After shelling a Gaza school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), where Palestinian refugees were being sheltered, Israel immediately sought to blame Hamas for an attack that resulted in 16 people being killed and at least 200 people being wounded.
The Israeli military forces immediately claimed that “rockets launched by Hamas had landed in the Beit Hanoun area during fighting with its forces, and that those rockets may be responsible for the deaths.” Then, a spokesperson for the military said it did not know if the school was hit by a “stray shell” from the military or a “Hamas fire.” Then, the military indicated it had been coordinating with the UNRWA to evacuate the school, the UNRWA had given the Israeli military coordinates for the school and the military had “fired mortars in the area of the school.” The military additionally claimed Hamas had fired at the school, though no survivors had reported such fire.
It did not matter that there was no evidence to support Israel’s version of events. Major United States media outlets went along with what Israel’s military claimed, creating unjustified doubt about Israel’s responsibility for another horrific act. They vaguely, and without confirmed reporting, presented the deaths as the result of refugees caught in the “crossfire.”
First off, there were a few outlets that seemed to get the story right. NBC News’ Ayman Mohyeldin said on MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes, “The style and the type of the shelling was very consistent with what [UN officials] believe to be Israeli shelling of the area.” NBC News produced a report in which UNRWA director Robert Turner said the agency could not say with certainty but “initial indication would be that it came from Israeli forces.” And, although Israeli Defense Forces claim Hamas may have been using the school’s refugees as “human shields,” Turner said there were no militants and they had been strict about maintaining the shelter’s neutrality.
Importantly, the NBC News report noted that this was the fourth attack on a UN school in four days.
And NBC News’ Richard Engel made a good point in this tweet:
IDF suggests Hamas rocket/rockets hit school. it would mean five inaccurate rockets all hit a small location in rapid succession. likely?
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) July 24, 2014
CBS News’ went with the headline, “Israeli fire hits UN school in Gaza, killing 15.” The report included this sentence, “Survivors told CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen that they were warned that the school was targeted and they were preparing to leave when they say Israeli forces opened fire.”
But CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, the Associated Press and NPR were each outlets that chose to give weight to claims from Israel that could not be confirmed. They opted to ignore a report from The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont, one of the only reporters who went to the scene of the attack.
No Evidence of Debris from Palestinian Rockets
…Although missiles belonging to Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Gaza do sometimes fall short, there was no visible evidence of debris from broken Palestinian rockets in the school. The injuries and the number of fatalities were consistent with a powerful explosion that sent shrapnel tearing through the air, in some cases causing traumatic amputations.
The surrounding neighborhood bore evidence of multiple Israeli attacks, including smoke from numerous artillery rounds and air strikes. One building was entirely engulfed by flames…
The fact that there was no evidence of “debris from broken Palestinian rockets in the school” should have been a critical question broached or answered in US news reports. But outlets were so beguiled or distracted by what Israeli military forces were suggesting that they did not bother to produce journalism that advanced the story by addressing such critical questions.
New York Times: “The Source of the Blasts Was Unclear”
Multiple reports acknowledged that the UNRWA had been repeatedly asking for a window of time that staff and refugees could evacuate the school. The UNRWA apparently was not getting any answer. The Israeli military had confirmation just before the attack that people were being evacuated but shells were still fired by military forces.
Given this chain of events, one would think the US media would ask why Israel was shelling an area where it knew refugees were located. If the objective was not to shell and kill innocent civilians, why launch weapons that would result in terrible death and destruction?
The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who has developed a notorious representation for letting Israeli propaganda influence her coverage, and Ben Hubbard wrote, “The source of the blasts was unclear, setting off recriminations between Israelis and Palestinians over which side was responsible. People in the school reported three to five blasts and accused Israel of shelling them. Israel suggested that rockets fired by militants might have fallen short of their targets or that the school might have been hit with errant shells from either side in fighting nearby. The United Nations said it could not confirm the source of the blasts.”
Rudoren and Hubbard mentioned that Turner had been certain that previous instances of attacks on schools had come from Israeli forces. Then she proceeded to grant anonymity to an Israeli military official for this disinformation:
…An Israeli official who coordinates with international organizations said this week that he had provided military commanders with coordinates of 523 sensitive sites to avoid. He showed reporters a graphic with dates and times of rockets being launched from several such sites — including a mosque, a hospital and a playground — in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.
”It’s easy to blame us. ‘Why are you hitting that hospital?’ Why not blame them? Why are you launching from those sensitive places?” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military rules…
Forgetting Operation Cast Lead
What the New York Times reporters and others ignored is the history Israel has of shelling UNRWA compounds. On January 15, 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, Israel shelled a UNRWA compound in Gaza City with “high explosive and white phosphorous munitions.” The compound was sheltering 600 to 700 civilians and “contained a huge fuel depot,” according to the UN fact-finding mission which produced what is commonly referred to as “The Goldstone Report.”
During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces also shelled a junction nearby a UNRWA school that was “sheltering more than 1,300 people.” This prompted UNRWA director of operations in Gaza, John Ging, to declare, “There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized.”
Similar to claims made about the school attack, what the Israeli government maintained was that white phosphorous had been fired to “produce a smokescreen to protect Israeli forces from the Hamas anti-tank crews operating adjacent to the UNRWA headquarters.” And, “Despite the maintenance of a safety distance, some felt wedges and other components of the projectiles apparently landed in the compound after the release of felt wedges in the air. The IDF neither anticipated nor intended this outcome.”
