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Did Israel Say Hamas Didn’t Kidnap Its Teens? No.

New York, NYRB and Andrew Sullivan promulgate problematic claim

Batya Ungar-Sargon
July 28, 2014
Tens of thousands Israelis attend the joint funeral of Gilad Shaer, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, in the central Israeli town of Modiin on July 1, 2014. (Getty Images)
Tens of thousands Israelis attend the joint funeral of Gilad Shaer, 16, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Eyal Ifrach, 19, in the central Israeli town of Modiin on July 1, 2014. (Getty Images)

On Friday afternoon, New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog ran a story with the headline, “It Turns Out Hamas Didn’t Kidnap and Kill the 3 Israeli Teens After All.” Although Benjamin Netanyahu had insisted from day one that Hamas was behind the killings, “officials admit the kidnappings were not Hamas’s handiwork after all,” according to Katie Zavadski. Her evidence is a series of tweets from BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel, in which she asserts, “After Israel’s top leadership exhaustively blamed Hamas for kidnap of 3 teens, they’ve now admitted killers were acting as ‘lone cell.’”

The piece has since garnered over 200,000 Facebook shares and blown up on Twitter. It’s popped up already on the New York Review of Books website, and mega-blogger Andrew Sullivan trumpeted it yesterday. If it were true that Hamas had nothing to do with the kidnapping, it would have major ramifications, as Zavadski notes. The justifications for the operations targeting Hamas—including the assault on Gaza—would be placed on shakier ground. The only problem is, the alleged source of the claim, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, says he never made it.

The narrative begins to break down under scrutiny. “Katie Zavadski, fresh from a Dishternship, nails down a critical fact in the latest Israel-Hamas death-match,” wrote The Dish’s Sullivan yesterday. He cites Frenkel’s tweet, along with another tweet from the BBC’s Jon Donnison, posted hours before Frenkel’s, but which Sullivan says “confirms” hers. “Israeli police MickeyRosenfeld [sic] tells me men who killed 3 Israeli teens def lone cell, hamas affiliated but not operating under leadership,” reads Donnison’s first tweet. “Seems to contradict the line from Netanyahu government,” reads the second. (These tweets confirming the killers’ Hamas affiliations were belatedly added to the New York article, undermining its headline’s claim that “Hamas Didn’t Kidnap and Kill the 3 Israeli Teens After All.”)

Frenkel doesn’t provide her source for the “lone cell” quote, other than Donnison’s tweets, though in subsequent tweets, Frenkel says she has spoken to an “israeli officer.” This may refer to an article she wrote a month ago, in which an unnamed source told her, “What we do know, is that this was likely an opportunistic move. The men behind this may have ties to a larger terror group, but this does not have the markings of a well-planned, complex operation.” The source did not use the words “lone cell.”

But when I spoke to Micky Rosenfeld, Donnison’s alleged source, on Sunday morning, he denied having used the words “lone cell” in conversation with Donnison. Indeed, Rosenfeld insisted that he told the BBC reporter in no uncertain terms that what is known is that “Hamas terrorists from the Hebron area were behind the kidnapping and murder of the children.” Rosenfeld added that security organizations are continuing their search for the perpetrators. In other words, nothing new has developed. If the militants who murdered the boys were a “lone cell,” no officials have confirmed this.

It appears the entire episode is the result of an unfortunate game of internet telephone. In her tweet, which was picked up by New York, Frenkel placed Donnison’s words “lone cell” in quotation marks, inadvertently making it seem like Donnison’s language was actually Rosenfeld’s. But it wasn’t, and the implications that have been drawn by New York, and now spread by Andrew Sullivan, are not justified. It’s entirely possible that there was some “lone cell” with no more than tenuous Hamas connections—but right now all we have is Frenkel’s ambiguous anonymous source and Donnison’s source who believes he was misquoted as our only evidence for that proposition.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.