Media myths being spread during the current Israel-Hamas conflict
May 16, 2021 | Allon Lee and Ahron Shapiro
Whilst nothing should detract from the utterly pointless loss of life and the hundreds of injuries on both sides that have followed senseless acts of terror by Palestinians over the past week, it is concerning how many myths and half-truths are being broadcast and printed by Australian media outlets during the current conflict.
Below are some of the more egregious and outrageous allegations repeatedly being made.
MYTH – Plans by Israel to evict hundreds of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah are what caused this violent conflict
The upsurge in violence on the Palestinian side has seen claims made by journalists and talking heads that all the conflict that has erupted is entirely due to Palestinian rage about the threat of eviction to Palestinians living in houses in the Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah – a suburb in eastern Jerusalem that Israel captured in the defensive war of 1967. The strong implication is that these evictions are the result of Israeli government policies.
ABC Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner speaking to ABC TV “The World” May 10 2021 said:
“for many Palestinians the issue of, of the planned evictions of Palestinians from east Jerusalem really goes to the heart of what we know as the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict”.
Joyner repeated it again the next morning on ABC Radio “AM”, saying:
“after beginning weeks ago in the form of protests against planned evictions by Jewish settlers of Palestinian families in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.”
Yet in the Times of Israel on May 12, Palestinian peace activist and Jerusalem resident Bassem Eid, who is a former researcher for the anti-Netanyahu NGO B’Tselem, explained the truth about Sheikh Jarrah – including that this is entirely a private dispute, affecting a total of four properties, affecting less than 40 residents – with no Israeli government involvement. Eid wrote:
The pretext for the latest missile barrage and social media incitement is Sheikh Jarrah, where a long-running legal dispute was scheduled for a court hearing. This had been a private matter between Jews who have an old property deed from the 1800s and the residents of four homes who have lived there for decades and do not want to pay rent. It is the kind of situation that should be handled by a local municipal court. This could happen in any other country and there would be no public interest. But this is Jerusalem, so you have to view everything in the context of the political situation. You also have to ask yourself: who stands to gain from political violence right now?
MYTH – The current crisis is a cynical ploy by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure he remains in charge
If the message coming from the ABC is to be believed, Eid’s question of “who stands to gain from political violence right now?” would be Israeli PM Netanyahu by a country mile.
Unable to form a coalition government and forced to give the opposition parties an opportunity to do so, a desperate Benjamin Netanyahu has contrived a confrontation with Palestinians to swing Israeli parliamentarians and voters behind his leadership.
The ABC gave university lecturer Lana Tatour three opportunities to make this claim with no balance offered or probing of the allegation.
On ABC News Radio May 11 2021 university lecturer Lana Tatour said :
“Netanyahu has a clear interest to escalate the situation, uh, in Palestine. We are now in the days after the Israeli elections where Netanyahu is trying to form a government and is facing clear opposition and alternative from other forces in the parliament trying to prevent, uh, the forming of a government that he is not heading. He is escalating the situation in a tactic that he used before. So actually this escalation plays politically in Netanyahu’s favour… So he is hoping this will play in his role and he’ll be able to hang on to power.”
On ABC TV “Mornings” (May 11), Tatour was even more definitive:
“What we are seeing now is an attempt, deliberate attempt also by Netanyahu to escalate the situation in order to prevent an alternative government uh from being formed. So this is a classic Netanyahu move, if you will, in which escalating the situation to uh to stay in power and so Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel now.”
The message that Netanyahu manipulated the crisis was heard on ABC Radio “PM” (May 14) when an Israeli woman was interviewed, saying:
“I think the current situation is very much serving Netanyahu’s interests It’s not the first time that we’ve been in a situation where a coalition that he led was about to break up or where there was a we were about to go to elections or in some way his you know, more than decade long rule was under threat. And all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere there was an outbreak of violence.”
On ABC Radio “AM” (May 15) controversial BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen laid out the claim in great detail, adding “I’m not saying that Netanyahu made this happen”.
The claim the crisis is a cheap ploy was perfectly captured by this provocative cartoon on the Sydney Morning Herald editorial page on May 14.
In order to believe Netanyahu was behind the escalation, you would have to assume he can control Hamas’ actions and that Hamas would want to keep Netanyahu in power. You would also have to believe that Netanyahu’s arch-rival Defence Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, who calls for Netanyahu’s ouster virtually every day, and controls the Israeli security forces, would go along with a supposed Netanyahu escalation just to keep Netanyahu in power.
Bassem Eid answered his own question of who is responsible for the current situation – blaming it totally on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
According to Eid:
“After Palestinian PM Mahmoud Abbas canceled highly anticipated elections, Hamas simply saw an opportunity it could not pass up, exploiting the Sheikh Jarrah situation and an already tense environment during the holy day of Leylat Al Qadr and Jerusalem Day. Hamas is currently running a social media campaign calling for Palestinians to incite violence during demonstrations in Jerusalem and elsewhere. They are encouraging Palestinian youth to throw their lives away by hurling rocks and makeshift bombs at police.
Hamas-led riots outside of the Al Aqsa Mosque prove that Israeli police are not at fault for the dangers preventing Muslims from praying. Hamas has incited mobs and provoked violence with the intention of framing Israel for ethnic cleansing…
Most significantly, Hamas leaders ordered hundreds of rockets to be launched in the general direction of major Israeli cities. Many of them did this from the comfort of their luxury villas in Doha, Damascus, or elsewhere, knowing full well they themselves are safe from any blowback. It is important to remember that Hamas’s penchant for murder is almost matched by their blundering incompetence, which is partly the reason one out of every three of their rockets crashes into Gaza where the only possible victims are Palestinian. They also apparently shelled Abu Ghosh, an ancient Arab village.
On the ABC, countering the claim that Netanyahu had engineered a crisis was the Washington Post’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Steve Hendrix, who told Newsradio’s Thomas Oriti on May 14 that, while the escalation would delay the effort to form an alternative government that would remove Netanyahu from office, the idea that Netanyahu engineered the escalation as a conspiracy theory was “outrageous and outlandish”.
“You can imagine the conspiracists are alive with that the idea that he may have orchestrated this,” Hendrix said, “there’s some pretty outrageous and outlandish theories about that.”
In Israel, the journalist Ben Caspit, a Netanyahu biographer known for his highly critical view of the Likud leader, wrote in Al-Monitor that the progression of the escalation does not support the theory of orchestration, but rather shows a combination of contributing factors that Netanyahu had no control over:
“Conspiracy theories are rife. Some argue that Netanyahu deliberately engineered the escalation of tensions in Jerusalem, using his close aide and henchman, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who, in turn, activated his newly appointed Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai.
“But how did events unfold? Tensions began last month in the predominantly Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, sparked by a prolonged legal dispute between Jews seeking to evict Palestinians from their homes, a move backed by a court ruling. The tension spread from there to the most volatile flashpoint on the face of the earth — Al-Aqsa Mosque. The bizarre police decision last month to place metal barriers near the Damascus Gate to the Old City in order to disrupt the traditional Ramadan month evening gatherings at the site, generated nightly clashes, at first in the gate area and subsequently at Al-Aqsa compound. Then came the Hamas ultimatum.
“Each year on May 10, on Jerusalem Day, Israeli Jews celebrate the unification of the city after taking over its eastern part in the 1967 Six-Day War, 54 years ago. For the first time ever, an external force — Hamas — managed to disrupt the celebrations, including the flag parade that many Muslims view as an annual provocation, dominating the regional agenda and pushing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the farthest sidelines.”
MYTH – Israeli forces attacked worshippers at the Al Aqsa mosque
Some media outlets have uncritically reported allegations that Israeli police have violated the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount by entering it to attack peaceful worshippers engaged in prayer there.
On ABC News Radio (May 11), University of New South Wales lecturer in global development Lana Tatour claimed that:
“at al-Aqsa Mosque with Israel’s sieging, sieging Muslim worshipers during prayer. Attacking with stun grenades, rubber bullets”
Later that day, ABC News Radio host Rachel Mealey repeated Tatour’s claim, saying “she says it came to a head yesterday when Israeli forces entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque one of Islam’s holiest sites” but offered no balance nor an attempt to provide any context.
Earlier that same day, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald also made the same claim (though this appears to now have been changed online):
“On Monday morning (Israel time), 300 Palestinians were injured in a police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.”
FACT – Israeli police only responded after being attacked
The effort to portray peaceful worshippers under attack from belligerent Israelis is belied by the actual sequence of events – Palestinians throwing stones and bottles and launching fireworks from within the mosque at police and Jewish worshippers at the Western wall nearby and Israeli security forces then responding.
Channel 7’s European correspondent Sarah Greenhalgh reported this accurately on the 6pm news bulletin from May 11 2021:
“From the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Palestinians threw stones. Israeli police responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets.”
