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Fact Sheets: Beware of Disinformation From Gaza

(Updated January 2009)

Israel has learned that its enemies will do everything they can to manipulate the media to influence public opinion during conflicts such as the one going one in the Gaza Strip. Israel will be accused of massacres, fabricated casualty figures will be distributed, photographs will be doctored and journalists threatened. These and other ploys will be used to create sympathy for the Palestinians and cast aspersions on Israeli forces in the hope of turning world opinion against Israel.

Too often, irresponsible journalists have repeated unverified and often inaccurate information in their haste to be the first to report a story. In an effort to present an evenhanded account, some reporters have the mistaken belief that allowing an Arab spokesperson to lie and then giving an Israeli a chance to respond represents a balanced account. This is like allowing a spokesperson to accuse Israelis of beating their spouses and then inviting an Israeli to deny that they beat their husbands and wives. Israel is always put on the defensive, often through outrageous and false accusations, which are repeated by other media so lies become accepted as truth.

One of the first examples of this in the Gaza war occurred after Israeli forces fired on UN-run school on January 6, 2009. The building in Jabaliya was not being used as a school at the time but was sheltering Palestinian noncombatants. Initial reports said at least 30 Palestinians were killed and UN officials claimed they had given Israeli forces coordinates of this building and others that they said were not associated with Hamas. The incident was immediately portrayed as a deliberate Israeli attack on innocent people.

The details of what happened are still under investigation, but Israel maintains it was not aware that the building was being used as a shelter and that Israeli forces fired at the building because they were attacked by Hamas terrorists launching mortars from the area. Israel later identified two of the casualties at the site as Imad and Hassan Abu Askhar, who served as heads of the Hamas mortar units in Gaza. A witness from Jabaliya said that he had seen Abu Askher in the area of the school right before the attack after answering a call for volunteers to pile sand around the camp “to help protect the resistance fighters” (New York Times, January 7, 2009). In addition, two residents of the area near the school told the Associated Press they had seen a small group of terrorists firing mortar rounds from a street close to the school (Jerusalem Post, January 7, 2009). A series of explosions followed, indicating the presence of munitions and explosives in the building, which was not being used as a school at the time.

This is not the first time terrorists have fired mortars from a school in Gaza, nor is it the first time UN facilities have been exploited by terrorists. UN officials in Gaza, who never condemn Palestinian terror (the UN never passed a resolution condemning Hamas terrorism), have a long record of looking the other way while Hamas carries out its activities. UN officials in Gaza are there to help Palestinians and their bias often clouds their judgment and therefore independent verification is needed before accepting their claims.

Israel was consistently victimized by Arab propaganda and media irresponsibility during the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel was accused of massacres that never happened. Reuters was duped by doctored photos and had to withdraw them. Other photos, showing Hizballah fighters setting up rockets in civilian neighborhoods were suppressed because they did not conform to Hizballah's propaganda message that Israel was indiscriminately attacking innocent Lebanese. CNN's Nic Robertson was taken to an area of Beirut and told that the rubble of buildings was a result of Israeli air strikes on civilian targets. He repeated the allegation as fact. He had no way of knowing what was in the buildings, whether it was a rocket workshop, a hiding place for katyushas, the home of a Hizballah leader, or a command center. In fact, he didn’t even know if Israel was responsible for the destruction that he was shown. Later, he admitted that his report had been shaped by his Hizballah minder who only let him go to certain areas and photograph what the Hizballah “press officer” would allow.

Hamas has adopted a similar approach. As CNN's Anderson Cooper reported (January 6, 2009), “Inside Gaza, press controlled by Hamas is heavy-handed.  There are few press freedoms inside Gaza and Hamas controls who reports from there and where they can go.  While pictures of wounded children being brought to hospitals are clearly encouraged, we rarely see images of Hamas fighters or their rockets being fired into Israel.”

Even though reporters know they are being manipulated, they play along. Nic Robertson is again a poster child for the media’s abandonment of journalistic principles. He is based on the Israeli side of the border from Gaza and yet narrates video given to CNN from Palestinians as if he is an eyewitness to what is appearing on screen. In fact, since he is not in Gaza, he is not likely to have interviewed anyone and has no way to verify information that is being presented to viewers as his story rather than propaganda he is repeating. Robertson, of course, is by no means the only journalist covering the conflict guilty of such irresonsible behavior.

Israel naturally wants to shape media coverage as well, but Israelis know the first time they are caught telling the type of lies common to the other side their credibility will be shot. Moreover, while they may want to exert some influence by, for example, limiting reporters’ access to troops, the other side still succeeds in making its case. As Nic Robertson noted in criticizing Israel’s decision not to embed reporters during the Gaza operation, “The officials we talk to say it’s for security and our safety, but it creates an impression that they don’t want the suffering that’s happening in the Gaza Strip right now to be witnessed by the world, but it is and right now you could make a real case that the message that’s coming out is one that’s essentially controlled by people that are perhaps more partisan to the situation inside the Gaza Strip than a lot of international journalists” (CNN, January 6, 2009).

