Original image: The New York Times

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Anatomy of a Blood Libel

With the initial claims of the hospital story debunked, all that is left is the eternal guilt and villainy of the Jewish people

Clayton Fox
October 30, 2023

Original image: The New York Times

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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On Oct. 17, at approximately 12:59 p.m. in the newsrooms of The New York Times and other East Coast publications, something exploded in the vicinity of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Within hours, front page headlines blamed an Israeli air strike for killing “at least” 500 people at the hospital—a false claim that triggered a cascade of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rallies across the world and scuttled U.S. diplomatic efforts with Arab countries. The claims and sources on which the initial story was based have now been revealed as either comprehensively false or grossly misreported.

We now know that virtually every detail of the initial story was wrong. The explosion occurred in the parking lot next to the hospital, not the hospital itself. It was not caused by an Israeli airstrike, but most likely by a misfired rocket launched by a terrorist group in Gaza. And in the most striking example, an investigation by the independent journalist David Zweig shows that the claims that at least “500” people were killed, which was repeated in countless news stories attributed to the Gaza Health Ministry, was most likely the result of Western journalists misquoting a statement from a Hamas spokesperson cited by Al Jazeera Arabic saying that 500 people were victims of the the strike—meaning they may have been killed or injured—without ever verifying the claim.

“In all, I contacted a dozen reporters or communications departments at news outlets, including the Times, the AP, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera,” Zweig writes of his efforts to get to the bottom of how the false death statistic was spread. “Not one reporter from any of these outlets replied to my queries. This was their reporting, on perhaps the most contentious news story in the world at the moment. And none of them would respond with the source behind what they had written.”

All that remains of the initial story, then, is a blood libel. This is an anatomy of how it was presented as “news” and endorsed by prestigious publications, experts, and honored officials, before it was debunked.

At 1:36 p.m. ET, The New York Times published this breaking news headline: “An Israeli strike hit the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to a spokeswoman of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, which said the number is expected to rise.” Three minutes later, they had gotten a quote from an Israeli spokesperson who said, “We’re checking.”

At 2:09 p.m. ET: The New York Times published an update that Ashraf al-Qidra, the spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, had “said in a televised interview that at least 500 Palestinians had been killed.” An hour later, the BBC’s reporter on the ground in Jerusalem, Jon Donnison, said on the broadcast, “The Israeli military […] have said that they are investigating. But, you know, it is hard to see what else this could be, really—given the size of the explosion—other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes …” At 3:13 p.m. ET, The Wall Street Journal reported: “Israeli Airstrike on Gaza Hospital Kills More Than 500, Palestinian Officials Say.”

At 11 p.m. Israel time, or 4 p.m. ET, the IDF published their first response to Hamas’ allegations regarding the hospital on X (formerly Twitter), writing, “Following an analysis by the IDF’s operational systems, a barrage of rockets was launched toward Israel, which passed in the vicinity of the hospital, when it was hit. According to intelligence information from a number of sources we have, Islamic Jihad terrorist organization is responsible for the failed rocket launch that hit the hospital.” Right around that time, the Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that Saudi Arabia, “condemns in the strongest terms the atrocious crime committed by the Israeli occupation forces.”

While a screengrab published on X by the IDF shows quite clearly that The Los Angeles Times was quick to run with the headline, “At least 500 killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza City hospital, Gaza Health Ministry says,” a search of the Internet Archive only reveals this updated version, published at 4:34 p.m. ET, “Blast kills hundreds as Gaza hospital, Hamas and Israel trade blame,” suggesting that the paper changed its initial headline without adding any note acknowledging the revision. Other news outlets have updated their original headlines as well, blurring, in retrospect, the timeline of when they released and then amended their statements.

The claims and sources on which the initial story was based have now been revealed as either comprehensively false or grossly misreported. We now know that virtually every detail of the initial story was wrong.

At 4:43 p.m. ET, the Iran proxy Hezbollah released a statement calling for “a day of unparalleled anger against the enemy” for Wednesday. Around 5:30 p.m. ET it was reported that King Abdullah of Jordan had canceled a planned summit with Biden and Palestinian and Egyptian representatives. His foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, reportedly said the meeting would be rescheduled at a time when all parties could agree to stop the “war and the massacres against Palestinians.” At 5:46 p.m. ET, the IDF posted a video of a press conference with their spokesperson Daniel Hagari who stated the IDF believed the explosion was caused by a failed Islamic Jihad rocket. By 6:52 p.m., crowds were marching on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, chanting, “America is the greatest devil.”

Later that evening, world leaders such as the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, were putting out statements. Guterres wrote on X at 7 p.m. ET: “I am horrified by the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in a strike on a hospital in Gaza today, which I strongly condemn. My heart is with the families of the victims. Hospitals and medical personnel are protected under international humanitarian law.”

At 7:33 p.m. ET, the White House published a brief statement from President Biden reading, “I am outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza, and the terrible loss of life that resulted. Immediately upon hearing this news, I spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and have directed my national security team to continue gathering information about what exactly happened. The United States stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life during conflict and we mourn the patients, medical staff and other innocents killed or wounded in this tragedy.” At 10:55 p.m. ET, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added, “I’m horrified by the loss of life at Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. My thoughts are with those who lost loved ones. It is imperative that innocent civilians be protected and international law upheld. Together, we must determine what happened. There must be accountability.”