The broadcast footage even showed Palestinian women throwing stones.
But as this picture below – posted by a Twitter user from December 2017 shows – Palestinians have a long track record of stockpiling rocks and weapons within Islam’s third holiest shrine – which it is claimed is dedicated only to peaceful religious worship.
A report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on May 11 quoted an Israeli police spokesperson explaining that:
“We did everything we could to avoid breaking into the mountain, until it reached a stage of risking human life at the Western Wall and risking the lives of police officers,” police officials said yesterday. “We gave them three different opportunities to pray, but each time they threw stones again and set fire to the police station on the mountain. We did not enter the mosques and did not disturb those who were inside them to pray. There were attempts to calm down, but they did not succeed.”
MYTH – Israeli air strikes on Gaza are vindicative and indiscriminate, and are killing many by attacking high-rise apartment buildings
A repeated claim in the media is that Israeli air strikes that have reduced buildings in Gaza to rubble are deliberately targeting civilians.
According to a CNN sourced report on Channel 9’s website:
“Ashraf al-Qidra, the Palestinian health ministry spokesman in Gaza…said Israel had deliberately targeted civilian homes and crowded residential neighbourhoods, adding that 43 per cent of the victims of strikes in Gaza were children and women. The Israeli military says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties when it is carrying out attacks.”
This claim can be found even in a fairly well-balanced report such as Channel 9’s 6pm TV news bulletin on May 13 where reporter Mark Burrows said:
“At times the Israeli response looked disproportionate. In Gaza, an entire 13 story block of apartments was levelled by Israeli fighter jets. Israel released this aerial shot of the strike and claimed the building was used by Hamas militants. It’s unclear if any civilians were killed.”
Whilst it is obvious that civilians have been tragically killed in these air strikes, the overwhelming numbers of those dead have been Hamas members.
However, we do know that no civilian residents died in most of the several Israeli attacks on high-rise buildings that housed Hamas offices, like the one mentioned above, that feature so frequently in TV news coverage.
Moreover, what Burrows and the CNN report on Nine’s website ignored was the fact that Israel has a well-established policy of giving warnings to residents of buildings targeted for destruction and in the vicinity to vacate.
This week was no different.
Israeli media organisation “Palestinian Media Watch” which monitors Palestinian media noted on May 14 that Palestinian Authority TV admitted civilians in Gaza received a heads up to leave buildings before Israeli jets attacked.
According to the Palestinian Authority TV reporter:
“When they were informed that this tower will be attacked… the site was completely evacuated. The block, the street, the civilian buildings, and the residential buildings in the area – completely – including children and women, and we saw it…
The guard who works in this tower was warned through a phone call from the Israeli Security Agency. They told him word by word: ‘Evacuate the tower and tell them that this tower will be attacked. It will be attacked any moment.’ After this conversation this tower was attacked about two hours later.”
[Official PA TV, May 11, 2021]
PMW also noted that, Israel TV channel Kan11 got hold of a video of the guard during his actual conversation with the Israeli Security Services. In the conversation, he is heard repeating the instructions he received from Israel:
“How much, how much time do you need?… At least two or three hours? No one should come in? In other words, [I should] go to the tower, go to the tower and not let anyone come in?”
[Twitter account of Israeli TV Kan11’s reporter Nurit Yohanan, May 11, 2021]
This also applies to the Jala Tower Building in Gaza destroyed on May 14, which is used by both international media outlets and by Hamas military intelligence. There was ample warning given and there are no reports of casualties from that attack.
MYTH – Israel always fires first, forcing Hamas to respond
Coverage of the violence over the past week in several outlets, including the ABC, has established a false narrative that suggests Israel has been targeting Gaza and then Hamas is responding.
An example of this was seen on May 12 when ABC Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner’s report on ABC TV “7pm News” noted that civilians in Gaza were warned to evacuate the 13-storey building that Israel hit and that “no one was physically hurt”.
Viewers then saw Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh threatening “if they want to escalate the resistance is ready”.
After this Joyner said: “in retaliation Hamas and other militant groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israel”.
But 10 hours prior to Joyner’s 7pm report, he gave ABC viewers a very different account of what happened on ABC TV “Mornings”, saying:
“On Monday, Hamas sent a volley of rockets into Israel towards southern parts of the country and also towards Jerusalem. Although there were no casualties, that was soon followed by retaliation from…the Israeli military who launched a number of airstrikes…On Monday, Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel essentially saying stand down your security forces in the Old City and in Sheikh Jarrah – the Jerusalem neighbourhood – or face the consequences and it seems that at 6 pm on Monday they came good on their threat and that’s when the first volley of rockets was sent into Israel”.