Given the history of coverage of the Middle East conflict, it behooves journalists to take great care in how they report stories from both sides of the Gaza battlefront and it will be up to those following the coverage to hold the reporters to the highest journalistic standards.

Even before Israel initiated Operation Cast Lead, many journalists were quick to report whatever they were told by Hamas. When Hamas staged blackouts in Gaza, the media incorrectly reported that Israel was preventing the Gazans from having fuel and electricity. Israel was regularly blamed for a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza while, at the same time, truckloads of goods were sent in from Israel each day. While Israel's air attacks on Gaza immediately made the front page of newspapers around the world, the rocket barrages on southern Israel, and the impact they have had on the population over the last three years, have rarely been mentioned.

France 2, the same television network that broadcast the notoriously inaccurate story about Mohammed al-Dura during the Palestinian War, broadcast a false report showing dead children allegedly killed in the Gaza fighting. The amateur video of the dead toddlers being laid out on a white sheet was actually shot after they were killed by the explosion of a Hamas ammunition truck during a parade in Gaza in September 2005.

The media often turns conflicts into numbers games, keeping running tallies of casualties. Israel always is accused of disproportion because fewer Israelis typically die in confrontations. Israelis, however, are under no obligation to take greater casualties for the sake of looking better in the media box score. It also should come as no surprise that a regular army that is highly trained and targeting terrorists will kill more people than the terrorists who are indiscriminately firing explosive rockets at civilian population centers in Israel.

The casualty figures reported by Palestinians have also proven completely unreliable in the past and no one should take them as fact. We know that the Palestinians will routinely call attacks “massacres” and invent large numbers of fatalities, so journalists should be on guard for such unverified claims. Even when bodies are presented as evidence, we have learned that they are often not the victims of an Israeli attack and sometimes they are not even dead (a classic Palestinian video shows a funeral in which the pall bearers drop the stretcher with the “corpse” who then gets up and runs away). Perhaps the most dramatic example occurred when the Washington Post published a photograph (August 2, 1982) during the first Lebanon War of a baby that appeared to have lost both its arms. The UPI caption said that the seven-month-old had been severely burned when an Israeli jet accidentally hit a Christian residential area. The photo disgusted President Reagan and was one reason he subsequently called for Israel to halt its attacks. The photo and the caption, however, were inaccurate. The baby, in fact, did not lose its arms, and the burns the child suffered were the result of a PLO attack on East Beirut.

Early in the Gaza war, the media reported that nearly three-hundred Gazans were killed in the incursion. These numbers came from Palestinian sources. Moreover, what many reporters left out is the fact that even Palestinians admitted the majority of those casualties were Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. The Israel Defense Forces have tried to keep civilian casualties to a minimum even as the terrorists use their own people as shields. Hamas, on the other hand, directly aims its Qassam rockets at Jewish civilians every day. The Palestinian terrorists have never made a distinction between Israel's military and its civilians.

Some reports have also cited UN officials on conditions in Gaza and these must also be treated as suspect. UN representatives in Gaza are not impartial observers; they are individuals there specifically to aid the Palestinians and are naturally sympathetic to their cause. UN operatives in Palestinian territories have often been found to be apologists for terror with an animus toward Israel. Richard Falk, the special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, for example, has a long history of venomous anti-Israel remarks.

Once journalists interviewed Palestinians, they discovered that many of the reports they'd published uncritically were indeed false. For example, Israel was accused of bombing the civilian neighborhood of Jabaliya and many residents claimed no terrorists were in the vicinity. Newsweek's correspondent saw a tunnel twenty feet away from a person who insisted no tunnels were in the area. The reporter also visited the Palestinian Red Crescent Society buildings in Gaza City and nearby Al Quds Hospital, which were also hit by Israeli fire and provoked outrage. An official from the Palestinian People’s Party, told him, however, that terrorists were firing from positions all around the hospital (Newsweek, January 20, 2009).

The media is reporting how the Arab world is outraged by Israeli actions, but this is also not a complete account of the facts. First, most of the Arab world does not get its news from the Western media, which at least claims a measure of objectivity; the leading source of news for most Arabs is Al-Jazeera. This network has no pretensions that it is balance and presents non-stop coverage from a Palestinian perspective with the aim of generating hostility toward Israel. Al-Jazeera has not been reporting on the incessant rocket fire on Israel or its impact on the population. Still, what is striking is how many Arab leaders and commentators have blamed Hamas for provoking Israel. Also, while Hamas has received some rhetorical support from Arab states, they have shown no interest in coming to the group's defense. Accurate reporting would note that for all their statements of support for the Palestinian cause, none of the Arab states are willing to do any more to defend them.

It is a journalist's duty to report on every situation in as unbiased a manner as possible. To do this, reporters who interview Palestinian spokespeople or hospital officials should check their facts with other sources, including the IDF and the Israel Foreign Ministry, both of which have been historically honest in their fact-collecting. If journalists are not careful in their reporting of the situation in Gaza they will be later castigated by their colleagues, as was the case after the last Lebanon War.