Separating fact from Sanders’ sound bites

Bernie Sanders speaks at the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Mich., on March 6. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

By Galit Lev-Harir

On Tuesday, April 5, two events occurred that emphasized to me the critical importance of separating fact from sound bites: First, Bernie Sanders, although acknowledging he did not know the exact number, accused Israel of killing “over 10,000 innocent people” in Gaza. Later that day, Avi Melamed spoke at Congregation Shaare Emeth as part of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series.

Sanders’ sound bite regarding the number of civilians killed in Gaza would be laughable if it weren’t so scary that a presidential candidate could actually quote such a grossly inflated and incorrect figure. Even Hamas — the terrorist organization that controls Gaza and is known for spreading misinformation and posting staged videos — didn’t dare to suggest that the number of casualties was anywhere near that amount. 

Sanders later acknowledged his numbers were incorrect when his New York Daily News interviewer presented the United Nations figures that 2,104 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians (Israel has estimated fewer civilians casualties in the war). While such a number is indeed tragic, it is a very far cry from Sanders’ initial assertion of 10,000.

It is also worth mentioning that in June 2015, a report by an international group of high-ranking military officials and diplomats, including Col. Richard Kemp (Ret.), released a report stating that Israel exceeded international standards regarding the protection of civilian life during its 2014 conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The report noted the extraordinary efforts taken by the IDF to protect civilian life, including text messages, phone calls and leaflet drops to civilians in a targeted area, as well as harmless explosive devices, called “knocks on the roof,” as a final warning to evacuate targeted buildings. Additionally, Hamas deliberately positioned its fighters and munitions in civilian areas, knowing that Israel would have no choice but to attack them and that civilian casualties would result. Unable to inflict existential harm on Israel by military means, Hamas sought to cause large numbers of casualties among its own people in order to bring international condemnation and unbearable diplomatic pressure against Israel.

Sanders’ outrageously false claim underscores that fact-checking and careful and critical analysis that regularly occurs with regard to other topics is often absent when it comes to information related to Israel and the Middle East. The need for such fact-checking and analysis was one of the recommendations made by Melamed in his presentation at Shaare Emeth.

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Melamed is an independent Middle East strategic intelligence analyst, lecturer and the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C., and on the Gettysburg College campus. He spent many years operating in Arab cities and communities throughout the Middle East, often in high-risk positions at sensitive times. Melamed has authored three books, including the recently published “Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth.” He is a frequent contributor in Arabic, Hebrew and English to many news outlets, including Al-Arrabiya, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CBN, I-24 News, Times of Israel and USA Today.

Melamed gave an in-depth and comprehensive presentation regarding the forces shaping the Middle East today. He identified the main forces shaping the Arab and Islamic countries as: the after-effects of the Arab Awakening (also called the Arab Spring); the conflict between Shi’ite Islam (the branch of Islam practiced by the Iranian regime) and Sunni Islam; the declining influence of political Islam (e.g., The Muslim Brotherhood); the rise of militant Islam (e.g., ISIS, also known as “Da’esh”); and the conflict between those Muslims who want a civil, Western-type society vs. those Muslims who support a strict Islamic society based on Shari’a law.

Unlike many other speakers, Melamed did not shy away from explaining how his ongoing research and professional analysis informs his political views. He acknowledged the very real dangers of the Iran deal — particularly, the fact that the deal will provide Iran with billions of dollars in increased revenue, and Iran will most likely spend some of that revenue to “export revolution” to conflict areas in the region, such as Gaza and Yemen; the Arab world’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the Obama administration; the decline of American influence in the Middle East and the subsequent rise of Russia’s influence in the region; the fact that in the U.S. intelligence community, too few analysts are able to speak and understand Arabic; the fact that in the U.S. media and on college campuses, when it comes to the Middle East, there are more slogans and rhetoric than objective analysis; and the fact that none of the current presidential candidates appear to have a realistic understanding of Middle East power dynamics.

Melamed also opined that a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is unachievable in the foreseeable future and that we would be better off to abandon that path and instead, to pursue a comprehensive agreement between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all of which share common interests in fighting ISIS and other radical groups, and diminishing Iran’s influence in the region (as I proposed in an Op-Ed in the Light on Jan 28, 2016, entitled “An alternate path to Mideast peace”). 

I hope to see a day when the American public will reject fictitious sound bites and hyperbole, such as was presented by Bernie Sanders last week, and will instead encourage and embrace in-depth and comprehensive analysis of the kind practiced by Avi Melamed. Becoming more informed and knowledgeable is essential to building a peaceful and just society.