Over the course of the evening, protests against Israel and the United States broke out in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco. Over the course of the day, The New York Times changed their front page headline three times, as Bari Weiss and Oliver Wiseman documented at The Free Press, from “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say” to “At Least 500 Dead in Strike on Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say,” to “At Least 500 Dead in Blast at Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say.”

Upon arriving in Israel on Wednesday, President Biden gave his first words of support to the Israeli narrative. Around 11:45 a.m. local time at a joint press conference, he said that “based on what” intelligence he’d seen, “it appear[ed] as though it was done by the other team, not you,” while adding the caveat, “But there are a lot of people out there who are not sure.”

By 9:12 a.m. ET, unnamed Pentagon officials were telling ABC that their analysis comported with Israel’s. At 2:48 p.m. ET, NPR published a fairly comprehensive piece of morning-after analysis that corroborated some of the IDF’s claims, noting that “Israeli bombs typically leave craters three to ten meters in size, and are designed to create a large shockwave that propels shrapnel over a large area.” Around 3:45 p.m. ET, Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a statement adding their voice to the chorus supporting the IDF’s narratives. “We feel confident that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike.”

At 4:41 p.m. ET, the Associated Press published a piece with graphic witness testimonies of the blast and its horror, mentioning that it primarily affected the parking lot, without mentioning that it didn’t actually affect the hospital building itself. The piece, which states, “Fleeing Palestinians lose another sanctuary in Gaza,” acknowledges the competing claims of both sides and then goes on to present the slightly revised death toll estimates: 471 from the “Hamas-run health ministry,” and 250 from Mohammed Abu Selmia, the director of nearby Shifa Hospital.

By Thursday, The Wall Street Journal was presenting a subtitle, “Competing versions of events, protests followed explosion at a hospital compound” and Al Jazeera put out a piece titled, “A romance, a birthplace: Destroyed memories of Gaza’s bombed Ahli Hospital,” about an unlikely romance that began there 80 years ago. In that story, even after the Gaza Health Ministry had revised the death toll to 471, Al Jazeera writes in reference to the explosion, “a bombing that killed at least 500 people.” Britain’s Independent wrote, “How the Gaza hospital turned from a safe haven into an inferno,” while failing to present the already evident and contrary evidence that had emerged. Simultaneously, The Guardian presented the new U.S. intelligence estimate that put the death toll at 100 to 300, rather than the 500 initially reported. That evening, in his address to the nation, President Biden stated that the hospital blast “was not done by the Israelis.”

On Friday, the Associated Press published two pieces related to the blast. The first, quoting a French intelligence assessment, pointed to a “Palestinian rocket” as the cause, and the second, a full AP investigation of the available evidence, made a strong case for the failed rocket theory as well, even citing morning-after AP photos of the blast zone that showed “a small crater … in the hospital’s parking lot [that] appeared to be about a meter across, suggesting a device with a much smaller explosive payload than a bomb.” BBC published a quasi mea culpa for their initially hasty reporting, writing, “The devastating human cost of the explosion at the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza and the competing narratives put forward by Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian authorities, as to who was responsible, have made this a difficult and complex story to cover … However, as we have reported, based on the evidence available it isn’t possible to be definitive about what caused the blast. We will continue to analyse new information as it emerges.” And Canada’s public news outlet CBC wrote, “UN calls for investigation into Gaza hospital strike as France says Israel not responsible.”

By Saturday, Canada’s military had published the findings of their own inquiry, saying, “Analysis conducted independently by the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command indicates with a high degree of confidence that Israel did not strike the al-Ahli hospital on 17 October 2023,” adding their voice to the conclusion already reached by U.S. and French intelligence services. Al Jazeera and other outlets carried the Canadian conclusion in their reporting. The Wall Street Journal was also ready on Saturday to add their analysis to the mix, concluding that “Video Analysis Shows Gaza Hospital Hit by Failed Rocket Meant for Israel.”

And on Sunday, The New York Times took much of the air out of their initial reporting, writing, “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.”

This Monday, the Times editors issued an unusual note:

The Times’s initial accounts attributed the claim of Israeli responsibility to Palestinian officials, and noted that the Israeli military said it was investigating the blast. However, the early versions of the coverage—and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels—relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.

But on Tuesday, in spite of the Italian foreign minister announcing definitively that Israel did not cause the blast, and that the death toll was more likely 50, not 500, and in spite of Vanity Fair publishing Slack messages from inside The New York Times which showed that some editors were concerned from the jump about publishing the claims presented by a single Palestinian source, NPR published a piece which reads, “experts are increasingly doubtful that the publicly available evidence will be enough to settle the question of who was behind the incident.”

Also on Tuesday, The New York Times published its own analysis of video footage of the suspected rocket, casting doubt on the already established analysis of some of its peers, claiming that the rocket in question was actually fired from Israel and would have detonated two miles from the hospital. They write:

The Times’s finding does not answer what actually did cause the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital blast, or who is responsible. The contention by Israeli and American intelligence agencies that a failed Palestinian rocket launch is to blame remains plausible. But the Times analysis does cast doubt on one of the most-publicized pieces of evidence that Israeli officials have used to make their case and complicates the straightforward narrative they have put forth.

And the beat goes on.

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Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter