Despite Murkiness, AFP Blames Israel for Attack on UNRWA School

AFP today refers to the Israeli army’s acknowledgment that although a single errant shell hit the facility, the IDF is not responsible for any of the reported fatalities. The French agency ignores the fact that the drone footage released by the IDF shows that the school yard was empty at the time that the IDF mortar hit it.
July 25 — Despite the unclear circumstances surrounding the attack on an UNRWA-run school in northern Gaza yesterday, the Agence France Press reports as fact that Israel is responsible. The French wire agencies repeated definitive pronouncements, in both news articles and photo captions, stand in stark contrast to the majority of American media outlets, which are reporting with appropriate caution given many unknowns surrounding the fatal incident in which at least 15 Palestinians were killed in the Beit Hanoun school.
Significantly, while AFP is so certain that it was an Israeli shell that wrought destruction on the UN facility, the Secretary General of the United Nations is not. Speaking yesterday in Erbil, Iraq, Ban Ki-Moon condemned the attack and noted, “Circumstances are still unclear.” Israeli authorities have suggested that an errant Palestinian rocket might be the culprit, and noted that rockets had been fired from that area earlier in the day.
The top UN official does not attribute the attack to Israel, AFP is not deterred.
For instance, the wire service reports today (“Gaza toll tops 800 as Kerry pushes humanitarian truce“):
An incident on Thursday, in which Israeli shelling of a UN facility sheltering displaced Gazans killed at least 15 civilians, has drawn widespread international condemnation.
The AFP made the identical allegation earlier in the day. The article (“Pressure for Gaza truce mounts after Israel shells UN refuges,” available on Lexis-Nexis, and similar version appear online) begins:
Signs of renewed efforts for a Gaza ceasefire were evident on Friday as the death toll continued to climb after Israel shelled a UN shelter killing 15 Palestinians. . .
These reports came after an Israeli shell slammed into a UN facility sheltering displaced Gazans on Thursday, prompting UN chief Ban Ki-Moon to say he was “appalled” at the incident which “underscores the imperative for the killing to stop — and to stop now.” .  . .
Thursday’s strike hit a UN school sheltering some of the 100,000 Palestinians driven from their homes in search of a safe haven after weeks of deadly fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
The shell crashed down in the middle of the courtyard where people were camped, leaving the ground covered in bloodstains, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 200.
Washington said it was “deeply saddened and concerned about the tragic incident”, without explicitly blaming its ally for the shelling.
After having unequivocally asserted in the first paragraphs that Israel is at fault for the devastation, the AFP buries in the 22nd paragraph that:
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner suggested militants firing rockets near the school could have caused the deaths.
But even the few ambitious readers who make it that far into the story are not likely to attribute much credibility to the army spokesman’s statement given that AFP has already said as fact that Israel is responsible.
AFP’s photo captions are no better. Multiple photo captions accompanying very difficult images also state as fact that an Israeli shell hit the facility, despite the lack of clarity surrounding events. The following is a sampling of some of the captions:
Unlike AFP, the Associated Press demonstrated professional responsibility and journalistic restraint in its coverage of the Beit Hanoun tragedy. Its article begins with an upfront acknowledgment of the case’s murkiness:
A U.N. school in Gaza crowded with hundreds of Palestinians seeking refuge from fierce fighting came under fire Thursday, killing at least 15 civilians and leaving a sad tableau of blood-spattered pillows, blankets and children’s clothing scattered in the courtyard.
Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the shelling, which wounded dozens and came on the deadliest day so far of the current round of fighting. However, the Israeli military said the school “was not a target in any way” and raised the possibility the compound was hit by Hamas rockets.
Further on, the article adds:

It was the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit in Gaza fighting since the Israeli operation began on July 8. UNRWA, the U.N’s Palestinian refugee agency, has said it discovered dozens of Hamas rockets hidden inside two vacant schools, but U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the school hit Thursday in the nort
hern town of Beit Hanoun was not one of them.

