Gaza, NGOs and the dynamics of untruth

By the time press allegations against Israel are disproved, it’s usually too late for the country’s reputation

By Alex Brummer, April 2, 2009

Just as it looked as if the worst of the press coverage of Israel’s Gaza campaign was over and the media had moved on, along comes a fresh charge sheet. Israel, according to the reports, engaged in all manner of war crimes, using Palestinian children as human shields, targeting medics and hospitals, and making “reckless” use of white phosphorous.

All of this on top of the many stories reporting the alleged testimony of Israeli soldiers who engaged in what the Telegraph described as “wanton destruction of property” and mistaken shootings of Palestinian women and children. The alacrity with which the British media have taken up the cudgels against Israel, but chosen to minimise charges that during the conflict Hamas executed at least 24 Palestinian men, provides a sharp contrast.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza campaign, the press and media focused on the scale of the destruction. This narrative was then interrupted for a short while by stories of wrongdoing by Hamas. These included postings on Palestinian websites of alleged Hamas atrocities against Fatah supporters; the hoarding of humanitarian aid supplies by Hamas; and the attempted smuggling of aid monies out of Gaza via the Egyptian border. Most of these reports barely made the British press, let alone commanded the headlines in the manner of alleged Israeli wrongdoing.

The first batch of recent stories, which appeared in all the major titles, focused on what the Guardian described as “striking testimony”, in which soldiers admitted shooting civilians “sometimes under orders from officers”. The material first surfaced in Israeli papers Ma’ariv and Haaretz, and was picked up by papers around the world, including the New York Times.

The NYT now acknowledges that the reports may not have been as authentic as first believed. In particular, it has reported that the most dramatic of the soldier statements, the account of a killing of a woman and two children, may owe more to urban myth than reality.

One IDF officer is quoted as saying “I am not saying nothing bad happened. I have heard about cases where people were shot where they shouldn’t have shot and houses where they shouldn’t have been destroyed.” But, he added, the orders given to soldiers were entirely in the opposite direction.

The soldiers’ stories, which are under investigation by the army’s advocate general, seem to have been taken as a green light in the press to unsheathe more accusations.

The common thread binding these charges together is that they are largely being made by non-governmental organisations working on the ground in Gaza. An “investigation” by the Guardian breezed pass the Amnesty International probe into Hamas killings and focused on allegations of Israeli abuse. It quoted Dani Filc, chairman of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, as saying there had been “a stark decline in IDF morals concerning the Palestinian population”.

A report in the Independent cited a Human Rights Watch report that on January 15, Israel fired phosphorous shells on or near the UN Works and Relief Agency compound where 700 civilians were sheltering. The Indy report noted, however, that the use of white phosphorus “is not banned by international law”.

An enduring problem for reporters in the region is the unreliability of many of the NGOs, which seem to regard unfiltered material provided by witnesses on the ground as holy writ. The reality is that much of what happens in a war zone is fuzzy and most of the allegations do not hold up when subjected to independent scrutiny. Unfortunately, by the time the picture becomes clearer it is often too late to prevent damage to Israel’s reputation.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 1:58pm, April 2 2009