[Warning: graphic images]
Diligent readers of the Washington Post may know by now that UN observers in Gaza attribute the death of 11-month-old Omar Mashrawi, during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, to a Hamas rocket which fell short and hit a Gaza City home.
WaPo initially reported the death using an AP photo with a caption that implicated an “Israeli strike.” The corrected story has that reference removed from the caption, after AP removed it in a correction to its original posting with the photo. Numerous print and online news outlets used the same AP photo, however, with the original caption alluding to an Israeli strike.
Yet bloggers doubted at the time that the damage done to the Gaza City home was caused by an Israeli strike. Elder of Ziyon’s post on the Mashrawi question mentioned these doubts first, I believe, and got wide attention. Full disclosure: I am the correspondent with military experience whom he quotes analyzing the photos of the damage and assessing that it could not have been caused by an Israeli weapon. (For reasons my readers are aware of, I didn’t have the time to write a post of my own on this topic, and it’s Elder who deserves full credit for putting the argument together, with photo references, for public consumption.)
My initial skepticism about the “Israeli strike” narrative was based on examining the photos of the damage. Later, as reports of eyewitness statements came in, it became even less likely that an Israeli weapon was what hit the home in Gaza City.
Conflicting statements about the event
For example, eyewitness accounts of a “mass of fire” hitting the roof were inconsistent with an Israeli weapon, which would be fuzed to detonate by proximity, timing, and/or command guidance, but which would not have descended toward the home’s roof as a “mass of fire.” The “mass of fire” report could well have described what was visible with a Hamas rocket hitting the home, however. (The baby’s father, BBC Arabic journalist Jihad Mashrawi, said originally, in Arabic, that “shrapnel” hit his home.)
But some of the reporting in Arab media described the projectile that hit the home as a “tank shell” – which in this context usually means any type of common short- or medium-range artillery round, whether fired from a tank or not. It is frequently used interchangeably with “mortar,” by the media and civilian eyewitnesses; it does not refer to an anti-tank round.
Hamas uses former-Soviet shells for artillery fire, and uses the explosive material to make warheads for its indigenously assembled rockets. The level of damage in the photos is consistent with the amount of explosive in a Hamas “tank shell,” something Elder demonstrates nicely with his photo comparison. The damage is much less than would be expected from an attack with an IDF stand-off targeting weapon, however, such as a guided bomb or air-to-surface missile.
Related to that point is a third statement attributed by the BBC’s Jon Donnison to unnamed Israeli officials, who reportedly said that the IDF was targeting “the building” – implied to be either the Gaza City home or a building near it – because there was a “militant” in it. This element of the narrative doesn’t hang together, either as an implication about Israeli intent (Elder’s takedown of the implication’s idiocy is comprehensive), or in conjunction with the “tank shell” report from eyewitnesses. If the IDF were targeting a militant inside a building, it would not use a weapon like a “tank shell” to do it.
Not an Israeli “tank shell”
This is the case for two reasons: first, because a tank shell – even a modern, penetrating or anti-personnel tank shell – is not the weapon for ensuring an interdiction-type objective like killing specific terrorists; and second, because in Pillar of Defense, there was no ground-combat phase in which the infantry was engaged with terrorists in close combat, or in which the firing platforms for the “tank shell” were brought in close to the target.
Using “tank shells” to go after terrorists in buildings is something the IDF does in ground combat, when its own troops have tactical objectives in an urban close-battle environment. (As with the IDF in Cast Lead in 2009, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps made great use of this approach in Iraq with newer munitions created for the M1A2 Abrams tank, including the 120mm M1028 “Room Broom” anti-personnel round. Scroll down for a summary at this link.) The purpose for which these modern tank shells are suited is denying terrorists a place to hide in urban combat. They target physical features of the landscape, destroying them or making them uninhabitable; they are not used to ensure that specific, named terrorists are targeted or killed.
For tactical urban-warfare use, these “tank shells” must be deployed from positions relatively close to the structure or other hiding area a commander wants to deny to the enemy. “Close” in this case means 500 meters or less; typically, around 200 meters. Obviously, no Israeli tanks or mobile artillery were deployed that close to buildings in Gaza during Pillar of Defense. None entered Gaza at all. IDF artillery can lob some types of shells considerably further than that, but using those shells from a distance for an interdiction-type targeting purpose – trying to kill a specific terrorist or terrorists during a stand-off bombing campaign like the one in Pillar of Defense – would be a flawed approach. There are weapons better suited for the purpose (the guided bombs and missiles mentioned earlier). The IDF could be reasonably sure of causing damage to a building with a “tank shell” attack, scattering or wounding whoever was in it, but would not have reasonable certainty of killing a particular terrorist.
All that said, the level of damage visible in the photos indicates that what hit the Mashrawi home was not an Israeli “tank shell” anyway. It was a round too weak to achieve the objective of killing a specific terrorist – a form of malpractice it would be laughable to accuse the IDF of. Using a weapon that doesn’t offer a reasonable guarantee of eliminating the terrorist – one that will do little more than poke a hole in the roof and rearrange the furniture, while still potentially injuring bystanders – would be an irresponsible use of force, and not at all characteristic of the IDF. When the Israelis attack terrorists inside buildings in Gaza, they use weapons of sufficient power to ensure the terrorists are killed.
I am confident in assessing that during Pillar of Defense, when there was no IDF troop presence in Gaza and all targeting was done from a stand-off distance, the IDF was not targeting a terrorist in a building using a “tank shell.” It’s the wrong weapon for the desired effect, and IDF planners know that.
Unlikely to have been collateral damage from a nearby strike
An alternate theoretical possibility is that a flaming projectile was expelled from the explosion in an actual Israeli strike somewhere nearby, and ended up falling through the Mashrawi roof. That possibility is low, however, partly because photos of the damage to the home show kinetic effects, which would have had to be produced by blast. The flaming projectile would itself have had to explode inside the home, or have caused an explosion (theoretically, for example, of a propane tank), rather than merely causing things to catch fire. Whether such a projectile would have penetrated the roof is one question; another is whether an eyewitness would have called it a “tank shell.” There are too many special coincidences necessary for this to be a likely conclusion about the event.
Elder looked early on at the possibility that the Mashrawi home was affected by IDF strikes on a group of Hamas Fajr-5 rocket launch sites, not far from the Zeitoun neighborhood where the Mashrawi home is located. The distance of the Zeitoun cluster from the sites, anywhere from 200 to 500 meters, makes it possible that some fragments from the presumed blast area traveled as far as the Mashrawi house. But it is unlikely that anything heavy and flaming – a projectile that could penetrate the roof of the home – did so. Fragments flying that far from a nominal 500-pound-class bomb blast (presumably with detonation at or very close to ground level) would be small.
If an IDF attack with the larger bombs used against big buildings (1,000- and 2,000-pounders) had set off sympathetic explosions from an ordnance storage site near the Mashrawi home, everyone in the area would have been aware of it and would have mentioned it to reporters. The Fajr-5 sites and large factory buildings identified in the IDF graphic at Elder’s post are less than a kilometer – in American terms, less than half a mile – from Zeitoun. An explosion big enough to send lethal fragmentation that far would have been heard by everyone, would have put up visible smoke, and would probably have caused neighbors to rush out and discuss the event (not to mention capturing evidence of the blast on video).
No reporting from the day in question indicates an incident or reaction of this kind. Ultimately, I consider it unlikely that whatever hit the Mashrawi home was frag from an IDF strike nearby. And, of course, even if the damage did turn out to be from an IDF strike, the fault lies with Hamas for putting rocket launch and storage sites so close to civilian homes.
Media credulity about multiple false reports
The positive evidence reported about the damage to the Mashrawi home points to a Hamas rocket, whereas it is not consistent with a direct hit by an Israeli weapon. At a certain point, the media’s failure to recognize this has to reflect on the practice of their craft. From embattled regions of Africa to Afghanistan and Chechnya, there are very fine reporters out there who know what they’re seeing, when they see combat and bomb damage. But there seems to be no critical eye cast by the major news organizations on reports coming from Gaza.
Even without knowledge of weapons and weapons effects, however, the parade of false photo-essay depictions from sources in Gaza should give reporters and editors pause. As the Camera link in my second paragraph above reminds us, there was another damning piece of photo “evidence” at the heart of misrepresentations during Pillar of Defense. (I wrote it up at the time.) The lifeless body of four-year-old Mohammed Sadallah, who was killed by a Hamas rocket on 17 November, was paraded for grotesque photo ops with Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, and the world media reported little Mohammed as the victim of an Israeli attack. Israel was not attacking in Gaza at all when the boy was killed, however, and even the New York Times concluded that he was actually killed by a Hamas rocket.
Pillar of Defense also saw pioneering work from Hamas in the faked-injuries department. CNN and BBC both ran footage of Gazans carrying a supposedly injured man who – a few seconds later, in the same video – was up walking around as if nothing had happened. CNN made an on-air correction due to Elder’s post on this video fakery.
Meanwhile, the least-effort method of creating a false narrative from images is to simply swipe the images from another conflict, because who knows the difference, right? Thus was the image of a father clutching his bleeding son swiped from the civil war in Syria, and passed off by Hamas as an image from Gaza during Pillar of Defense.
A method that exertion-free is bound to crop up more than once, and so Mr. Donnison of the BBC was caught up in a separate recycled-Syrian-casualty-photo incident.
A third such incident was reported by The Algemeiner, when a site called Alarab Net, on 18 November, posted a photo purporting to show a massacred family in Gaza, which turned out to be a massacred family in Syria, photographed at least a month earlier.
This series of video- and photo-narrative fakery incidents is what we in intelligence call a “pattern.” Richard Landes wrote an excellent summary of the pattern in November for the UK Telegraph, bringing in evidence from years past. It isn’t a new thing. Hamas and Hamas’s apologists in the blogosphere routinely attempt to create a false narrative through the use of images and unsubstantiated claims. News reporting from Gaza simply assumes Israeli guilt even where none has been established, as with the invalid narrative about Mohammed Sadallah’s death.
The more times this happens, the more careful Western media organizations should be about vetting sources and verifying the details of events. It’s because they don’t have a reputation for doing so that arguments like Robert Mackey’s defense of the original, careless and slanted reporting on the Mashrawi incident come off as special pleading. Throwing up the argument that “both sides are at fault” is a cheap dodge, when the Western media are routinely complicit in falsely depicting Israel – in exactly Hamas’s own terms – as extra-specially at fault.
In the end, it does matter who killed the baby, because Hamas in fact kills its own people, as well as getting them killed, in the pursuit of its goals. That is the nature of the opponent Israel faces in Gaza. And that is the larger reality of which Omar Mashrawi’s truncated, 11-month life is powerful evidence.