When armed militants crossed the Egyptian border last August and launched a multi-pronged attack on Israeli civilians and soldiers in Eilat that killed eight people, U.S. media repeated the Israeli government line, blaming the attack on Palestinians from Gaza. Three months later, Israel itself has concluded that the attackers were Egyptian—but U.S. media have failed to correct the record.
As Israelis reeled from the August 18 assault, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, declared that the “source of the terrorist attacks is Gaza.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to a group based in Gaza called the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), which firmly denied the accusation. Hours after the Eilat attacks, Israeli warplanes raided the Gaza Strip, setting off more than a week of fighting between Israel and Palestinian fighters. One Israeli civilian and 17 Palestinians, including eight civilians, were killed as a result, according to Human Rights Watch (9/11/11).
U.S. establishment media echoed the Israeli leadership’s line. The New York Daily News account (8/19/11) of the attacks relayed as fact the Israeli government’s claims that “Palestinian gunmen killed eight people in a multistage terror attack.” James Hider, the London Times’ Mideast correspondent, told NPR (8/23/11) that “a group of suspected Palestinian militants escaped out of Gaza...and started attacking Israelis.” And the New York Times’ Isabel Kershner wrote (9/1/11) that the “mid-August attack” in Eilat was carried out “by Palestinian militants.”
But it took only a day for questions to emerge about the Israeli government’s narrative. In an interview with the Real News Network (8/19/11), an Israeli military spokesperson contradicted Netanyahu, saying, “We did not say this group [the PRC] was responsible for the terror attack,” although she continued to insist the attackers were from Gaza. This was followed by an independent Egyptian newspaper’s report (Al Masry Al Youm, 8/21/11) that Egyptian authorities had identified three of the attackers, one of whom it said was the leader of an Egyptian “terrorist cell.”
A report by the respected Israeli journalist Amira Hass (Ha’aretz, 8/25/11) dealt further blows to the story. Hass wrote: “There is no sign [in Gaza] of the traditional mourners’ tents for the relatives of militants killed by the Israel Defense Forces.... [This] reinforces the general sense in the Strip that the perpetrators of the attack were not from Gaza.”
The Israeli leadership’s story completely unraveled a month later, when an internal Israeli military investigation “determined that all of those who actually participated in the attack were Egyptians” (Time.com, 9/21/11). Although the IDF continued to claim that the PRC “sponsored” the attack, bloggers such as +972’s Yossi Gurvitz (8/25/11) and Richard Silverstein (9/21/11) have debunked that claim as well. The Egyptian government arrested a suspect in the attack in the Sinai town of El-Arish in mid-November, describing him as the leader of an Al-Qaeda-inspired cell (AP, 11/13/11).
But the U.S. corporate press, save for that one blog post in Time, failed to report on the newly disclosed information that debunks the Israeli government’s claims of Palestinian involvement in the attacks—claims that were used to justify military retaliation that led to the killing of innocent civilians.
Instead, journalists continued to get the facts of the attacks dead wrong. New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner stated (10/12/11) that “Israel had apologized to Egypt for the deaths of several of its troops by Israeli forces chasing Palestinian militants into Sinai in August.”
Another New York Times article (10/30/11), written as a new round of violence flared in Gaza, reported that the Eilat attacks were “orchestrated” by Gazan members of the PRC. Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel blog also ran a piece (10/25/11) by former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Janine Zacharia, who stated: “Palestinians infiltrated from Egypt and killed eight Israelis this past August.” These claims continue to appear in mainstream media outlets despite having been debunked a month earlier.
As Extra! has repeatedly demonstrated (e.g., 4/11, 8/10, 2/09), U.S. media have made a habit of credulously relaying Israeli officials’ claims, even when baseless or undermined by available evidence. It appears that habit holds even when Israel itself provides that evidence.
Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and blogger based in New York City (alexbkane.wordpress.com). He can be followed on Twitter @alexbkane.