A new report from the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights (3/6/13) tallies the extent of the death and destruction from Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip last November. The fighting, which lasted about a week, killed over 174 Palestinians in Gaza, including 22 children and 13 women. Six Israelis were killed.
But the headlines generated by the report focused on one child in Gaza, 11-month-old Omar al-Masharawi, and the claim that he was not killed by Israelis, as was originally reported.
The UN report recounts plenty of incidents. Among them:
-On 19 November, a father, his 12-year-old daughter, and his 19-year-old son were allegedly killed by a drone missile while collecting spearmint in a farm adjacent to their house in Ahmad Yassin Street, north of Gaza City.
-On 20 November, two 16-year-old boys were killed, allegedly by a drone missile, while hunting birds in an open area located approximately 700 meters away from the fence, east of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Relatives of the victims reported that the IDF did not grant access to the ambulances to retrieve the bodies for at least five hours.
-On 18 November, an Israeli air strike without prior warning hit a three-story house belonging to the Al-Dalou family in Al-Nasser neighborhood, central Gaza City. The airstrike killed 12 people, five of whom were children and four were women.
-The IDF targeted residential buildings and properties during the last few days of the crisis, with some reports estimating that a total of 382 residences were destroyed or sustained severe damages due to Israeli attacks.
-During the crisis the IDF attacked several media offices and journalists in Gaza City. Such attacks killed two cameramen traveling in a car marked as a press vehicle, and injured at least eight journalists.
But the stories we are seeing now are about a death that might not be attributed to Israeli violence. "UN Ties Gaza Baby's Death to Palestinians" was the headline of a New York Times piece (3/12/13). An Associated Press report (3/11/13) is headlined "UN: Palestinian Militants Likely Killed Gaza Baby." That piece referred to the photo of Omar's body being held his father, BBC cameraman Jihad al-Masharawi, as " an image that became a symbol of what Palestinians said was Israeli aggression."
Of course what Palestinians "said was Israeli aggression" was actually Israeli aggression, as the death toll and the UN report would indicate. But the AP article is instructive; of the report's 18 paragraphs, 12 are about the dispute over Omar; the piece winds down by noting, as if it hardly matters, the rest of the record the U.N. report:
In the same report, the authors also criticized Israel for appearing to disregard civilians while pursuing militants and military targets, and for targeting civilian sites, like hospitals, bridges and media offices.
Among many cases, they noted an 84-year-old man and his 14-year-old granddaughter were killed by an Israeli military strike on November 21 while they were in their olive orchard on Gaza's eastern border. They also cited an Israeli airstrike on a crowded Gaza City neighborhood that killed 12 people, including five children and four women.
So what did the UN actually report about Omar al-Masharawi? It would appear to be all of this:
On 14 November, a woman, an 11-month-old infant, and an 18-year-old adult in Al-Zaitoun were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.
It's possible that the UN has solid information to back up this claim. But the New York Times report noted
The BBC has reported that privately, military officials told journalists at the time that Israel had aimed at a militant who was hiding in the building.
And the Associated Press noted that the UN "couldn't 'unequivocally conclude' that the death was caused by an errantly fired Palestinian rocket."
The BBC (3/11/13) casts doubt on the attribution of the infant's death to a Palestinian rocket, noting "that the Israeli military had reported no rockets being fired out of Gaza so soon after the start of the conflict." It also pointed out that UN team, arriving four weeks after the attack, "did not carry out a forensic investigation, but said their team did not think the damage was consistent with an Israeli air strike." Al-Masharawi's father, for his part, calls the UN finding "rubbish."
So the incident is murky at best. It recalls the dispute over Israeli attacks on the West Bank city of Jenin in 2002. Early reports suggested that the death toll could have been between 100 and 200, according to Israeli sources; a subsequent investigation by Human Rights Watch counted 52 deaths. Nonetheless, Jenin is often recalled (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/10/02) primarily as a lesson that Palestinian claims of a "massacre" did not hold up to scrutiny.
The danger is that this could turn into the same kind of story, and the death of a child will be remembered not as a tragedy but as a case of erroneous attribution–or, as the AP put it, "a symbol of what Palestinians said was Israeli aggression."