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ABC story misrepresents shoddy HRW report, even as it hypes it

Jul 30, 2021 | Allon Lee

Human Rights Watch has long been a leader of the coalition of numerous powerful NGOs targeting Israel (Photo: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock.com)
Human Rights Watch has long been a leader of the coalition of numerous powerful NGOs targeting Israel (Photo: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock.com)

If it wasn’t bad enough that Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued yet another shoddy and poorly researched anti-Israel report, an ABC online article by reporter Sowaibah Hanifie managed to make that shoddy report seem more balanced than the ABC’s poor effort.

AIJAC’s deconstruction of the many flaws in the shoddy and shallow HRW report  – which focused on three alleged Israeli airstrikes on Gaza (one was almost certainly a Hamas rocket that fell short) during the latest Hamas initiated war – can be read here.

But the remarkable achievement of the ABC story is that in addition to hyping this slipshod report, the story misrepresented international law, and essentially removed any reference to the Israeli side of what happened in the three incidents, even though the HRW report did include this information.

The ABC story (July 27) said HRW “found there was no evidence military targets were in the vicinity, and that residents were not informed before at least one attack.”

Hanifie then incorrectly claimed that “under international humanitarian law, warring parties can target only military objectives and must take precautions to minimise harm to civilians, including by providing warning of a planned attack.”

This is incorrect.

As the veteran US pro-Israel media monitoring organisation CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis) pointed out in relation to Hanifie’s story, “International law does not require warning of a planned attack in all cases, but rather, only when practicable.”

This is not just the partisan view of a pro-Israel organisation saying so.

CAMERA noted that it is the position of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which quotes from Australia’s Law of Armed Conflict Manual (2006) that:

When a planned attack is likely to affect the civilian population, those making the attack are required to give, if practicable, effective advance warning of the attack to the authorities or civilian population. This requirement must obviously be applied in a commonsense manner in light of all other factors. If the proposed action is likely to be seriously compromised by a warning then there is no requirement to provide any warning.

The HRW report even grudgingly admitted this, writing that “under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks.” [emphasis added]

The important qualifier “when possible” did make it into the ABC article by Hanifie – but only as an Israeli claim made in the context of the article’s only attempt at balance, which consisted of the following phrase: “Israeli military said it exclusively struck military targets, assessed potential collateral damage, and made an effort to reduce harm to uninvolved individuals including, when possible, giving them prior warning.” [emphasis added]

By omitting either “practicable”, “feasible” or “when possible” in the explanation of what international law actually says, the ABC article misled readers about the actual laws of armed conflict in a way that made Israel look automatically guilty.

While the article elaborated on two of the three incidents in the HRW report, its only attempt at giving Israel’s side of the story was the very general and tokenistic statement noted above.

In fact, HRW’s report included summaries of Israel’s explanations of what happened in each of the three specific instances, even if these explanations were ultimately rejected on the weak grounds that Palestinian witnesses in Hamas-ruled Gaza denied the Israeli accounts.

This included Israel insisting that the May 10 incident in the report was caused by an errant rocket fired by a group in Gaza falling onto the al-Masri family home, not Israeli action, and that a strike on the Al-Shati refugee camp on May 15 followed reports that “a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials [were] in an apartment used as terror infrastructure” at that site.

It is completely unreasonable that the Israeli explanations for what happened in the two incidents highlighted in the ABC story were not included in it – especially given this information was available in the HRW report.

CAMERA said it asked the ABC to correct the story but, at this point, the request appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

The ABC’s failure to amend the story appears to go against its own editorial guidelines on how to respond when a complaint is received in the first instance:

3.1  Acknowledge and correct or clarify, in an appropriate manner as soon as reasonably practicable:
a   significant material errors that are readily apparent or have been demonstrated; or
b  information that is likely to significantly and materially mislead.

Yet certainly on the international law issue, the case that the story contained a “significant material error” that is “readily apparent or has been demonstrated” appears to be a slam dunk.

The refusal to correct the story, or add in extra details that will provide it with more balance, strengthens suspicions that the ABC might be tacitly implementing the demands made of media organisations in the recent Orwellian “dobetteronpalestine” petition. These include:

  • Consciously and deliberately make space for Palestinian perspectives, prioritising the voices of those most affected by the violence;
  • Avoid the ‘both siderism’ that equates the victims of a military occupation with its instigators;

While AIJAC is not aware of any evidence that Sowaibah Hanifie was a signatory to that petition, AIJAC does understand that Hanifie was one of six co-organisers of a pro-Gaza rally held in Adelaide during the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.

According to a Facebook page promoting the rally, one of its aims was to “raise awareness about the the [sic] genocide that has been taking place for so long.”

Normally, such activism might be construed as contrary to the ABC’s editorial policy covering potential conflicts of interest and common sense would suggest that another journalist without such clear conflicts of interest should be assigned to cover these types of stories.

However, if the ABC, or elements in the ABC, have effectively decided to adopt the petition’s recommendations then it becomes entirely moot, because, as item four on the list of demands states:

  • Respect the rights of journalists and media workers to publicly and openly express personal solidarity with the Palestinian cause without penalty in their professional lives.

But then as former Australian newspaper commentator Nick Cater told Sky News on July 9, in practice, the ABC had already often appeared to be avoiding reporting both sides for years.

Maybe this is just another example of that at work.

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