The UN fact-finding mission rejected this propaganda:
…Those in the Israeli army who deploy white phosphorous, or indeed any artillery shells, are expertly trained to factor in the relevant complexities of targeting, including wind force and the earth’s curvature. They have to know the area they are firing at, possible obstacles in hitting the target and the other environmental factors necessary to ensure an effective strike. It is also clear that, having determined that it was necessary to establish a safety distance, the presence of the UNWRA installations was a factor present in the minds of those carrying out the shelling…
On July 22, the UNRWA Maghazi Preparatory Girls School, which had been sheltering 300 refugees, was shelled by Israeli forces. The next day when UNRWA officials returned to investigate what had happened, there was more shelling from Israeli forces, which endangered UN humanitarian workers and refugees again.
The New York Times editorial board actually wrote, “Israeli officials say they have taken pains not to harm civilians. They also say they did not target the Beit Hanoun school, suggesting that Hamas may have struck the facility by mistake. Surely, Israel has reason to take strong military action against the barrage of rockets on its territory and to destroy Hamas’s underground tunnels. Yet no one can be indifferent to the fact that innocents are paying an intolerable cost for being caught in the middle.”
One would be forgiven for thinking that the Times had paraphrased what Israelis spokespeople spent all of July 24 saying.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Fuels Blame Game
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer had the Israeli military’s chief propagandist, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, on air. Lerner informed Blitzer that for three days they had been trying to evacuate the area.
The obvious follow-up would have been why Israel needed to shell the area in and around the school and whether the attack could have waited, as the call to evacuate indicates Israel was playing some active role in planning violence that would endanger refugees. But Blitzer said, “So you’re investigating. The UN will investigate. I’m sure Hamas will investigate who is responsible for blowing up this UN school.”
Blitzer himself was actually later interviewed. He regurgitated official statements from the Israeli military for CNN viewers suggesting the Israeli military believed this was another instance where Hamas had used “civilian infrastructure and international symbols as human shields”
“They are saying that several Hamas rockets were launched and landed in that area around the school. They say they’re reviewing the incident but they are clearly suggesting that maybe — maybe this incident at that UNRWA school, that United Nations Relief Works Agency School, was the result of Hamas. This is the IDF statement,” Blitzer said.
Blitzer said Israel has “their own evidence” of what happened and they think it was Hamas, even though their statements included no mention of any evidence other than the claim that Hamas was fighting nearby the school. He then added, “This is an awful, awful incident and there’s going to be the blame game, there’s no doubt about that. Hamas will blame the Israelis and now it seems the Israelis are starting to blame Hamas.
“We’ll get more information. What will be critical will be eyewitness account, forensic evidence. They’ll be able to determine fairly soon if this rocket or artillery shell, whatever it was that landed in this building was launched by Hamas or launched by Israel. There will be experts on the scene. I’m sure they will be able to determine that including United Nations personnel who were there as well.”
The next morning, CNN had not bothered to check if any debris from Palestinian rockets had been found at the scene of the attack. Nor was it clear if they had bothered to ask one of their own reporters on the ground, Ben Wedeman, if he could confirm what type of weaponry had been used to strike the school.
If Israel Cannot Attack Without Killing Civilians, Should They Launch Them?
One broadcast journalist seemed to ask the key question that no one in the US media wanted to ask and that person was Jon Snow of British media outlet, Channel 4. Snow confronted Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Yigal Palmor.
JON SNOW: The difficulty is that you’ve proved once again that it is absolutely impossible to deliver a forensic attack on anything without immediately causing civilian casualties, particularly and amongst children. You’ll have seen the pictures of the children being taken away in ambulances. This is a complete disaster for Gaza and an even bigger disaster, in a way, for you. Because if you cannot do these forensic attacks, you must not do them. Surely, that is right?
PALMOR: Yes, the pictures are horrendous and they are heartbreaking. I certainly agree with you. I’m sorry. I keep hearing control in my ear. I don’t even know if I’m on air. But the pictures are horrendous and one needs to understand what is happening in Gaza. What is happening in Gaza is not what immediately meets the eye. You should show Hamas spokesmen going on Hamas TV and saying how they will distribute hand grenades to children and send them to fight Israelis. There are many other such occurrences where Hamas specifically states that they will use children to fight Israelis. They are taking the battlefield into civilian populated ares. This is why the level of civilian casualties is high. But, be that as it may, we believe that within the number of casualties the majority are armed gunman by Hamas.
SNOW: Let’s have an interview here, not a lecture. Let’s be perfectly clear here. I’ve been in Gaza for the last two days and I have to tell you that this is one of the most densely populated places that I have ever been. And everybody is in hiding. Everybody is taking shelter. People are sheltering in UN compounds and you know it. And if you’re taking the risk of bombing these compounds, you know for a certainty that the consequence will be that you will children? You will kill mothers and fathers? Why not stop? Stop now and start talking?
I met Palestinian after Palestinian after Palestinian, many of them Hamas supporters who want to talk, who want a truce and want a ceasefire. Why not talk?
Snow did not let Palmor get away with fabricating stories about what Hamas may be plotting in order to absolve itself of responsibility for Palestinian deaths. That is the skeptical and humane reaction journalists should have to anything any Israeli spokesperson has to say.
Israeli spokespeople have a proven record of lies, which “The Goldstone Report” on Operation Cast Lead clearly demonstrates. It requires these lies to continue to carry out its occupation and economic blockade of Gaza. And, by repeating Israeli military propaganda without question, US media make themselves complicit in the bloodshed Palestinians are suffering.
Watch Channel 4’s Jon Snow confront Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Yigal Palmor: