This is a pretty good example of how events in the Middle East get reported: last Monday, Israeli aircraft fired at armed terrorists in Beit Hanun, a town in Gaza near the border with Israel. Tragically, a mother and four of her children were killed when their house was struck by an explosive device. When the incident was initially reported, black and white hats were firmly in place. AFP headlined: “Four children among victims of Israeli strikes on Gaza.” AFP assigned responsibility for the children’s deaths as a matter of fact:
Four children, aged one to five, and their mother were among seven people killed by Israeli forces in Gaza Monday as Palestinian factions headed to Egypt for talks on a possible truce.
The four siblings — aged one, three, four and five — were killed when a missile hit their home in the town of Beit Hanun, and their mother died later of her wounds, doctors at the Kamal Radwan hospital said.
AFP quoted, without qualification or reservation, the account of the children’s father:
I left the house just moments before to look for one of my children. I heard the sound of the explosion,” said their 70-year-old father Ahmed Abu Maateq.
“They had been eating breakfast and my wife had been holding our youngest child in her hands,” he said as he looked down at the blood, flesh and spilled milk splashed across the wreckage.
His wife and six children were in the courtyard in their pyjamas when the missile slammed into the house, he said. The remaining two children were hospitalised.
“I hope to God that the same thing that happened to me happens to whoever fired that missile at my house, that what happened to my wife and children happens to his family,” Abu Maateq said, his eyes red with pain and anger.
Well into its account of the incident, AFP acknowledged that Israeli sources didn’t think they were responsible for the tragedy:
The Israeli army later said the explosion that killed the Abu Maateq family was the result of a strike on Palestinian militants carrying explosives.
“The IDF (army) targeted from the air two Palestinian gunmen” who were approaching soldiers “while carrying large bags on their backs,” the army said in a statement after conducting an inquiry into the incident.
“A big explosion erupted on the scene, following the attack against the two, indicating the presence of bombs and explosives in the gunmen’s bags,” it said.
But AFP went on to decisively refute the IDF’s position:
Palestinian witnesses disputed that account, insisting that the house was more than a kilometre from the scene of the clashes and that the explosion was caused by an Israeli missile fired by an aerial drone.
No armed men were killed or wounded in the explosion at the house, and an AFP correspondent who arrived at the scene shortly after the strike saw shrapnel from an Israeli missile amid the wreckage inside.
This last claim, which put the argument to rest as far as the AFP was concerned, is intriguing. Who was the “AFP correspondent” who arrived at the scene “shortly after the strike?” In all probability he was a Palestinian stringer. And how was he so sure that he saw “shrapnel from an Israeli missile?” One would think it would require an expert in military ordnance to identify the source of “shrapnel,” but AFP’s bare assertion offered nothing in support of its “correspondent’s” conclusion.
That was the end of the story as far as those who read AFP’s initial report were concerned: those heartless Israelis had murdered four more children.
On Friday, however, the IDF released the results of its own investigation into the incident:
A blast in northern Gaza that killed a Palestinian mother and her four children on Monday was not caused by the Israeli Air Force, a probe into the explosion conducted by the IDF Southern Command concluded on Friday.
According to the findings of the probe, four terrorists were spotted carrying weaponry and explosives on their backs. The IAF fire was on target and only hit the armed terrorists. As a result, secondary explosions occurred which destroyed the home and killed the mother and her children.
The IDF didn’t just assert these conclusions, it also released its video of the incident:
I don’t pretend to be an expert at interpreting films of explosions, but the IDF’s interpretation is certainly plausible. The second strike causes a major explosion, bigger than the first one, and you can see a rocket or missile or something of the sort shoot off in the direction of the Maateq home–which, by the way, was nowhere near a kilometer away. Certainly there is nothing in the video to suggest a separate strike on the Maateg home.
The AFP reported Israel’s findings under the headline: “Internal probe exonerates Israeli army in Gaza family deaths.” AFP reported the conclusion that was reached by the IDF, and noted that the Israeli military had released the video of the incident. It recounted the IDF’s interpretation of the video, without comment as to whether that interpretation was consistent with the video itself.
But AFP didn’t give the last word to the IDF. Instead, it turned to B’Tselem, an Israeli “human rights” organization that is effectively anti-Israel:
On Wednesday the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said its own investigation cast doubt on the army’s initial account of the killing of Meissar Abu Maateq and four of her children, aged one to five.
“The material (B’Tselem) has collected, including an analysis of the area, photographs of bodies, and eyewitness accounts, raise doubt about the IDF spokesperson’s contention that a secondary explosion is what killed the family,” the group said.
You have to read AFP’s account carefully to note the timing: B’Tselem questioned the IDF’s account on Wednesday. On its web site, B’Tselem “called on the IDF Spokesperson’s office to publish all the material in IDF hands that documents the incident, especially the UAV photos, which could prove or refute this claim.” Two days later, the IDF did just that: it released not just photos, but its video of the incident.
So B’Tselem’s questioning of the IDF account, to which AFP gave the last word on Saturday, did not contradict the evidence of the video. On the contrary, it predated the IDF’s release of the video on Friday. Moreover, B’Tselem wrote that the IDF was guilty because it fired at a terrorist who was “about one meter from the gate of the Abu Me’tiq family’s house.” So the initial AFP story told us that the Israelis must have targeted the Maateq home because it was “more than a kilometre from the scene of the clashes,” while the second AFP report adopted B’Tselem’s claim that the IDF’s account was incredible because Israeli aircraft fired at a terrorist who was only “one meter” from the Maateqs’ gate. Which is it?
It is hard to escape the conclusion that, as far as AFP is concerned, any facts will do as long as they put Israel in the wrong. Meanwhile, what of the IDF’s video? It appears, to my eyes, to support the conclusion that the Maateq children’s deaths resulted from a secondary explosion of munitions carried by a terrorist who was in the act of trying to kill Israelis. If there is some reason why that interpretation is incorrect, what is it? AFP offers no meaningful rebuttal. Yet most readers will take away only the message of AFP’s headline: “Four children among victims of Israeli strikes on Gaza.”