You may be familiar with the tragic, but uplifting story of Izzeldin Abuelaish. A Palestinian doctor who despite suffering a personal tragedy after an errant Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) shell accidentally killed three of his daughter’s just hours before the Gaza war concluded, still continues to deliver a message of peace and non-violence.
This tragic story has been recounted in news pages around the world and has received a fair amount of attention by the Canadian media due to Dr. Abuelaish’s acceptance of a research and teaching position at the University of Toronto.
The Toronto Star had featured several reports on this story. Its most recent article by feature writer (and former Mideast Bureau Chief) Oakland Ross, was marred on many fronts. The April 18 report entitled “Palestinian doctor spreads message of life, death and peace” featured a grossly unsubstantiated claim, lacked context, and omitted several key facts that rendered this report inaccurate, misleading, and unfair.
Most egregious was the following statement that Mr. Ross made in his report: “Unprovoked and apparently deliberate, that attack occurred during the final days of last year’s Israeli invasion of Gaza, a brief and lopsided contest in which more than 1,300 Palestinians lost their lives. Thirteen Israelis also died.”
With respect to Mr. Ross’ claim that the accidental Israeli attack which saw the tragic death of Dr. Abuelaish’s family members was “deliberate,” we were quite troubled that there was no attribution, either direct or indirect, or otherwise were any facts/evidence presented to buttress this claim. Was this Mr. Ross’ belief, Mr. Abuelaish’s contention, or was this an established fact on the ground? Such a charge is tantamount to accusing Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and its own Defense Forces of going against the Geneva Conventions by “deliberately” targeting innocent civilians. This claim also starkly contradicts a Nov. 30, 2009 Toronto Star column by Rabbi Dow Marmur who noted that the attack was accidental. If Mr. Ross had specific evidence to corroborate his claim that the attack was done to deliberately target innocent civilians, shouldn’t he have included this information in his article? And if he didn’t possess this evidence, shouldn’t the Star officially retract this claim?
We posed this question to the Star’s Bureau of Accuracy and to its Public Editor, Ms. Kathy English, who responded to our concerns recently noting that the Star had agreed that Mr. Ross’ statement was ambiguous and as a result, she commendably commissioned the publication of a clarification notice (see right) to set the record straight, thereby upholding the main concerns of our complaint. Ms. English stated the following in her correspondence with HonestReporting Canada:
“I have now had a chance to consider your concerns.The Star agrees that there is some ambiguity in the reference to the attack on Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Gaza home as being “apparently deliberate.” What writer Oakland Ross meant by this statement was that Israeli tank cannons did not go off by accident, and they hit what they were aimed at. Ross did not intend to suggest that the soldiers who fired the cannons knew they were shooting at civilians. Given that this is not as clear as it could have been, the Star published this clarification on April 24.“
While our main concerns were indeed addressed, our ancillary concerns about this article’s failure to responsibly contextualize this attack and the war itself, along with several other misstatements still remain.
With respect to the tragic attack which had happened in the fog of war, no context was given about this incident in Mr. Ross’ report. In sharp contrast, the Star had featured several reports in the past which did include some context about this attack. The first report published on Jan. 22, 2009 acknowledged the following context before Israel’s investigation of this incident was completed: “Israeli TV said initial reports indicated that a sniper had fired from either the family’s building – which friends quoted in the report said they doubted – or nearby, and Israeli forces responded with a tank shell.” A subsequent Oakland Ross report on Feb. 1, 2009 noted the following context buried in his feature-length report: “Based on what it calls a preliminary investigation of the incident, the Israeli military has said its forces came under fire from Palestinian militants located in the building occupied by Abu al-Aish and his family. The Israelis say their forces then responded with cannon blasts from their tanks.“Finally, a Feb. 5, 2009 article by Mr. Ross reported on Israel’s official investigation on this matter and the results of their report. Mr. Ross reported the following:
“The Israeli military said its personnel contacted the doctor by phone “several times”in the days before the incident, urging him to evacuate his home because of fighting in the area…“
“Abu al-Aish… flatly refuted the force’s claim its troops were responding to fire from Hamas militants near his home at the time.“
“The Israeli military said its forces… came under mortar and sniper fire from Hamas gunmen located in a building “adjacent” to the one occupied by the Abu al-Aish family.“
“During the counter-fire opened by the IDF forces, suspicious figures were identified in the upper level of (Abu al-Aish’s) house and were thought to be spotters who directed the Hamas sniper and mortar fire,” the Israeli military said.“
“The military said its field commander assessed the situation under the pressure of combat and gave the order to open fire on the suspicious figures.“
One can only conclude from the Star’s previous reporting on this matter, that Star reporting on this incident should include context relaying Israel’s take on this tragedy. How none of this integral contextual information made its way into Mr. Ross’ April 18 report was quite egregious and irresponsible of the Star. Furthermore, the Star’s failure in this report to even acknowledge Israel’s reason for carrying out its offensive in Gaza and its blockade (done to thwart persistent rocket attacks and the transfer of deadly weapons to terrorists), has along with Mr. Ross’ original error, effectively rendered this report inaccurate, unfair, and seriously misleading.
We also shared several other concerns (too many to list for our purposes here) about this article with Ms. English, who in response to HRC tried to placate the matter by noting that a letter to the editor expressing our “organization’s opinion that Ross’s article was unfair to Israel” was already published by the Star. We respectfully disagreed with Ms. English noting our ardent support of the Ontario Press Council’s position that the “publication of a letter to the editor does not, in itself, redress a complaint.” In denying our core concerns about this article’s inexcusable lack of context and balance, Ms. English further proclaimed that: “The Star strives to provide fair coverage to both sides of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But not every article can or should provide a forum for all sides or include every element of the decades and decades of historical context of the events. Any single article will almost inevitably focus on one perspective more than another…”
In defending the Star’s unforgiveable lack of context and its failure to equitably report on the competing claims about the incident at Dr. Abuelaish’s home, Ms. English’s reply has only served to tarnish the reputation of the Toronto Star, whose reporting on this matter had already unfairly tarnished the reputation of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces. How You Can Make A Difference:
The Toronto Star and reporter Oakland Ross are well aware of the damning effects of “the self-replicating propagation of erroneous (and unfair) information.” Considering that all the Star had to do in order to achieve the very minimal context in this report was to acknowledge that “Israel contends its soldiers were fired at during the incident at Dr. Abuelaish’s home,” had these mere thirteen words been included in this feature length 1,600 word article, the Star wouldn’t have been deserving of your condemnation. As the Star opted to not include (nor later acknowledge) this egregious lack of context, please send your considered comments to Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (416) 869-4950 expressing your opinion about the way the Star handled this matter.