrative writers become the victors.

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