Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Part 1: Crossing Erez - Another Gazan smear of Israel from ABC’s McNeill

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Preface

The research that went into this analysis was extensive. Due to the unusual length of the material, this blog is split into two parts published separately.

The first part - the blog you are currently reading - includes an introduction, the apparent impetus for McNeill's story, McNeill's omissions, and failings in her probable source material, a contextual reminder of the security threat risk Israel has faced from Gazan patients and/or their companions and, finally, an exploration into the reasons why Israel might have refused an interview with McNeill on the matter.

The second part - which can be found here - is a comprehensive deconstruction of McNeill's story itself and a concluding section to sum up and tie together the two parts of the blog.

Introduction

It's not easy being an innocent Palestinian in Gaza. But ABC's Middle East Correspondent Sophie McNeill's selective reporting - which downplays or ignores stories or narratives that can't be somehow blamed on Israel - isn't doing them any favours.

The plight of Gazans is a product of their leadership's making. The territory is ruled by Hamas - a morally bankrupt terror group that has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into rockets and tunnels to use against Israeli civilian targets while letting the people of Gaza languish in poverty and with substandard infrastructure, even using innocent civilians as human shields in times of war (itself a war crime).

Hamas runs summer camps that are used to indoctrinate Palestinian kids to kill Israelis and as training grounds for Hamas' next war against Israel. Hamas has stolen outright or bought off the black market tons of cement intended for reconstruction of houses and used them to build attack tunnels extending into Israeli border kibbutzim.

Meanwhile, Egypt - a country that by any reckoning bears a great deal of responsibility for the refugee crisis in Gaza through its role in attacking Israel in 1948 and its occupation of Gaza from 1948-1967 - has largely closed its own border with Gaza even to people in dire need of medical care.

(Palestinian refugees unfortunate enough to have fled to Egypt after 1948 and avoided being expelled from Egypt to Gaza continue to be treated abysmally, as this story from 2013 showed) 

This pertinent information doesn't get much attention from ABC's Middle East Correspondent Sophie McNeill. Instead, in McNeill's stories from Gaza - including her latest heartbreaking tale about child cancer victims in Gaza and their families that aired on Lateline on September 21 titled "The unintended victims of the decade-long blockade" - Hamas is given a pass for running a poor health care system. Egypt is given a pass for closing its border to medical cases. In this story, and indeed like virtually all stories McNeill has filed from Gaza, there is only one party held overwhelmingly responsible for all Palestinian grievances and that is Israel.

The apparent impetus for the story

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the timing for McNeill's story was likely spurred by a report released on September 6 by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Because this report is so important to understanding some of the deficiencies in McNeill's story, it's worthwhile quoting at length. I've put in red the sections that deal with the subtopic from the report McNeill honed in on and blue the sections that she ignored that might have put Israel in a more balanced light.

[OCHA report subhead: Decline in exits from Gaza for patients and their companions]
As a result of the fragmented health-care system in Gaza, the [Hamas-run, ed.] Ministry of Health (MoH) frequently refers patients who need specialized health care to more advanced facilities in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel. Although there has been an increase in the absolute number of approvals since 2012, the rate of approval for patient permit applications to travel via Erez crossing has declined steadily and more patients have faced denied or delayed access.

Israeli response to patient permit applications

As [the above chart] demonstrates, this trend has become more pronounced in 2016. In the first seven months, the Palestinian MoH district liaison office submitted 14,452 applications for Gaza patients requiring Israeli permits for advanced medical treatment outside Gaza. Only 70.4 per cent were approved, 6.8 per cent were denied and the remaining 22.8 per cent had no response, forcing patients to miss their appointments. Almost one-third of applicants were children under the age of 18 and 15.7 per cent were over 60 years of age. Some 45.6 per cent of all applicants were female.
Restrictions on companions have also increased in 2016 after the Israeli authorities required strict security clearance for adult companions up to the age of 55, rather than up to 35 years old as previously. This has increased difficulties, especially if the patient is a young child, in finding a first degree relative required as a companion. Of the 15,434 applications for patient companions submitted in 2016, only 60.4 per cent were approved, 11.2 per cent were denied and 28.5 per cent were pending.

Israeli responses to patient companion applications

When a companion is rejected and patients have to find an alternative companion, the security process can take up to three weeks. In May the Israeli authorities lowered the restriction on female companions to those aged 45. However, data from the past two months do not show a significant improvement in access for companions [see above chart].

McNeill's omissions, and failings in her probable source material

As shown above, the OCHA report had some positive information in there that McNeill could have included in her report, but didn't.

Such as:

  • Denials of patient companion applications were down in July, the most recent month data was available.
  • In May, Israel lowered the age of female companions to 45 down from 55. (While the OCHA report did go on to claim the percentage of overall approvals did not increase as a result after this shift, it didn't suggest that Israel wasn't honouring its new, more lenient policy and the lack of increase in approvals may be due to some unknown factor.)

And, most importantly:

  • There has been an increase in the absolute number of approvals since 2012.

