Updated: Reuters Distorts on Gaza Border, Healthcare

April 3, 2008 update follows.

Jan. 7, 2008 – What’s gone wrong at Reuters?

Just one day after Egypt and Hamas defied Israel’s wishes by allowing 1,700 Palestinians to pass through the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, while Israel could do nothing but indignantly protest the incident, Reuters reporter Nidal al-Mughrabi claimed Israel has “full control of Gaza’s borders.”

And in that same news story, written less than two weeks after the World Health Organization noted that a significant majority of Gazans applying for travel permits on medical grounds were granted passage out of the Gaza Strip, the Reuters journalist led readers to believe that half or less of such requests were granted.

These errors and other distortions in al-Mughrabi’s Dec. 5, 2007 story, “Sick Gazans stuck in queue of death,” should clearly be corrected for the record. It is disturbing, then, that rather than acknowledge and redress the article’s misrepresentations, a senior Reuters editor defended the piece with irrelevant, inaccurate and sometimes bizarre reasoning.

Reuters’s False Allegation of Israeli Control Over Gaza Borders

Does Israel control Gaza’s borders? No. Are Gazans usually denied travel permits for medical reasons? No. Is an official for the Hamas government more credible than the World Health Organization? No. But Reuters says ‘yes.’

The Israeli presence along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip ended in the summer of 2005, when Israel removed all of its soldiers and citizens from Gaza as part of the so-called Disengagement Plan. Shortly thereafter, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that the Rafah crossing “will be operated by the Palestinian Authority on its side, and Egypt on its side,” with European Union representatives on site to monitor the crossing point and “ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations” concerning the crossing point. This agreement held up until June 25, 2006, when Hamas gunmen infiltrated Israel from Gaza, killing two Israeli soldiers and kidnaping a third. The following year, after Hamas violently wrested power from its Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip, the European Union monitoring mission officially suspended its operations at the Rafah crossing point.

If there were any doubts over who was left in control of the crossing after this suspension, they were dispelled on Dec. 3, 2007, when, in defiance of Israel’s wishes, Egypt and Hamas negotiated and oversaw the passage of 700 Palestinians through Rafah and into Egypt. The following day, another 1,000 Palestinians crossed over (Jerusalem Post, Dec. 6, 2007, “Israel livid as pilgrims cross Rafah“).

Yet on Dec. 5, only one day after Israel’s lack of control over the crossing was made so abundantly clear, al-Mughrabi asserted that “[a]fter pulling out troops and settlers, Israel kept full control of Gaza’s borders ….”

After CAMERA brought this obvious discrepancy to Reuters’s attention, a senior editor defended the reporter’s assertion:

On Israel’s control of Gaza’s borders, I quote from the Disengagement Plan as published at www.mfa.gov.il, the foreign ministry website: “Israel will guard and monitor the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, will continue to maintain exclusive authority in Gaza air space, and will continue to exercise security activity in the sea off the coast of the Gaza Strip.” Under agreements with Israel and international powers, Israel has a power of veto over anyone using the land crossing with Egypt – which has been closed since June. Smugglers and illegal migrants routinely cross borders around the world but that does not invalidate the point that Israel has a responsibility for the fact that Gazans cannot enter Egypt.

This reply shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the situation in the Middle East and is logically flawed. While it is true that Israel had initially intended to “guard and monitor” the perimeter of the Gaza Strip by keeping troops in the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt, this aspect of the plan was eventually scrapped when Israel’s cabinet decided to withdraw from the Philadelphi Corridor along with the rest of the Gaza Strip.

This underscores what should be an obvious point: What was once planned is not necessarily the same as what is actually happening. Indeed, the very next line of the Disengagement Plan cited by the Reuters editor states that “the Gaza Strip shall be demilitarized and shall be devoid of weaponry ….” With rockets being fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip on a daily basis, and with Hamas and Fatah gunmen continuing to kill each other in Gaza, it would clearly be wrong for any journalist to report that Gaza is in fact “devoid of weaponry,” regardless of what the Disengagement Plan had envisioned.

As for the editor’s assertion that under international agreements Israel has a “power of veto over anyone using the land crossing with Egypt,” not only is this irrelevant for the same reason discussed above, but it is moreover patently false. The most recent international agreement on Gaza’s crossing points does not give Israel veto power. It simply allowed Israel to file “objections” to certain individuals using the crossing while leaving the final decision in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, after the agreement was signed, Palestinian official Saeb Erekat asserted that “This is the first time in history we will run an international passage by ourselves, and it’s the first time Israel does not have a veto over our ability to do so” (Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2005, “Rice Negotiates Deal to Open Gaza Crossings”).

