If Amnesty International is seen as one of the “most prestigious” international NGOs, it is also thought to harbor “a consistent institutionalized bias against Israel.” It is particularly interesting, then, that Amnesty this week released a report blaming Palestinians for a much-publicized incident that resulted in the deaths of Palestinian children and other civilians during last summer’s war between Hamas and Israel.
On July 28, 2014, explosions rocked the Shati refugee camp and the nearby Shifa hospital in the Gaza Strip. It was at the former location, on a street filled with children, that the most horrific damage was done. According to the Amnesty report, 13 civilians, 11 of them children, were killed as a result of a projectile that struck the camp. Officials in Gaza immediately blamed Israeli aircraft for the strike. Israel quickly responded, saying it was a Palestinian rocket, aimed at Israel but misfired, that hit the camp. Israeli spokespeople even shared an image purporting to show the source and trajectory of the misfired rockets.
At the time, many journalists covering the incident hedged their bets, reporting that the adversaries “traded blame,” that Hamas accused and Israel denied, or that Hamas denied the validity of Israel’s denial. But Amnesty now concludes that “the available evidence indicates that 13 Palestinian civilians were killed in the al-Shati refugee camp on 28 July as a result of a rocket fired from within the Gaza Strip,” and, more specifically, states that “an independent munitions expert who examined … evidence told Amnesty International that it strongly indicated that the projectile was a Palestinian rocket.”
As flawed as Amnesty and this specific report might be, the assessment, coming from an organization considered especially hostile to Israel, compellingly reinforces Israel’s account of the events at the Shati camp and draws into sharper focus several important points.
Here are some takeaways:
• Although the report’s language was not categorical, it was emphatic in suggesting Palestinian responsibility for the attack and the deaths. By stating that an investigation is needed and that war crimes investigations would be needed “if the projectile is confirmed to be a Palestinian rocket,” it left the question of responsibility slightly open. But the report’s assertions that evidence indicated the explosion was “a result of a rocket fired from within the Gaza Strip” and “strongly indicated that the projectile was a Palestinian rocket” speak very loudly.
• Israel’s conclusions about the incident are strongly vindicated by this admission by an “anti-Israel” organization. But Amnesty is hardly the first outside source to back Israel’s position. A day after the incident, Italian journalist Gabriele Barbati posted on Twitter that a “misfired rocket” killed the children in Shati, something he felt free to admit only after he was “out of Gaza far from Hamas retaliation.” The Israeli army was right when denying responsibility for the attack, he said in another post. “It was not Israel behind it.” Barbati’s comments were largely ignored by the mainstream press.
Another journalist, the Wall Street Journal‘s Tamer El-Ghobashy, posted on Twitter that the damage to the Shifa hospital, which Israel asserted was part of the same misfire that caused the death at the Shati refugee camp, appeared to be a Hamas misfire (though he later was moved to delete his post).
• Although the report does not go into great detail about the July 28 strike on the Shifa Hospital, it indirectly backs Israel’s position on that incident, too. If Israel’s assessment that its radars and sensors tracked the misfired Palestinian rocket that struck Shati is indeed accurate, then its assessment that the same Palestinian misfire also hit the hospital would also appear to be correct.
• Separately, the report backs Israeli assessment about Palestinian fighters endangering Palestinian civilians. “There are credible reports that, in certain cases, Palestinian armed groups launched rockets or mortars from within civilian facilities or compounds, including schools, at least one hospital and a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City.”
If media language about Gaza casualties gives the public the wrong idea, then journalists have a responsibility, in reporting on this conflict more than usual, to tweak their language. Coverage of fighting in Gaza is quantitatively and qualitatively different then coverage of other battles by other armies in other lands. Israel, notes Berkeley journalism professor William J. Drummond, is per capita “the most intensively reported country on the face of the earth.” This intensive scrutiny of the country makes it, at least in the eyes of journalists and consequently for many readers, “the most important story on earth,” as former AP reporter Matti Friedman wryly put it. Moreover, this intensive scrutiny comes in the context of a larger war of delegitimization against the Jewish state by activists opposed to the country’s right to exist and their journalistic enablers. So while Palestinian casualties are paraded on American television screens, more than perhaps any other victims of war at any time, and social media rants about “Zionist baby butchery” take over Twitter, precision, always a journalistic value, is doubly essential in this context.
• If the children at Shati were killed by a Palestinian rocket, then what are we to make of Palestinian “witnesses,” quoted in a number of news reports, who insisted they saw an Israeli F-16 launch the attack? (Accusations by Hamas officials, who claimed with certainty that Israeli airstrikes hit Shati, might be easier to understand. Hamas, known for suicide bombing attacks targeting civilians, is not also known for honestly and integrity.)
The fog of war could explain some such mistakes. And then there’s the intimidation factor. If an Italian journalist felt the need to wait until leaving Gaza before noting Hamas responsibility for attacks (and Barbati is not the only reporter to express such a concern), then one can imagine how those who live permanently under Hamas rule might feel. Surely it’s safer to blame the far-away enemy than the local, and often brutal leaders.
With or without intimidation, the inaccurate statements given to reporters could also be motivated by nationalism and the regional worldview. In an Arab world that demonizes Jews in the most outrageous and outlandish ways, in a Palestinian territory obsessed with “resistance” to the Israeli enemy, and under a leadership that had called on the population to take an active part in the PR battle against the Jewish state —”Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian,” the Hamas interior ministry instructed the public at the start of fighting — why wouldn’t witnesses to the explosion or those claiming to be so be convinced that Israel killed the children?
