The World Paid a Stiff Price for Bad Reporting on the Gaza Hospital Explosion

Ella Castle

President Joe Biden left Washington on Oct. 17 with big plans. He didn’t make it off the tarmac before disinformation hijacked his trip. Social media outrage and hasty news coverage of the Gaza hospital bombing preempted diplomacy that could have saved lives. After traveling to Israel to reassure the Jewish […]

President Joe Biden left Washington on Oct. 17 with big plans. He didn’t make it off the tarmac before disinformation hijacked his trip. Social media outrage and hasty news coverage of the Gaza hospital bombing preempted diplomacy that could have saved lives.

After traveling to Israel to reassure the Jewish State of U.S. support and to ask hard questions about plans for a ground offensive, Biden planned to hold a summit with leaders from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Egypt. He planned to work with them on allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, protecting Palestinian civilians and letting some leave the Strip, as well as making a joint statement to stem a rising tide of global outrage that has led to violence against Jews and Arabs alike around the world. The summit could have been a key step to averting a wider regional conflict.

Then hundreds of people died in a massive explosion at a Gaza hospital. Social media spread horrific images of human tragedy, and fingers pointed hurriedly and emphatically at an Israeli airstrike. Soon the court of public opinion had fully adopted the story that the tragedy was Israel’s fault. By the time evidence emerged that the blast was actually a Palestinian rocket misfire, it was far too late. Disinformation spread around the world before the truth got its boots on.

Growing Protests
Thousands of people gather at Porte d’Aix in support of Palestinians on Oct. 22, in Marseille, France.
Sener Yilmaz Aslan/Getty Images

The consequences of that disinformation were clear and immediate: Arab leaders felt they could not be seen shaking hands with an ally of Israel. Biden’s summit with regional leaders died before Air Force One took off.

This opportunity might not have been missed if observers had taken a minute to ask questions before blindly accepting Israeli fault. Journalists should have withheld judgment and asked questions, like whether the IDF had been targeting the area. Social media users should have questioned the sources before re-posting. Even the most strident Israel critics should have considered a long history of Palestinian rocket misfires before automatically convicting Israel.

Compelling evidence points to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket that misfired. Video captured by al Jazeera appears to show a rocket launched from nearby changing course and exploding mid-air. Satellite imagery shows little to no damage to the hospital building, but scorch marks on the roof and burned cars in the parking lot, consistent with a fire but not an airstrike. Further the crater in the parking lot is far more consistent with the impact of a smaller weapon than an Israeli missile or Iron Dome interceptor. Finally, official statements from the IDF said intelligence, radar footage, and other aerial footage showed the rocket was Palestinian—one of 10 rockets launched at around that time from that area.

Diplomacy continues between the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and the PA. There is some movement on humanitarian shipments. Information exchanges will continue behind the scenes to find Hamas terrorists and the hostages they are holding. But Biden’s planned summit was a huge missed opportunity.

Even if the Biden administration has somewhat placed relations with the Middle East on the back burner, the American President still carries immense weight. Having the leader of the free world across the table makes it much harder to say no to allowing dual citizens out of Gaza, for example. And while the U.S. is a staunch ally of Israel, balancing that alliance with other strong relationships—the U.S. has long been closely aligned with Jordan and Egypt as well—would remind the world that this conflict is a regional problem to solve. It also would reinforce that the enemy is not Arabs or Muslims but a group of terrorists who brought fear and death on innocent civilians.

Mistakes happen, but disinformation is not a mistake and should not be excused as such. The responsibility is on all of us to evaluate what we repeat before we repeat it, and particularly on the news media to not let the urgency of the news cycle be an excuse to jump to conclusions.

Emily Harding is director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology (INT) Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.