The Los Angeles Times' Ashraf Khalil has a dubious track record when it comes to reporting questionable Palestinian claims despite serious discrepancies in a number of sources. Last summer, there was his report on alleged Israeli abuse of Palestinian Mohammed Omer. Today, Khalil and Yasser Ahmad report in detail the alleged killing of a Palestinian farmer, Maher abu Rjeila, as described by his brother, Yousef ("Gaza cease-fire lets Palestinians cautiously recover bodies").
Yousef's account as reported by the Los Angeles Times is at odds on several key points with versions published by B'Tselem, AFP and Arab sources. While none of the accounts are consistent with each other, the Times appears content to let Khalil's unquestioning tale appear.
The Times article states:
In the southern Gaza Strip, Yousef abu Rjeila said Israeli tanks shot at him, his brother Maher and his cousin Nashaat about 10 a.m. at their farm east of the village of Khoza. The young men, along with relatives and neighbors, had heard of the cease-fire and returned to see what they could retrieve from the ruins of the farmhouse they had fled Tuesday.
"Maher walked in front of us," said Abu Rjeila, 26. "He went toward a room that was destroyed to take anything left of our belongings, but tanks suddenly opened fire. . . . I hit the ground quickly and my cousin did the same thing and I saw my brother falling down and shouting.
"The bullet penetrated his left hand and entered his chest and went out of the right side," Abu Rjeila said. "We realized that he had died immediately when we carried him."
Abu Rjeila was interviewed in a mourning tent that had been set up to honor the dead man. Someone read from the Koran over an amplifier nearby. A yellow flag of Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist party, flew overhead. Sitting next to Abu Rjeila, his shaken cousin, Nashaat, 21, said he did not believe they had survived.
"The bullets were flying around us," he said. "Why did they open fire at us? Was it not enough the people who they killed? Did not they say there is a cease-fire? We do not understand anything. Can we go back to our homes and lands or will we continue to be homeless?"
While Yousef told the Times that he was right behind Maher when he saw him "falling down and shouting," and detailed that "the bullet penetrated his left hand and entered his chest and went out of the right side," a B'Tselem account, based on testimony by a Dr. Wissam Abu-Rijleh, also identified as the victim's brother, gives a different story. (There is a discrepancy between the brother's name -- Yousef in the Times, and Dr. Wissam in B'Tselem. Based on the Times account, it seems that only one brother was with Maher. The discrepancy may be due to the fact that Palestinian Arabs often have several names.)
According to B'Tselem:
According to Dr. Abu Rajileh, at about 10:00, without warning, intensive gunfire was directed at the farmer, lasting about 3 minutes. He fled the area and when he returned, he found the body of his brother on the ground.
Thus, the surviving brother Abu Rjeila cannot seem to decide whether or not he witnessed the shooting of his brother.
A Jan. 18, 2009 Agence France Presse article has yet another version of what happened that day:
A 20-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday, becoming the first fatality since Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in the territory.
Maher Abu Rajila died after being shot in the chest as he was travelling in a vehicle near the town of Khan Yunis, close to the border crossing into Israel, medics said. ("First Palestinian killed since Gaza truce: medics")
The AFP's account that Abu Rajila was killed in a vehicle is at odds with both the Times and B'Tselem.
The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency has yet a different story about the Abu Rajila, one in which the 24-year-old victim is the father of a son who also is wounded in the incident:
A Gazan farmer is dead and his son injured by Israeli fire less than ten hours after Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in the Gaza Strip Sunday morning, medical sources confirmed.
The farmer was identified as 24-year-old Abd as-Samad Abu Rejileh, who was shot as he went out to his lands to inspect the damage from the 22-day Israeli incursion.
Why doesn't the B'Tselem account mention the injury of a son who must be very young given that the father is only 24? Why doesn't the Times?
In yet another disparate account from a different Arab source, the Ramattan News Agency reported that Maher's father (as opposed to his son) was injured. (Also the fatality's first name is not the same as that reported in the Times, B'Tselem or Ma'an). The Jan. 18 Ramattan report, picked up by Hamas' Al-Aqsa Satellite TV, stated:
Israeli tanks deployed in Khuza'ah, east of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza Strip, opened machine-gun fire at a group of farmers. One of the farmers, Abd-al-Latif Abu-Rajilah, 25, was martyred immediately, and his father was moderately wounded.
Note that while B'Tselem says the Israeli jeeps were "positioned on the border," Ramattan says tanks were "deployed in Khuza'ah."
In short, there are so many inconsistencies in this story that it should not be have recounted without mentioning the discrepancies or otherwise casting doubt on its credibility. The New York Times, for instance, responsibly handled the alleged incident, writing:
There were conflicting news reports of casualties in Gaza, with either one man or one girl said to have been killed.
In one incident, Hamas gunmen clashed with Israeli troops in Gaza, and B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, cited a Gaza resident who said that his brother, a farmer, was shot and killed by Israeli fire.
Given that Hamas has forbidden releasing information about casualties among its fighters, reports about civilian casualties -- especially those involving males in the age group of 18-45 -- should be reported as claims only and not accepted as fact.
Falsehood About Hamas Rockets
In addition to reporting without challenge clearly questionable claims by Palestinians, Khalil and Ahmad falsely portray Hamas' firing of rockets. They write:
Before the Hamas announcement, Palestinian fighters fired 15 rockets into southern Israel after the Israeli cease-fire took effect at 2 a.m., wounding one person. (Emphasis added.)
In actuality, as reported by the New York Times, Hamas did fire a couple of rockets after their declared truce:
Palestinian militants in Gaza fired at least 19 rockets at southern Israel during the day, including some after Hamas and other militant groups had declared a cease-fire.
The Los Angeles Times should run a correction making clear that Hamas fired on Israel even after the group announced a truce.