On February 15, 2009, The Jerusalem Post disclosed the results of a study by the Israeli army’s Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) aiming to identify each individual Palestinian killed in Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza. Among the findings tabulated in an effort to quantify the exact number of combatants and civilians killed during the fighting is a figure for the number of people killed in a much publicized story alleging Israel shelled the Al-Fakura school on Jan. 6, 2009.
The CLA reports twelve Palestinians, nine of whom were Hamas fighters, died during this incident.
Palestinian medical authorities and the UN claim 43 were killed, at least 42 of whom were civilians.
The two competing versions of the incident are incompatible; one must be false.
The Al-Fakura incident received extensive coverage and stirred widespread outrage at Israel. This was due in part to sloppy reporting of the facts.
Although it was established from the start that the Israeli shells had hit outside the school, this salient fact was obscured in the ensuing coverage. Part of the blame belongs to the Israelis themselves, who at first erroneously indicated they had fired the shells into the school grounds from which they claimed terrorists were firing rockets. Even after this error was corrected, the media continued to confuse the issue by describing the Israeli shelling as an attack on the school and those sheltering within it.
Part of the reason for this confusion were the misleading statements by UNRWA director John Ging. As CAMERA noted in a review of Ging’s statements, the UNRWA director’s comments about giving the Israelis GPS coordinates for the school and his mention of the civilians sheltering within the school gave the impression that the shelling had targeted the school, although Ging later denied that he had ever implied that.
More serious was Ging’s failure to clearly state that none of the fatalities occurred on the schoolgrounds. The CLA report, however, goes further by raising the possibility that the casualty figures provided by the Palestinians – and validated by Ging’s repetition of them – were fake.
A review of the coverage of the incident reveals the insidious role the UN played in distorting coverage of what happened at the school.
Review of the Coverage of the Incident
The very first reports on the incident most closely reflect the CLA account. The Associated Press reported shortly after the incident occurred on Jan. 6, 2009:
Palestinian medical officials say at least 12 people are dead in an Israeli airstrike outside a U.N. school in the northern Gaza Strip.
Palestinian health official Said Joudeh confirmed the death toll from the airstrike in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya.
This account correctly identified where the Israeli shells landed and reported the same number of dead as the CLA report, without identifying them as civilians.
The report was later updated to include a larger estimate of the dead. By the time the incident received prime time news coverage, drift in the account of what happened was already apparent.
As early as Jan. 6, John Ging was providing interviews on the incident and repeating the higher casualty figures. In a televised report that showed footage of Palestinian civilian victims, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper reported:
This is what war looks like, the wounded, the dead, victims of an Israeli strike near a United Nations school. The U.N. says scores of Palestinian civilians, including many children, were killed. (Anderson Cooper 360, CNN, Jan. 6, 2009)
Two days later, CNN no longer attributed the number of dead to a source. Cooper simply stated as fact, “Israel struck a school being used as a shelter by hundreds of Palestinians; At least 40 people we know were killed” (Anderson Cooper 360, CNN, Jan. 8, 2009). CNN’s Chief International Correspondant Christianne Amanpour expressed her dismay at the “terrible loss of life at the UNRWA, the U.N.- run school in Gaza; 40 people who were killed.”
Cooper repeatedly pointed out that Israel was not allowing access to Gaza, so news organizations had little choice but to accept information from Palestinian sources within Hamas-controlled Gaza. This information was made more credible by Ging and the UN’s acceptance of it.
Ging’s comments about providing GPS coordinates to the Israelis as well as his repeated denial that Hamas fighters were in the school gave fodder to overtly partisan news coverage to portray the incident as an attack on the UN school. Coverage of the incident by the Guardian, and the Independent offer examples. The Guardian reported on Jan. 10,
At least three mortar rounds landed in the compound, even though the UN had given Israel the co-ordinates of all its installations in Gaza to prevent any such attack.
