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Western media mistakes pour fuel on the Middle Eastern fire

Oct 20, 2023 | Oved Lobel

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This week, the Western media spectacularly damaged its own credibility when it comes to reporting on Israel. Individual journalists, as well as the media outlets for which they work, must be held accountable for the political, social and physical damage their mindless amplification of terrorist propaganda has caused worldwide.

Over the past two days, far too many Western media organisations appeared to uncritically accept as indisputable fact a claim that Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza, killing up to 500 Palestinian civilians. The sole source? The Gaza Health Ministry. That is, Hamas. The same Hamas whose officials continue to claim that they didn’t kill any civilians on October 7 despite broadcasting and livestreaming the slaughter themselves! Not to mention that their captured plans explicitly spell out their goal “to kill as many people as possible”.

Arab regimes, including those allegedly friendly with Israel like the UAE, piled on with condemnations that helped rile the region up, as did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the alleged incident was “the latest example of Israeli attacks devoid of the most basic human values”.

Riots erupted across the Middle East as thousands tried to storm various Western and Israeli embassies and consulates. An ancient synagogue in Al Hammah, Tunisia was destroyed by a large mob while their autocratic regime did nothing to intervene. Similar scenes transpired in Turkiye, where thousands tried to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul and large-scale protests and riots continue across the country. There was a spate of antisemitic incidents across the West, as well, including rioting and an attempt to firebomb a synagogue – which also functions as a community centre, kindergarten and high school – in Berlin.

Except it was all a lie, from top to bottom.

Video, photographic and radar evidence quickly emerged from multiple sources, including a live Al Jazeera broadcast, showing that a rocket fired from a civilian area in Gaza and meant to hit a civilian area in Israel had misfired and fallen onto the hospital. (update: A New York Times visual investigation on Oct. 24 concluded that the projectile visible in the live broadcast was not related to the explosion and was very likely a Tamir interceptor fired by Iron Dome, a conclusion other open-source analysts have reached, as well)

Only not exactly, because as soon as photographic and video evidence was released, it became clear that the rocket had actually fallen on the parking lot next to the hospital, while the hospital itself was largely undamaged. As for fatalities, there may or may not be “hundreds”, including displaced persons located near the hospital. One European official estimated 50 or less, while US intelligence estimates between 100-300. There is no concrete evidence to verify the death toll, apart from Hamas’ claims. Despite this, many media outlets are still citing it without any caveats.

In an effort to prove the rocket that hit the hospital car park did not emanate from its territory, Israel released an intercepted audio recording of two Hamas operatives discussing the incident and pinning the blame on the Islamist terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Israel said PIJ had fired a barrage of rockets at Israel from a cemetery near the hospital. As US Senator Chris Murphy asserted after a White House briefing, “the intelligence is definitive that this was not an Israeli operation.”

Historically, there has been a high failure rate of rockets that were intended to hit Israeli targets but which fell back into Gaza, killing and injuring Palestinian civilians.  AIJAC has previously written about this phenomenon. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) estimates that since the war began on Oct. 7, at least 450 rockets have fallen back into Gaza, causing unknown numbers of casualties.

Following the overwhelming evidence that a rocket was responsible for the carnage, were any corrections, retractions or apologies issued by Western media outlets? No, and none of the Middle Eastern leaders or Western politicians who were quick to condemn Israel have reversed course, either. Despite some headline changes, most outlets have doubled down, continuing to merely present the claims of both sides as if they were equally valid. Yet the evidence is overwhelmingly that Hamas lied. Those media organisations that continue to “he said, she said” this story, like the ABC, are also guilty by omission of journalistic malpractice, leaving viewers with the impression that there is some doubt as to what actually occurred.

None of this is particularly surprising, unfortunately, and recalls the New York Times front-page blood libel from the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas and Islamic Jihad entitled “They Were Only Children.” That piece was so poorly sourced and lacking in basic context that it should more properly be considered an emotional propaganda hit, not a news investigation. A comprehensive criticism of that dangerous farce can be read here. At least the so-called “paper of record” is consistent in its inability to report fairly and professionally on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Happy to rely on Hamas as their sole source in order to promote an egregious libel that has sent the Middle East spiralling, severely damaged the possibility of Saudi-Israel normalisation and may tip the entire region into a bloody war, these same journalists have suddenly become overly cautious about trusting the persuasive visual and audio evidence presented by the IDF and US intelligence agencies. There is an extremely dark undertone to this journalistic compulsion to regularly distrust and impugn information received from the Jewish state while often uncritically parroting terrorists.

As many others have noted, it was impossible for Hamas to have a casualty estimate immediately after the attack, so it should never have been cited by journalists. It takes days, and sometimes far longer, to count all the bodies from terrorist attacks, which is why Israel is still counting its dead. This credulousness also contrasts markedly with weeks of wrangling over whether babies had been beheaded by Hamas, and if so, how many.

This pernicious need to insert false balance when there is none, rather than simply reporting the truth, has hollowed out Western journalism as an institution, and nowhere is this phenomenon worse than when the media reports on Israel.

This same “Gaza Health Ministry” – Hamas – that lied about the entire incident and just made up casualty numbers on the spot is incidentally the sole source for Palestinian casualties overall, figures which also continue to be uncritically cited by Western media outlets as if they were real.

It doesn’t matter to a lot of Western journalists what the actual breakdown of terrorists vs. civilians is, or whether these numbers are entirely fabricated and perhaps not even a ballpark figure. That would be to care about reporting the truth and basic context, an obligation far too many journalists ditch when it comes to Israel.

Instead, these journalists indulge in a perverse and childish numbers game, juxtaposing Palestinian casualty numbers – that Hamas has either dramatically inflated or made up, and which include terrorist operatives – with Israeli ones, to ensure their readers or audience understands who the bad guy really is.

Of course, the well-documented fact that Hamas and its sister terrorist organisations use hospitals as headquarters and store weapons in and under civilian infrastructure, including UN schools and mosques; fire rockets from civilian areas; and have a massive military tunnel network honeycombing all the residential areas of Gaza with entrances in civilian homes, means many civilians will likely die or be injured in legitimate strikes.

Hamas has turned most of Gaza into a military target with the intention of maximising Palestinian fatalities. Thankfully, due to good intelligence, precision weapons and prior warnings and evacuations, Israel has managed to circumvent Hamas’ strategy to an extent, though Palestinian civilians are still inevitably killed. However, even with Hamas’ made-up casualty statistics, it is clear few have been killed relative to what one might expect given the intensity of the strikes and the destruction evident in footage.

One might hope the hospital travesty would see an end to Western journalists relying on Hamas as their primary source for stories and casualty counts in Gaza. But as we watch media outlets continue to push the lie via false balance, don’t expect to read any headlines proclaiming “Palestinian terrorists kill scores of Palestinian civilians in failed attempt to murder Israeli civilians.” That, after all, would be the truth.

The last few years have seen an explosion of moral panic over the dangers of misinformation and disinformation. Yet it’s quite clear when it comes to Israel that many Western journalists are great purveyors of both, and seem constitutionally incapable of accurately reporting on the country, from the broader context down to basic details.

Repeated media mistakes and examples of unprofessionalism – and the lack of accountability for those guilty of the latter – are only further damaging the already tenuous public trust in a decaying institution, which nonetheless remains vital for the functioning of Democracy.

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