Two sides to every story

"A mother and her four children were killed in their house in Beit Hanoun in Gaza on Monday morning," was how the news went out in the Arab, Israeli and international media alike. How it could have happened depends on which media you ask.
Beit Hanoun
The Israeli army has promised an inquiry into the deaths of Meissa' Abu Aatek and her four children. R.R.

GAZA/RAMALLAH, April 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – This much everybody agrees upon: on Monday morning, in the village of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza strip, a Palestinian mother, Meissa' Abu Aatek, and her four children, Salah, Hana', Roudayna and Masaad, were killed while they were having breakfast in the family house. Also killed was 22-year-old Palestinian militant Ibrahim Hajouj.

How this happened depends on whether you follow the Palestinian or Arab media, or the official Israeli story.

WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, said the tragic deaths were the result of a direct hit by an Israeli missile on the Abu Aatek house.

The official Israeli story is that the missile, which was fired from a drone, hit two Palestinian militants and that the Abu Aatek family was killed by a secondary explosion caused when the sacks of explosives the militants were carrying blew up.

The Palestinian story doesn't mention anything about sacks of explosives.

So who to believe?

An Israeli journalist told MENASSAT on condition of anonymity, "I think the Palestinian media always adopt the Palestinian story regardless of the truth. Everything is blamed on Israel in incidents like these. I blame the Palestinian media here because they know very well that the Palestinian resistance regularly fires missiles into Israel from crowded civilian neighborhoods."

When in doubt, blame Israel

Harsh words. But the Israeli journalist is not alone in his criticism of the Palestinian media.

Najib Farraj, a journalist working for the Palestinian al-Quds newspaper, told MENASSAT, "I think both the official and private Palestinian media always take side against the occupation and Israel in such incidents. The [Palestinian] media are not concerned with investigating the accuracy of the information because they consider that Israel is always to blame."

He believes there is no such thing as impartiality in the Palestinian media, especially not when dealing with an incident as dramatic as what happened in Beit Hanoun on Monday.

But this works both ways.

As Ali Waked, an Arab-Israeli journalist with the Israeli newspaper Yedohot Ahronot, pointed out, "The Israeli media in turn usually adopt the official army version without raising the many questions that could be asked in such incidents."

In times of war, Ali Waked said, the media usually adopt one point of view.

However, he stressed that lately he has noticed great improvement in the Palestinian media concerning similar matters. For example, when a Palestinian missile recently fell on a Palestinian house, the Palestinian media reported the incident.

In all fairness, the Israeli army on Tuesday announced that an additional inquiry will be carried out "due to the sensitivity of the matter and the complexity of the battle."

But Ali Waked doubted whether the outcome of an inquiry would change very much to the official Israeli story.

Another Palestinian journalist, Shirine Abu Akla who reports for al-Jazeera, said, "I think we sometimes neglect to investigate the information. Most of the time, the easiest version is adopted, which means that we try to stay away from controversy, adopting the version that is most widely accepted by the Palestinian people."

Point of view

Abu Akla distinguishes two kinds of media: those who only give one point of view and those who do give the two versions of the story while still showing preference for the Palestinian narrative.

In the case of Beit Hanoun, she said, the Palestinian media was naturally inclined to lean towards the Palestinian version.

Although Abu Akla agreed with Ali Waked that the Israeli media tend to favor their own military's version, she pointed out that the Israeli media dutifully reported the very young age of the victims and the tragic circumstances of their deaths [whereas the WAFA story left out the information about the sacks of explosives.]

Asked about the Israeli inquiry, Abu Akla felt it would serve mostly to calm the anger, "not the Palestinian anger because Israel doesn't care about that but the anger of the international community and the effect of what happened on the reputation of Israel."

Not everybody agreed with the points of view expressed above.

Wissam Afifa, editor-in-chief of al-Risala newspaper in Gaza, said his newspaper always gives the Israeli point of view as well – even if they usually add qualifiers such as "alleged" or "claimed" when the source is the Israeli army.

He added that the initial story usually comes from an Israeli source and if the official story ignores the humanitarian consequences of an Israeli military action, then it is only natural for the Palestinian media to adopt the Palestinian version instead.

Journalists at al-Risala have tried to punch holes in the Israeli story, Afifa said. For instance, the Israeli media talked about two Palestinian militants carrying explosives but only one death was reported, that of 22-year old  Ibrahim Hjouj, a member of the al-Quds brigades.

Afifa added that if the Abu Aatek family was killed by the explosives Hjouj was carrying it would follow that Hajouj's body would be ripped to pieces, which allegedly was not the case. He further claimed that Israeli missile parts were found in the rubble of the Abu Aatek house.

Human rights investigation

Meanwhile, human right organizations from both sides also have different versions of what happened.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which has started its own investigation into the incident, has said that its preliminary reconstruction is similar to the army's.

"There was a group of militants near the house and the drone fired a missile at them. They were carrying bags that probably had grenades in them," spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told AFP, adding that no one was killed in the first strike.

"A minute later a second missile was fired at at one of the men about a meter and a half outside the front door of the Abu [Aatek] house," killing Ibrahim Hajouj.

"The debate turns on whether he was carrying a bag that somehow caused a larger secondary explosion or whether the missile itself killed the four children and their mother," she said.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights also said the drone had targeted a group of Palestinian fighters outside the house but insisted the family was killed by shrapnel from the second missile.

B'Tselem has called on the Israeli military to release footage from the drone that fired the missile – possibly the only way to get at the truth.