Whatever the reasons for false claims by ostensible witnesses, journalists have a responsibility to struggle to get it right. In this case, many fell short. When articles mention Hamas and Israel’s dueling accusations, claims of Israeli responsibility by “eyewitnesses” are likely to be the determining factor for many readers hoping to reach a firm conclusion about who killed the 11 children. And so the firm conclusions were likely to be wrong.
How could reporters do better? There tends to be an unfortunate “suspension of skepticism” when it comes to Palestinian accusations against Israel. The opposite is needed. More skepticism, more focused and sustained questioning of supposed witnesses, might have convinced some to rethink whether they really did see an Israeli fighter jet. In this narrow regard, The Irish Times managed to come closer to the truth than others. While Agence France Presse, The Guardian and Al Jazeera found witnesses claiming to see Israeli fighter jets firing missiles at the Shati camp or the Shifa hospital, those interviewed by The Irish Times said that “it all happened too fast to know what sort of missile hit, or where it came from.”
It would have also helped if more reporters conveyed the full scope of Israel’s comments on the incident. From the start, Israeli officials indicated its radars, which look for rocket launches as part of the country’s sophisticated anti-missile defense system, tracked the misfired rockets. This is an important data point for readers, but one that too many reports didn’t bother to mention. In this narrow regard, The New York Times did better than many others. “The Israeli military said its radars and sensors had detected the paths of four ‘terrorist rockets’ fired at that time and distributed an aerial photograph tracing their routes,” its reporters noted. All reporters should have shared this information.
In short, some journalists quoted false accounts about Israeli F-16s while refraining from citing Israeli accounts that supported the actual version of events. It is such decisions that led readers astray.
• As suggested above, the quality of coverage was mixed. Some reports went no further than stating that both sides blamed the other. Some relayed Israel’s full position. But too many stories apportioned blame on Israel for the Palestinian rocket attack.
Two days after the incident, CNN correspondent John Vause clearly suggested that Israeli had struck Shati:
And this is what happens when the IDF drops those leaflets and tells people that it’s time to get out because that area is about to be hit.
They really don’t have a lot of places to go. And that school that got hit earlier today was meant to be one of those safe places. So this is what the Palestinians are saying right now, where do they go, where is safe in Gaza? And the answer to that is, there just isn’t a lot of safe places right now.
This is a very, very crowded piece of the world. These refugee camps especially. The Beach camp, the Shati refugee camp, Jabalia, where some of these attack have taken place … if there is a strike there, if there is some kind of shelling or artillery, you will hit a lot of people.
The website of London’s Independent at one point cited both the Hamas claim that the explosions were caused by an Israeli airstrike and Israel’s claim that they were misfired rockets, but sided with Hamas by referring to the incident, in the headline and body of the piece, as an airstrike:
Two airstrikes which hit the compound of Gaza City’s main hospital and a nearby park killed ten children and wounded 46 on Monday — hours after Israel and Hamas had declared a truce.
The park in the Shati refugee camp was hit minutes after an airstrike on the outpatients unit at the Shifa Hospital on the edge of the city.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) tweeted that Hamas were to blame for the deaths in Gaza, and accused the group of “hit[ting] their own people” with misfired rockets. But officials from Gaza’s police operations room, Civil Defence and Sahabani, said the deaths and injuries were caused by Israeli airstrikes. (“Israel-Gaza conflict: 10 Palestinians killed and 46 injured in airstrike on hospital and park; The violence cut short a truce to mark the end of Ramadan which failed to last 24 hours,” July 28, 2014, 10:56 PM GMT)
The Belfast Telegraph did the same. Both eventually changed their online wording.
The London Telegraph website reported that the two sides “traded blame,” but the authoritative voice of its hea
dline broke the tie: “Gaza Strip refugee camp and hospital ‘hit by Israeli missiles.'” The smaller text in the subhead pointed out that “Israel denies responsibilty.”
A writer for Israel’s +972 web magazine, which represents the fringe of Israeli thought but is lauded by some Western journalists, clearly directed the blame at Israel:
Ma’an also reported that 10 people were killed Monday afternoon by an Israeli air strike on a children’s playground in al-Shati refugee camp. Families had gathered to celebrate the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which ended in horror with eight children among the dead. Although Israel blamed the deaths on a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket, eyewitnesses, along with Gaza police who inspected the rubble and victims’ bodies, confirmed the strike was Israeli.
Indeed, Ma’an, a foreign funded Palestinian wire service, did essentially blame Israel, even while it cited Israel’s denials:
Israeli forces on Monday bombed a park near the beach in Gaza City as well as al-Shifa hospital, killing at least 10 children on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, medics said.
The strike on the park hit a playground beside the al-Shati refugee camp, while the other strike hit the outpatient clinic of al-Shifa Hospital, which is the main hospital in the besieged coastal enclave.
The strike on the park — which reports suggested was a drone strike — hit the playground, killing 10 children as they played with their families while wearing holiday clothes they had been given to celebrate the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Eyewitnesses said that 40 were also injured in the strike, which some were calling an “Eid massacre.”
The Israeli army, however, said that the deaths were a result of “failed rocket attacks” launched by Palestinian militants.
A heart-wrenching BBC video quoted Palestinian children injured in the Shati explosion describing the scene. One child emphasized that “They targeted us.” Viewers understood that he did not mean Hamas.
When the BBC voiceover mentioned that “Israel has denied it was responsible for this,” it was only as a set-up for a distraught Palestinian mother to immediately parry: “Then who fired it? I ran outside and found my daughters. If the Israelis didn’t do it, who did? Did my daughters launch the rocket?”
No. But Palestinian fighters did. And if the BBC journalists responsible for this segment were more concerned with professional reporting, they would have, and could have, come closer to providing their viewers with the truth.