On 17 October there was an explosion in a car park at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Before the dust had even settled some things were already clear to some – Israel was responsible, and it was intentional.
That’s why within less than an hour and armed only with a photo purportedly showing a fire and plume of smoke at the site, Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network posted that Israel had bombarded the hospital killing and injuring hundreds. About two hours later, the Washington Post published an edited video purportedly related to the same event (although without any footage showing damage to an identified hospital building) with an elegantly vague headline referring to a “strike” and a byline referring to an “attack” on the hospital. “Israel Airstrike Hits Gaza Hospital, Killing 500, Palestinian Health Ministry Says”, wrote the New York Times.
A strike or attack requires intention. In this case, because the identity of the perpetrator was so obvious, the intention was clear.
Many respected news agencies reported on the matter in a similar way. They generally referred to either the “health ministry in Gaza” (i.e., Hamas), Hamas itself or an Islamic Jihad spokesman as their source of information.
And yet, on 22 October the New York Times wrote: Six days after Hamas accused Israel of bombing a hospital in Gaza City and killing hundreds of people, the armed Palestinian group has yet to produce or describe any evidence linking Israel to the strike, says it cannot find the munition that hit the site and has declined to provide detail to support its count of the casualties.
In other words, there was never any evidence of a connection between the blast at al-Ahli Hospital and Israel. International media outlets were relying on Hamas’ bare accusation and seemingly never asked if there was any proof to support it (at least until after their initial reporting). In fairness to Hamas, however, it never said it could prove that Israel did it – only that Israel did it.
Meanwhile, the fallout from this abysmal failure to adhere to any reasonable journalistic standards continues. President Biden’s planned meeting with Middle-East leaders (other than Prime Minister Netanyahu) was called off, there were riots in places as far away as Berlin and an ancient synagogue in Tunisia was burnt down. The Middle East is on the brink of regional war, thanks in part to the carelessness (in the sense that they could not care less for the truth) of media outlets.
The bigger problem (if that’s even possible) is that reporting on the al-Ahli Hospital blast is just a microcosm for deep and persistent flaws in reporting on the Israel-Hamas war.
For example, the very same New York Times article quoted above goes on to mention that “Spokespeople [i.e., Hamas] have released death tolls varying from 500 to 833, before settling on 471.” Why go to the effort of reporting a difference of opinion where there is no evidence either way? The level of specificity in the article is itself misleading that those figures have any reasonable basis whatsoever.
The wider issue is that Hamas controls the flow of official information from Gaza. So, every time a news agency quotes an “authority in Gaza,” it is again putting its (blind) faith in the trustworthiness of Hamas via its various ministries and spokespeople. Local and foreign media sources operating in Gaza are pressured to report in accordance with Hamas’ ‘expectations’ (or face expulsion, beatings or arrest). Public (i.e. Hamas-controlled) media outlets in Gaza are given priority or exclusive access to information, which results in private media broadcasting 2nd hand Hamas-approved reporting.
All of this leaves international media outlets in a bind. To report on what’s happening in Gaza (and ensure a sufficient number of daily clicks), they rely on untrustworthy sources. By doing so, they assist Hamas to spread disinformation and stifle any criticism of its corrupt practices, or the dangers that rocket fire from Gaza poses to local residents. This keeps Gazans under Hamas’ control.
There is unlikely to be an independent investigation into the cause of the blast at the al-Ahli Hospital. Even if there is one, the outcome can only ever be inconclusive because according to Hamas, there’s no trace of whatever it is that exploded. According to a former UN war crimes investigator, “There’s always a piece of a bomb after the fact. In 20 years of investigating war crimes this is the first time I haven’t seen any weapon remnants. And I’ve worked three wars in Gaza.” The inference to be drawn is clear for any reasonable observer.
The New York Times (and other news agencies) continue to report that there is a “dispute over responsibility” for the explosion. The entirely unfounded accusation of mass murder of civilians at the al-Ahli Hospital fabricated by Hamas thus remains on the table in the court of public opinion. The WHO (as of 30 October) still “strongly condemns the attack on Al Ahli Arab Hospital.”
News agencies around the world continue to rely on “authorities in Gaza” and willfully (or carelessly) deceive the public that information provided by Hamas (or the Palestinian Authority) has any meaningful connection to the facts. The public continues to assume that official Palestinian sources quoted by reputable news agencies are reliable (otherwise, why cite them?). The losers are Israelis and Palestinians who seek to find a way to co-exist without the added hindrance of the international media cementing Hamas’ rule.
In the court of public opinion Israel is presumed guilty and the baseless allegations made by terrorist organizations serve as weighty evidence.