As late as Jan. 18, a piece in the Independent detailed:
The most lethal of these was an earlier shelling in which 43 internally displaced Gazans, sheltering in the Fakhura UNRWA school in Jabalya, were killed on 6 January.
The BBC also reported on Jan. 11, that “The attack killed about 40 Palestinian civilians sheltering at the Fakhura school in Jabaliya on Tuesday.”
But it was Ging’s and the UN’s validation of the Palestinian version of events that was crucial. According to the Times
“Ging put the death toll at 40 and said 15 more people were critically wounded and 40 others less seriously wounded” (NY Times
, Jan. 8). Later Ging amended the number of fatalities to 43 (NY Times
, Jan. 17).
The New York Times coverage was better than most. By Jan. 18, the paper’s correspondents confirmed that the school itself had not been shelled and that all or nearly all the fatalities had occurred outside the school grounds.
The reliability of Ging’s account was first openly disputed in the media by Patrick Martin of the Toronto Globe and Mail. As reported in the Jan. 29 Globe and Mail piece, Ging admitted during an interview with Martin that he knew that no fatalities had occurred among those sheltering in the school.
Ging was challenged as to why another UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA), had changed its description of the attack. According to Martin, OCHA had initially described Israeli shelling outside
of the school, but then changed its material on the following day to portray the shells as hitting the school. Ging responded that this was due to a “typographical error” (Irish Tribune
, Feb. 8, 2009). Nevertheless, he was adamant that the UN had not changed its view of what happened.
The Israelis said there were two militants in that area. Two out of the 43 means there are 41 civilians dead. That is what we are focusing on… That is not disputed…” (Irish Tribune, Feb. 8, 2009)
An Israeli statement
issued the day of the attack indicates that while the IDF had identified two Hamas fighters among the dead, more combatants could be identified as its investigation progressed. “Again, we emphasize that this announcement is based on an initial inquiry,” the IDF stated. What this indicates is that Ging was combining a preliminary IDF report that was likely to be updated (and was) with Palestinian figures of the number of dead on the scene.
While most news coverage unquestioningly repeated the figures provided by Ging and the Palestinians, the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post noted that the Israelis disputed the casualty count. As early as Jan. 16, 2009 Yaakov Katz of the Jerusalem Post reported that the IDF counted 21 Palestinians killed in the shelling incident.
While IDF’s early estimate of 21 dead is different from the CLA’s figure of 12 dead, it is possible that the earlier number includes the nine members of the Deeb (Dib) family who were killed allegedly by one of the shells that went astray. Adding these fatalities to the Israeli figure of 12 provided in the CLA report, gives the 21 reported by Katz.
While Martin’s piece exposes Ging’s failure to clarify that all the fatalities occurred outside the school grounds, it does not question the number who were killed and whether they were combatants. On Jan. 8, 2009, Martin himself had described how “the 40 bodies, wrapped in blankets, were laid out in a long row on the ground, with mourners kneeling in prayer before them.”
The CLA report challenges Ging’s assertions about the numbers and the identities of those killed. It is now up to the media to do its job. Having publicized the Al-Fakura incident as an illustration of indiscriminate Israeli fire and insensitivity to Palestinian civilian deaths, they now have a responsibility to uncover the truth.
What are the identities of those killed in the shelling incident?
How many were combatants? What are we to make of the alleged eyewitness accounts of children and other civilian dead laid out in rows?
Since John Ging was a pivotal source in validating the high civilian fatality claims, he should be questioned about how he verified the figures he reported to the press.
Other questions also need to be answered. What did Ging tell UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and newly appointed special envoy George Mitchell about the incident?
And finally, the testimony given to the United States Congress by Dr. Ziad J. Asali on Feb. 12, 2009, has to be addressed. This testimony states as fact that Israel attacked the school and killed 43 civilians.
Will New York Times, CNN and others who gave so much exposure to this incident accept the responsibility to find out the truth?