Finally, the editor’s comment on “smugglers and illegal migrants” has absolutely no bearing on the issue. The Palestinians who passed through an official crossing by permission of Hamas and Egypt are not “illegal migrants” who surreptitiously sneak across borders.

Although CAMERA raised the above points in its rejoinder to the editor, he nonetheless continued to insist al-Mughrabi’s false assertion about Israel’s “full” control over Gaza’s borders was accurate and fair.

And even after the Palestinian who had crossed into Egypt were later permitted back into Gaza via the Rafah crossing — again despite Israel’s objections — Reuters continued to falsely claim Isr ael controls over the crossing. A Jan. 2, 2008 story by al-Mughrabi acknowledged that the crossing of 2,200 Palestinians back into the Gaza Strip was “in defiance of Israel’s demand” and that “Israel has no presence at Rafah,” and yet still asserted that Israel “effectively still controls [Gaza’s] borders.”

Palestinian Official Deemed More Credible Than WHO

Reuters also misled its readers by presenting dubious Palestinian accusations about travel permits for sick Gazans while failing to mention more credible information that contradicts those accusations. According to the Dec. 5 al-Mughrabi story,

Muawiyeh Hassanein, a senior official in Gaza’s health ministry, said that in general at least half of those patients seeking permission to leave were turned down.

“The Israelis either refuse to give people permits or delay them until the disease spreads and causes death,” said Hassanein, head of the ambulance and emergency department.

But a Nov. 23, 2007 World Health Organization (WHO) report painted a much different picture:

Reports indicate that of the 4074 patients in Gaza who have applied for travel permits on medical grounds since June 2007, 713 have had their applications denied. The proportion of patients who have been denied passage has reportedly more than doubled since the restrictions were imposed, increasing from 10.7% in June to 22.9% in October.

According to the WHO’s numbers, then, just 17.5 percent of Gazans have had their application denied since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

When presented with this data, the editor defended the article by asserting that “At the time the article was written we were not aware of the WHO report.” He further stated that

The WHO figures … conclude that the proportion of refusals has risen steadily. The [International Committee of the Red Cross] last week said that trend was continuing. So we are comfortable the Mr. Hassanein’s description of the situation in the early part of December is fair.

Again, the editor’s defense is inadequate. If Reuters was unaware of the WHO’s figures, this might explain why they was left out of the piece, but it does not excuse the significant omission. In other words, a plea of ignorance does not make a piece balanced or accurate. So while it is true that mistakes, including serious errors of omission, might be inevitable, it is for that very reason that corrections and clarifications are necessary.

Although Reuters frequently cites World Health Organization data in its news reports, an editor suggests that WHO figures from the Gaza Strip are not reliable enough to print, and in fact are less reliable than vague allegations by an official for the Hamas-led Gaza government.

The editor’s assertion that “Mr. Hassanein’s description of the situation in the early part of December is fair” because of the supposed trends in Gaza is, at best, odd and illogical. If, as the WHO asserts, 10.7 percent of patients requesting to travel in June were denied permits and 22.9 percent of patients requesting to travel in October were denied permits, and if this trend continued in the month that followed, this in no way proves that in “early December” (as the editor asserted) or “in general” (as Hassanein was paraphrased saying) the percentage jumped to 50 percent or more.

After CAMERA raised these issues with Reuters, the editor responded that Reuters journalists “have not previously used WHO figures from the Gaza Strip because the sourcing and methodology has been too vague.”

Amazingly, then, Reuters is suggesting that figures provided by a member of Gaza’s Hamas-led government are more credible than the more specific figures provided by an independent and respected international organization.

Reuters Suggests ‘Occupation’ Responsible for Superior Israeli Healthcare

Elsewhere in the story, al-Mughrabi reported that “Shortages of medicine, equipment and trained personnel, which local officials blame on the long occupation, prevent hospitals in the enclave from matching care available in Israel.”

It is not surprising that “local officials” in Gaza would blame shortcomings in the territory’s healthcare system on Israel’s occupation, which ended two years ago. But Reuters should not relay only this anti-Israel accusation while ignoring other more plausible explanations for the discrepancy between Israel’s healthcare system and that of Gaza.

For example, many would rightly point out that Gaza’s healthcare system currently suffers, at least in part, because the Hamas government has consistently snubbed international demands that it recognize Israel’s right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas’s refusal to abide by these basic demands has resulted in its being isolated internationally, and has led to a sharp cutback in the amount of financial aid to the Gaza Strip. As the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) noted in a January 3, 2006 statement, “the Quartet concluded that it was inevitable that future assistance to any new government would be reviewed by donors against that government’s commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap.”

Clearly, this international isolation, which is not a result of the bygone occupation but rather Hamas’s intransigence, has contributed to healthcare problems in Gaza. (See, for example, “Gaza hospital fights for life after international aid cuts.”)

Indeed, if the reason for healthcare discrepancies in the region is simply the “occupation,” it should follow that a) the quality of healthcare in Egypt, Jordan, Syria (excluding the Golan Heights) and Lebanon should match the quality of healthcare in Israel because they are not occupied by Israel; b) the quality of healthcare in Gaza Strip and West Bank should be inferior to the quality of healthcare in those other Arab countries; and c) the quality of healthcare in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops have withdrawn, should surpass that in the West Bank, where Israel’s army still has a presence. None is true.

If Gaza’s healthcare disadvantage relative to Israel were an anomaly, it would perhaps be reasonable to surmise that the occupation, or some other factor unique to the Gaza Strip, is to blame. But Gaza’s disadvantage is in fact perfectly consistent with Israel’s healthcare supremacy over its neighbors as measured by basic health indicators. For example, mortality rates across all age groups (adult, under-5, infant and neonatal) and maternal mortality rates in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are at least double, and as much as seven times higher than, corresponding rates in Israel, according to statistics from WHO’s Statistical Information System (WHOSIS) and UNICEF. Israel also has more physicians, nurses and hospital beds per capita than those neighbors, according to WHOSIS. And the WHO’s World Health Report 2000 consistently placed Israel above Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in a more complex measures of health system performance.

Nor has occupation caused the West Bank and Gaza Strip to significantly lag behind those “unoccupied” Arab neighbors. In fact, UNICEF’s most recent numbers show that important health indicators in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are often better than in neighboring Arab countries. The following graph comparing infant and under-5 mortality rates among Israel’s immediate neighbors shows that the West Bank and Gaza outranked each of those countries with the exception of Syria.

Table based on UNICEF figures.

Finally, the WHO also disproves the idea that Gaza’s healthcare quality exceeds that of the West Bank. It recently noted, for example, that there is “a significant health imbalance between [the] West Bank and Gaza Strip. Infant mortality rates are 30% higher in Gaza (30.2 per 1000) than in the West Bank (20 per 1000) ….”

While there is little evidence to support the Palestinian claim (embraced by Reuters) that “occupation” is the reason Gaza’s healthcare system does not match that in Israel, there are convincing arguments behind Israel’s assertion (ignored by Reuters) that Palestinian healthcare improved under Israeli administration. Some details and statistics in favor of that argument can be found here and here.

The public reasonably expects a reporter for a leading news organization to take into account all relevant information and get the story right. And if a reporter does not get the story right, the public reasonably expects editors to make it right by running corrections or clarifications. Reuters has failed on both counts.

April 3, 2008 update:

Almost four months after Reuters misinformed readers about the percentage of sick Gazans granted entry into Israel, and after an editor explained there would be no correction because Reuters is “comfortable” with the false assertion by the Gaza health official and because its journalists “have not previously used WHO figures from the Gaza Strip because the sourcing and methodology has been too vague,” the news organization published a story that relied heavily on WHO figures and contradicted their earlier reporting.
An April 1 piece by Rebecca Harrison noted: “The World Health Organisation (WHO) said Israel denied entry permits to 18.5 percent of patients seeking to leave the Gaza Strip in 2007 versus 10 percent in 2006.” This belated and indirect refutation of its earlier report does not exempt the organization from its obligation to formally and forthrightly correct a clearly false allegation. It is not clear when Reuters decided WHO sourcing and methodology in Gaza was reliable enough to publish; but on that day, the news organization should have published a correction to its problematic report.
Unfortunately, the April 1 article continues to mislead about the Gaza Strip, with Retuers again claiming that Israel “effectively still controls” the borders of that territory. Ironically, this allegation was published on the very day that Egypt, yet again, demonstrated its control over its border with Gaza. An Associated Press story that day reported that “Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah terminal on the Egypt-Gaza border for a single day to let around 350 Egyptians stuck in the Gaza Strip for two months to return home, an Egyptian security official said.”

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