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Fact Checking Israel's Misinformation on Gaza Flotilla II
Thursday Jun 30th, 2011 11:24 PM
IMEU, Jun 30, 2011
After the commando raid that left nine passengers dead on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, the Israeli government's efforts to contain the damage done to its image internationally were widely regarded as a public relations fiasco.

In the weeks after the raid Israeli officials released what was revealed to be a doctored audio recording of a radio transmission with the ships. Photos and video footage shot by passengers contradicted the official account of the attack. Under scrutiny from journalists the Israeli military was also forced to retract outlandish claims that activists on the flotilla were linked to Al-Qaeda.

In the run-up to the departure of this year's flotilla, the Israeli government has sought to intimidate journalists traveling with it, and has been caught spreading false information about organizers and passengers. What follows is an examination of Israel's public relations campaign against Gaza Flotilla II.

'Financial links'

The claim: On Thursday, the Israeli military spokesperson's unit released a short press statement alleging, without presenting evidence, that organizations backing the flotilla received funding from Hamas-linked charities.

The press release focuses on the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza.

The facts: US Boat to Gaza organizers report that they raised funds mainly through small donations from people throughout the United States.

As for the European Campaign, journalist Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada points out that the Israeli military based it's press release on accusations about Palestinian activists in London that were previously demonstrated to be fabrications.

Lieberman's 'hard core of terror activists'

The claim: On Tuesday 28 June Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused participants in the flotilla of seeking "confrontation and blood."

He added in an interview with Israel Radio, as quoted by Reuters: "They are clearly there to create a provocation, looking for confrontation and blood and for many pictures on television screens."

The foreign minister also said there was a "hard core of terror activists" among the participants.

The facts: No convincing evidence has come to light linking any participant in the flotilla to any terrorist organization. The participating organizations have repeatedly stated that they are unarmed and committed to using only nonviolent tactics.

The US Boat to Gaza, for example, released its passenger list to the public, along with photos and biographical information.

The passengers on the US boat include Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple Alice Walker, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, retired army colonel and former US diplomat Ann Wright, and 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Heddy Epstein.

IDF chief: No crisis in Gaza

The claim: Speaking at an event on Tuesday, Israeli military Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said: "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. If [activists] are sensitive to human suffering, then they need to turn their efforts to freeing Gilad Schalit or at least allowing him visitors."

The facts: While a total humanitarian disaster has been averted thanks in part to the efforts of the international aid community, Israel's blockade has produced a stark picture of life in Gaza.
  • 54 percent of households face food insecurity, defined as inadequate physical, social or economic access to food. An additional 12 percent are considered vulnerable to food insecurity. Only 20 percent of Gazan households are food secure.

  • 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

  • Since the blockade began, the number of Palestinian refugees completely unable to secure access to food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationery and safe drinking water ('abject poverty') has tripled to 300,000.

  • 75 percent of households polled by the World Food Programme in the Gaza Strip received outside aid.

  • Gaza's hospitals are at "zero stock levels" for 178 of 480 essential medications, with another 69 at low stock. Of 700 essential medical supplies, 190 are at "zero stock levels" and another 70 at low stock.

  • Due to lack of fuel, the Gaza Power Plant runs at 45 percent capacity, leading to daily blackouts of eight to twelve hours. Given this fuel shortage, 90 percent of private cars are no longer driven and of public services, only 15 percent are operational. (Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, The Illegal Closure of the Gaza Strip: Collective Punishment of the Civilian Population, December 10, 2010)

  • The Gaza aquifer provides 90 percent of Gaza's water. Only ten percent of that water meets the standards of being suitable for consumption. Water-borne diseases cause 26 percent of illnesses in Gaza.

  • Because of lack of treatment capacity and electricity, Gaza authorities must release around 80,000 cubic meters of sewage into the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis.

  • The construction of 86,000 houses is required to meet natural growth and recover from previous Israeli invasions.

Nonexistent 'chemical weapons'

The claim: On Monday 27 June the Israeli daily Haaretz printed the following accusation: "Senior officials in Jerusalem said Monday that Israel has received information that organizers of the Gaza flotilla may be bringing chemical substances on the ships to use against Israeli soldiers to prevent them from boarding the ships."

The article continued: "The senior officials also said that Israel had been notified that several extremists among the Gaza flotilla participants had recently claimed that they intend on "shedding the blood of IDF soldiers."

The Jerusalem Post printed a similar story, also based on the claims of an unidentified Israeli "military source." According to this official, the flotilla passengers were carrying sacks of sulfur.

"This is a chemical weapon, and if poured on a soldier it can paralyze him," an IDF source told The Jerusalem Post Monday night. "If the sulfur is then lit on fire, the soldier will light up like a torch."

Neither article offered any evidence for the unnamed official's assertion, or followed up on this claim with further reporting.

The reality: The "chemical weapons" story unraveled over three days of international scrutiny.

The US Boat to Gaza group emphatically denied the accusations in a statement released Tuesday, calling them "ludicrous and provocative."

"Passengers on the U.S. boat have long histories of responding to injustice nonviolently and peacefully. Every participant in the flotilla has signed a pledge of nonviolence," said Melissa Lane, a passenger on the US boat, according to the statement.

"We are absolutely not seeking any confrontation with the Israeli military. We just want to sail to Gaza," Lane also said.

Pressed by American journalist Max Blumenthal, an Israeli military spokesperson declined to elaborate on the claims of the anonymous military source.

Asked why the military was unable to produce evidence to support its claims, the spokesperson told Blumenthal, "If there were something we probably would give it but because of sensitivities we can't expand further."

Even Israel's own cabinet ministers criticized Netanyahu's administration for spreading this apparent falsehood. Several unnamed ministers were quoted in the Israeli newspaper Maariv calling the claim "media spin" and "public relations hysteria."

Threat against journalists

The threat: On Sunday 26 June the Israeli Government Press Office sent a letter to foreign journalists warning that if they sailed on the Gaza flotilla, they could be banned from the country for 10 years.

"Participation in the flotilla," the letter warned, according to Haaretz, "is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions."

The aftermath: After just one day of criticism from journalists and media organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded the decision to punish journalists sailing with the flotilla.

"The government's threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel's commitment to freedom of the press," wrote the Foreign Press Association in Israel.

"Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation," said the organization, which represents professional journalists working in the country.

The FPA later welcomed Netanyahu's decision to cancel the order to punish journalists covering the flotilla.

'Pinkwashing' hoax video

The hoax: A YouTube video surfaced last week featuring a man identifying himself as a gay rights activist who claimed he had been rebuffed by the organizers of the Gaza flotilla.

The man, who introduced himself as "Marc," said he had emailed an unidentified organization behind the flotilla offering to bring a contingent of gay activists along on the Gaza voyage, and claimed his offer was rejected.

The video, which was presented as a homemade videoblog, also attempted to link the flotilla's organizers to Hamas. "Look, this is what I want to say to all the people who are fighting for human rights all over the world. If you get in bed with the wrong group, you might wake up next to Hamas," the man says at the conclusion of the video.

The exposé: On Saturday 25 June blogger Benjamin Doherty of The Electronic Intifada identified the man on in the video as an Israeli actor named Omer Gershon.

It remains unclear who produced the video, which Doherty also pointed out has unusually high production values, including lighting and the use of B-roll footage.

It also came to light that some of the first people to disseminate the video were employees of the Israeli Government Press Office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Journalist Max Blumenthal pointed out that Guy Seemann, an intern at the GPO, was among the first to post a link to the video on Twitter. Robert Mackey of the New York Times has also written at some length about the links between the video and official organs of the Israeli government.

Among the unusual twists in the story noted by Mackey, the Israeli actor in the video, Omer Gershon, was at one time a manager of a Tel Aviv nightclub called Zippy Trippo, which was established in what used to be a listening post operated by the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet.

Also of note is the apparent message of the video piece, which Doherty called "either a hoax or a piece of propaganda designed to discredit the flotilla and use a mask of concern for gay rights to pinkwash Israel and justify the persecution of Palestinians in Gaza."