On 8 December, media watchdog HonestReporting came out with a special report on the new – and already discredited – United Nations Human Rights Council. The report is worth a read, although there’s not much there to surprise anyone who follows the United Nations and its relationship with Israel.
As I dutifully read through the report, slightly bored and mildly depressed, if not astonished, by the hypocrisy of the U.N.’s supposed human-rights establishment, I came across the following sentence:
On November 15, 19 Palestinian civilians were killed when an Israeli artillery shell veered off course, missing its intended military target.
Alarm bells began to ring. My boredom vanished. I suddenly felt that old familiar tingle in my typing fingers (all ten of them). Wasn’t HonestReporting going a bit beyond the facts here?
I very recently wrote about the Beit Hanoun tragedy, although in writing that essay I didn’t investigate the details of how Israeli artillery managed to be off-target by several hundred meters. (I was more interested in the applicability of “international law” to the incident, rather than the technical aspect of what went wrong.) Still, I remembered enough about the incident to be suspicious: HonestReporting’s description didn’t ring quite true.
The first problem here was the word “veered”. (The immediate picture that came to my mind when reading that “an Israeli artillery shell veered off course” was an ancient cartoon sequence of some guy firing off a rocket, which then, predictably, did a loop-the-loop and hit him in the butt.) If the tragedy happened because a shell “veered off course”, we are meant to assume that it had been aimed correctly and somehow took a wrong turn in mid-flight. Now this might indeed happen with a primitive rocket, and it nearly always happens when I hit a golf ball; but it doesn’t generally happen with artillery shells.
And indeed, some very quick research revealed that it didn’t happen. According to the IDF itself as well as to other reports, the shells flew straight enough, but were aimed inaccurately because of a malfunction in one circuit card of the artillery battery’s “Shilem” targeting system. The “Shilem” apparatus for this battery had been replaced five days before the Beit Hanoun tragedy; and according to at least one report, it had not been given a live-fire test before being used in the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The final report of the IDF investigation into the incident has not been released, so we don’t yet know why this particular device malfunctioned; the “Shilem” system has been in use for about 30 years and has an excellent record for reliability, which may have (perversely) contributed to the tragedy by allowing the system to be deployed with minimal post-installation testing before real-world use.
According to both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, seven shells were fired off-target, not just one. So even though a hardware failure was responsible for the death of nineteen innocent civilians, the operational procedures in use that day failed to correct the problem in an appropriately timely manner. (Apparently, part of the problem was that the same system that had made the mistake in the first place was also in charge of tracking where the shells hit – and it thought it was doing just fine.)
So: It was seven shells, not one. The shells didn’t change their minds in midair; they were aimed wrong by a defective system, under circumstances that remain unclear. And what about the “intended military target” of the shelling?
Here I was on firmer ground, since I had already written about the targeting of the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The actual target of the shelling was an open area that had been used on the previous day for launching Kassam rockets at Israel. Without repeating a long discussion of the targeting issue, I will only say that blithely referring to an open field as a “military target” is, at best, something of an exaggeration. The impression conveyed by the phrase “military target” is of something substantial – a weapons factory, a troop formation, or the like – rather than an open field that had been used for a military purpose on the previous day but might well be hosting a soccer game today. Even if the IDF had a more or less valid military intention in firing these shells at Beit Hanoun, the target was hardly an impressively military one.
All of this may seem like a lot of bother about one sentence in an otherwise unobjectionable report written by an organization of whose goals I approve. But I think that this sentence highlights an important problem with many of the individuals and organizations that support Israel in the public sphere: the tendency to be just a little bit too convinced of Israeli righteousness, to be too fast to gloss over our own side’s transgressions, and thus to lose the trust of a skeptical world.
Organizations like HonestReporting bill themselves as guardians of the truth – in HonestReporting’s own words, “Promoting fairness. Ensuring accuracy. Effecting change.” If these organizations want to achieve anything, they need to be seen as more than just pro-Israel propaganda mouthpieces. It’s fine to be pro-Israel – many people, myself included, are immediately suspicious of anyone who claims complete neutrality – but if you’re billing yourself as a guardian of accuracy and an opponent of media bias, you need to be scrupulously accurate yourself and try hard not to be swayed by your own biases.
On this occasion – and, I’m afraid, on many others – HonestReporting has let its sympathy for Israel overrule its professed dedication to accuracy, and thus has damaged its own effectiveness.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)