The U.N. has also expressed alarm that rockets found in the schools have gone missing after they were turned over to local authorities in Gaza. “Those responsible are turning schools into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children,” U.N. staff and anyone seeking shelter there, a U.N. statement said.

Who launched the attack against the U.N. compound in Beit Hanoun also was under dispute.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli shells hit the school. But Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, said the military was investigating and it was too early to know if the deaths were caused by an errant Israeli shell or Hamas fire. “We are not ruling out the possibility that it was Hamas fire,” he said.

Another army spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said there had been Hamas fighting in the area.

“We do not target the U.N. We do not target civilians. There was no target in the school. Gunmen were attacking soldiers near the facility. The school was not a target in any way,” Lerner said.

The military had urged the U.N. and the Red Cross to evacuate the school for three days leading up to the shelling incident, Almoz said, adding that there had been an increase in Hamas attacks from the area in recent days.

“Despite repeated calls from the military to the U.N. and international organizations to stop the shooting from there because it endangers our forces, we decided to respond. In parallel to our fire there was Hamas fire at the school,” Almoz said.

Others were likewise forthcoming about the uncertainty surrounding the incident. The Washington Post, for example, reported responsibly:
On Thursday, the Gaza Strip witnessed one of the worse scenes so far in a war that has put civilians in the cross hairs. An elementary school packed with hundreds of Palestinian evacuees seeking shelter under U.N. protection came under heavy fire Thursday, leaving 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including women, children and infants.
The question now is who did it.

A senior Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said Thursday night that “there was a possibility” shells from Israeli forces struck the U.N.-run school in the Gaza Strip. But he also suggested that Hamas mortars or rockets could have been responsible.

The Los Angeles Times also commendably displayed journalistic responsibility in reporting on the murky circumstances. Alexandra Zavis reported:

But the circumstances remained murky late in the day. . . .Gaza authorities accused Israel of targeting the school in Beit Hanoun with tank fire and said it was guilty of a war crime. Israel Defense Forces officials said the area was a battle zone and that they had asked international organizations to evacuate the school Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“From initial inquiries done about the incident . . . militants opened fire at IDF soldiers from the school area,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “In order to eliminate the threat posed to their lives, they responded with fire toward the origins of the shootings. The IDF is still reviewing the incident.”

Those journalists who are reporting responsibly may recall a previous incident allegedly involving an UNRWA school: During “Operation Cast Lead” numerous media outlets, including AFP, reported that an Israeli shell hit an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip Jan. 6, 2009, killing dozens. But then Patrick Martin wrote later that month in The Globe and Mail:

[Headlines] heralded the tragic news of Jan. 6, when mortar shells fired by advancing Israeli forces killed 43 civilians in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The victims, it was reported, had taken refuge inside the Ibn Rushd Preparatory School for Boys, a facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. . .

There was just one problem: The story, as etched in people’s minds, was not quite accurate.

Physical evidence and interviews with several eyewitnesses, including a teacher who was in the schoolyard at the time of the shelling, make it clear: While a few people were injured from shrapnel landing inside the white-and-blue-walled UNRWA compound, no one in the compound was killed. The 43 people who died in the incident were all outside, on the street, where all three mortar shells landed.

Another incident which may be weighing on some reporters’ minds involves the November 2012 killing of 4-year-old Mahmoud Sadallah outside his Gaza home, a tragedy which multiple media outlets quickly blamed on an Israeli airstrike. Shortly later, when it became apparent that an errant Palestinian rocket was responsible for Sadallah’s death, almost all of the media outlets, including CNN and Reuters, commendably corrected the record.
Agence France Presse was the only media outlet which flatly refused to set the record straight, laying the blame for Sadallah’s death where it belonged. As CAMERA noted at the time, AFP editors “who refuse to clarify that Hamas apparently killed the child, serve as Ham
as accomplices in its propaganda war against Israel.”
By definitively blaming Israel for this week’s deaths at the UNRWA facility before the facts are in, AFP continues to prove itself a critical Hamas asset.

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