This was the correct sequence of events.
It is a mystery why the correct order of events became jumbled for the evening news.
Moreover, this muddying of the sequence of events that painted Israel as the aggressor was at play on ABC TV “7pm News” on May 11 with newsreader Tamara Oudyn highlighting a claim of “Nine children among those killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.”
The report from Joyner later in the bulletin started off with the confusing statement that:
“As explosions lit up the night sky over Gaza, Israeli airstrikes responded to a barrage of rockets fired from Palestinian militants”
What caused the “explosions” in the night sky over Gaza wasn’t clear? Were they Hamas rockets fired at Israel that Israel then responded to? However, at least he was reasonably clear that Israel was responding to Hamas.
SBS treated a Hamas rocket barrage on Tel Aviv as a response to Israeli attacks in Gaza in the first line of a story on May 12: “Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Israel’s economic hub Tel Aviv on Tuesday in retaliation for an Israeli strike.” (Headline has apparently since been changed).
What is unequivocally clear however, is that while Hamas may claim specific rocket barrages are a “response” to Israeli strikes in Gaza, this massive conflict began when Hamas publicly announced last Monday, May 10, that it would target Israel with rockets that afternoon unless Israel evacuated parts of Jerusalem – and then did so on a large scale. Israel responded by hitting Hamas targets in Gaza – then Hamas began saying its barrages were in response to Israel hitting targets in Gaza. Yet Hamas does not actually dispute that it attacked first on Monday, and the media should also be making this clear.
MYTH – Israeli airstrikes are solely responsible for the deaths of Gazan children
The tragic deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza during the current fighting has been a recurring theme in the Australian media coverage.
Unfortunately, much of that reporting has involved the largely uncritical regurgitation of health officials in Gaza – aka Hamas appointees – accusing Israel of killing children during air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
For example, on May 12 Nine Newspaper’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald made the deaths of Palestinian children a key feature of their coverage.
According to the Associated Press sourced story run in the print editions:
“Since sundown on Monday (yesterday AEST) when the cross-border fighting erupted, 24 Palestinians – including nine children – were killed in Gaza, most by air strikes, Gaza health officials said” [emphasis added].
As mentioned earlier, similarly, the lead in to ABC TV (Victoria) “7pm News” on May 11 included the newsreader highlighting a claim that “Nine children among those killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.”
Later in the bulletin, introducing a report on the increasing levels of violence, newsreader Tamara Oudyn was positioned in front of an inflammatory image that screamed dead children.
In reality, there is considerable evidence that has not been reported in the Australian media that some of the deaths were actually caused by rockets launched Hamas and other Islamist groups falling back into Gaza and killing Palestinians, including children.
Even some NGOs highly critical of Israel, such as Defence of Children International – Palestine (DCIP), contradicted the officials from the Hamas-run health department and acknowledged Israeli air strikes were not the cause of all the children killed:
“[Referring to an incident on May 10] around 6:05 p.m., initial investigations suggest a homemade rocket fired by a Palestinian armed group fell short and killed eight Palestinians, including two children. The rocket landed in Saleh Dardouna Street near Al-Omari Mosque in Jabalia, North Gaza, according to evidence collected by DCIP. Mustafa Mohammad Mahmoud Obaid, 16, was killed in the blast, and five-year-old Baraa Wisam Ahmad al-Gharabli succumbed to his injuries around 11 p.m. on May 10.
“Palestinian security sources and explosives experts indicated the cause of this explosion was a Palestinian armed group rocket that fell short. Another 34 Palestinian civilians were injured in the blast, including 10 children, according to DCIP’s documentation.”
In fact, Israeli spokespeople have said the incidence of rockets fired by Hamas falling back into Gaza is as high as 33 per cent.
A Sky News Australia report on May 11 quoted Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus on the issue of civilian casualties:
He could not confirm whether the civilian casualties in Gaza were the result of Israeli airstrikes and suggested they could be the consequence of misfired Hamas rockets.
“Thirty-three percent of the rockets fell short and exploded inside Gaza, an abnormally high misfire rate, maybe indicating poor quality,” Lt Col Conricus said.
“Hamas rockets are falling short and causing damage inside Gaza…. we know they are falling short because of our radar systems.”
For more on this, see a new AIJAC blog by Tzvi Fleischer and Oved Lobel on “The Palestinian victims of Hamas’ missiles.”