Now, before we move on, let's look at some important data missing from the OCHA report:

  • The OCHA graph has a section on delayed approvals but it doesn't actually say how long an approval has to take to be considered delayed.
  • The OCHA report says that delayed approvals can take a maximum of three weeks to be processed, but it doesn't say what the typical delay is or how common a long delay is.
  • The OCHA report doesn't take into account the impact of Egypt's long-term decision to close Rafah crossing for weeks at a time, closing off the option for many Gazans for medical care in Cairo and increasing the workload for Israeli medical liaisons.

And, most importantly:

  • The OCHA report: 
    • Doesn't factor in how many requests for medical treatment in Israel are bogus. There is a rampant black market trade of fraudulent doctor referrals to Israel and the West Bank. This phenomenon was reported on in a feature story in The New York Times last year. More recently, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh exposed the depth of the fraud involving medical permits in a piece he wrote for the Gatestone Institute on September 21.
    • Doesn't consider the security situation facing Israel whereby terror groups based in Gaza may try to gain entry to Israel and the West Bank through a fraudulent medical referral or companion request.

Furthermore, in her Lateline report, like in the OCHA report itself, McNeill confuses viewers by conflating the percentage of ALL companion refusals for patients of all ages with the refusals of companions for children and infants. There is a huge moral gulf between refusing companions for capable adults and children. This point will be expanded upon in the deconstruction section (Part 2) of this blog.

Security threat risk from patients and/or their companions

McNeill's story omitted key information that would have helped ABC viewers understand why Israel is so careful about who they let into Israel - unfortunately even when it comes to patients with serious illnesses - and naturally their companions.

For example, in 2005, a 21-year-old Gazan university student, Wafa Samir Ibraim Bas, was given a permit by Israel to go to Beersheba's Soroka Hospital for some tests. She was caught at Erez crossing with 10 kilograms of explosives. Upon discovery of the bomb, she attempted to detonate the charge at the border crossing, but failed.

Ynet reported: "During her interrogation, the would-be bomber said she was sent by the Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades. The group sought to utilise the humanitarian permits issued to the woman and instructed her to carry out the attack at the hospital, she said."

On June 20, 2005, a story about the same incident by Jerusalem Post reporter Margot Dudkevitch went further into the deplorable tactic used by Palestinian terror groups of using medical permits as a means to enter Israel to launch terror attacks:

Several examples in which Palestinians took advantage of Israel's humanitarian assistance to launch attacks include the arrest of a Hamas fugitive in Ramallah in March [2005]. The fugitive, a resident of Gaza, succeeded in entering the West Bank on the pretext that he was a possible kidney donor. He had planned to launch a suicide bomb attack in Israel.
In December [2004], security forces arrested Hamad Abu Lahiya in Bakka al Gharbiya. Abu Lahiya , a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza admitted to investigators that he was recruited by the Hamas in Gaza and was to carry out a suicide bomb attack in Israel. He said that he succeeded in entering Israel after showing false papers to officials at the Erez crossing, which stated he was suffering from cancer and required treatment in Israel.
In December [2004], security forces arrested Hassan Tom and Mohammed Jiaror at the Rafah international border crossing. Both had been recruited by the Fatah Al Aksa Brigades in Gaza. Tom used false papers showing he required hospital treatment in Israel. He was to have planted bomb on the railway tracks near Netanya and blown up a train. He was also ordered to murder an Israeli citizen and bury the body so that Fatah operatives in Gaza could demand the release of security prisoners in exchange for the Israeli's return. Jiaror was arrested a week before Tom at the Rafah crossing.

(While Dudkevitch's complete story has been relegated over the years to the Jerusalem Post's paid archives, a copy of the story fortuitously happened to have been posted to a website in 2005 and can still be accessed freely here. The story must be seen as essential reading in order to put McNeill's story into its full context.)

Uncooperative Israelis?

McNeill says at the end of her story that COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined her request for an on-camera interview about the issue of parental accompaniment of Gazan children to Israeli and West Bank hospitals. In and of itself, this was hardly surprising.

It is well over a year since McNeill started filing stories from Israel and the Palestinian territories and Israeli officials are undoubtedly familiar enough with her portfolio of stories on Gaza, which have been anything but impartial.
Israeli media liaisons know from experience how hostile reporters can use the very phrasing of their questions themselves to manipulate an interview as they see fit.

Nothing prevented McNeill from submitting specific questions to COGAT or the Foreign Ministry by email about the individual cases she called attention to in her story. She does not say she did this and there is no evidence to suggest she did so.

As a result, this analysis of McNeill's story takes the position that McNeill apparently didn't send specific questions about the cases she raised in her story to COGAT.

Furthermore, unless (at the time of the interview request) McNeill sent COGAT and the Foreign Ministry some advance questions regarding the claims of the Palestinians she included in her story, we can be certain that they would have been unable to provide answers for those claims during the interview. Had McNeill asked them about the claims during the interview, the best they could have responded is, "we'll have to look into it and get back to you". Such is the nature of television interviews.

Ahron Shapiro

The deconstruction of McNeill's Lateline story and the two-part blog's conclusion appear in Part 2 of this blog.

Update: This blog was updated on October 7 to include a link to Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh's outstanding recent investigative report into fraud and corruption regarding medical permits from Gaza into Israel and the West Bank.

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