Eight days ago, the world's television viewers were told of a terrible tragedy on a Gaza beach. An explosion had claimed the lives of a Palestinian family, killing a father, one of his two wives, and four children. Arab television broadcast horrifying footage of one of the survivors of the explosion, a young girl named Huda Ghalia, wailing for her father. A man held up a limp body to the cameras and called out: "Muslims! Look at this!"
Palestinians immediately blamed the explosion on an Israeli artillery shell that had struck the area of the beach a few minutes before. A spokesman for the Hamas government condemned the killing as a "war crime." These Palestinian claims were accepted and rebroadcast not only by al-Jazeera and the Arabic-language media, but in the West as well.
Israel did fire six artillery shells into the area of the beach--that much is fact. The Israelis were returning fire against Palestinian rocket launchers, who had bombarded the Israeli city of Sferdot earlier in the day, the most recent of the more than 1,000 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal last year.
But was it an Israeli shell that killed the Ghalia family? An Israeli military investigation quickly cast considerable doubt on the official Palestinian version of events. The investigators claimed:
1) Israel fired six shells at the site of the Palestinian rocket launch. Five of the shells landed at least 700 meters away from the spot at which the Ghalia family was killed. The sixth landed five minutes before the fatal explosion.
2) Members of the Ghalia family were treated in Israeli hospitals. The shrapnel removed from their body did not match Israeli ordnance.
Israeli officials suggested two other possible causes of death: a misfired Palestinian rocket or an unmarked Palestinian land mine planted to protect the nearby rocket fields.
Official and unofficial investigations continue. But they should continue in this context:
The killing of the Ghalia family is the third great Palestinian emotive scene in six years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The first was the broadcast on French television in September 2000 of a 55-second clip that showed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, cowering in the arms of his father, apparently trapped against a cement wall by Israeli gunfire. The camera then cut to the image of a small dead body. The French journalist announced that the boy had been killed.
Young al-Dura was instantly seized throughout the Muslim world as a symbol of Israeli cruelty. But in the years since that image was broadcast, it has been exhaustively documented that Israeli bullets could not possibly have reached the spot where al-Dura was killed. The shooting was almost certainly faked for the cameras. (The best English-language summary of the evidence was compiled by James Fallows for the Atlantic Monthly and can be read at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2003/06/fallows.htm.)
The second great emotive scene was the alleged April 2002 massacre in the West Bank town of Jenin. Jenin was the headquarters and center of the suicide bombing campaign against Israeli civilians: In March 2002, a Jenin-based suicide bomber attacked a Passover seder in the Israeli town of Netanya, killing 30 and maiming or wounding 140.
Israeli troops retook Jenin, fighting door-to-door against booby traps and snipers. They lost 23 of their own in the battle. Afterward, Palestinian spokesmen rushed to the cameras to claim an Israeli massacre: The claims were credulously broadcast worldwide by the BBC and CNN, and endorsed by Peter Jansen, head of the UN relief agency in the West Bank: "They were all too true."
The claims of massacre were rapidly exposed as a hoax. A total of 52 Palestinian bodies were found in Jenin, at least 30 of them combatants. Israeli casualties ran as high as they did precisely in order to minimize civilian losses: Israeli soldiers sacrificed themselves to protect innocent Palestinians.
Since 2000, hoaxing has emerged as a major tool of Palestinian propaganda. A U.S. Web site, SecondDraft.org, has compiled documentary footage to reveal a startling series of faked funerals, staged gun battles, and professional weeping grandmothers. They dub the Palestinian propaganda complex, "Pallywood," and ask hard questions about the readiness--eagerness--of much of the world media to be deceived.
But the deception seems no longer to work so well. The most recent Pew Foundation survey of global opinion (PewGlobal.org) has found a remarkable surge of sympathy for Israel in Europe, especially France and Germany. German opinion now favors Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of 2-1--almost as high as America's 3-1 ratio.
It may well prove in the end that it was a stray Israeli shell that killed the Ghalia family. If so, the killing was an unhappy accident, for which Israel has expressed regret. But the deliberate murder of civilians as a tactic of war: that, sadly, is a Palestinian speciality.
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