It’s easy to produce an anti-Israel libel that is subsequently debunked after the damage has been done. This was graphically demonstrated in the past few days.
Anti-poverty organization Oxfam’s Campaigns and Policy Director Ben Phillips tweeted the following:
There exists a symbiotic relationship between non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media and anti-Israel activists. Phillips’ tweet attracted the interest of Ali Abunimah, the head of the widely-read anti-Israel propaganda site Electronic Intifada. They engaged in a dialogue where Phillips explained why he was blaming Israel for the water equipment not reaching Gaza:
From here, it was only a small step for Electronic Intifada to publish a story accusing Israel of preventing water equipment from reaching Gaza, including quoting Phillips’ tweets:
“The blockade on Gaza prevented Oxfam’s public health programme bringing in a chlorometer to help get right chlorine levels to clean water,” Ben Phillips, the organization’s Campaigns and Policy Director tweeted from Gaza today.
More than 90 percent of Gaza’s water supply is unfit for human consumption due to years of Israel’s deliberate destruction of sewage and water infrastructure, its ban on imports of equipment and pollution and over-extraction of the only underground aquifer.
As a consequence waterborne illnesses are widespread.
Phillips said that Oxfam “made an application [to Israel] to import” the equipment, but “[A]fter 8 months without agreement we had to use less effective processes instead.”
These apparently did not work. The equipment was to be shipped via Israel from a German manufacturer, Phillips added.
NGOs and so-called humanitarian organizations benefit from the “halo effect,” whereby they are considered beyond reproach. Simply put, anything produced by an organization such as Oxfam is considered to be credible information.
It did not take long for anti-Israel blogs and websites to pounce on the story. A screenshot of the first page of a Google search illustrates just how far and how quickly an anti-Israel story can spread:
Too late then to erase the story once it was confirmed to be wholly untrue. A day later, after Oxfam had notified Electronic Intifada that they had committed an error, EI issued the following correction:
A story The Electronic Intifada published yesterday citing a senior official from Oxfam saying that Israel had prevented water disinfection equipment from entering Gaza was incorrect.
The Electronic Intifada received the following email today from Alun McDonald, Media and Communications Officer for Oxfam, explaining the error (emphasis added):
Thanks for continuing to raise the extremely important issue of water shortages in Gaza. However, the tweet from an Oxfam staff member which was included in the post was incorrect.
Ben was visiting Gaza and there was a mistranslation or misunderstanding in one of his meetings with local communities. In this particular case the delay in receiving the chlorometre was in fact due to delays in with the manufacturer and third party supplier, rather than a delay in bringing it from Israel or caused by the blockade.
I’m sincerely sorry for the mistake and confusion. I’d be grateful if we could issue a correction to the story
The shortage of safe water in Gaza is an extremely real and serious issue, and Oxfam continues to campaign for an end to the blockade, which we believe is in violation of international law and has devastated the lives of people in Gaza and severely restricted the movement of goods and people. However, in this case the delay in receiving equipment was not due to the blockade.
It is rare that such a retraction is ever forthcoming. We can only speculate what might have happened had Oxfam not owned up to its error.
How long would it have been before journalists from mainstream media decided to look into a story of Israelis denying Palestinians vital equipment necessary to provide clean water? Would the journalists have bothered to do some elementary fact-checking beyond relying on the quotes of, in their eyes, a reputable source from Oxfam?
Still, millions of people were exposed to the story via anti-Israel websites and social media irrespective as to whether or not the story was published by mainstream media. Tweets such as these went out to thousands of followers, some of whom retweeted the story:
In addition, the false story entered the political sphere. British Labor MP Grahame Morris retweeted the story:
It is disturbing to know that an elected politician relies on a hate site such as Electronic Intifada. Even when Morris acknowledged that the story was wrong, he still attempted to accuse Israel, stating that “Israel did target and destroy Gaza water infrastructure in first place”:
This incident also draws attention to the relationship between Oxfam and an anti-Israel hate site.
Thanks to the Internet, a story libeling Israel will remain in perpetuity to be recycled by anti-Israel activists who either ignore or have not seen a correction.
This is one reason that HonestReporting’s material is so important. It is critical that a counterpoint is also accessible online providing the truth and a rebuttal to the frequent accusations leveled against Israel. We hope that, ultimately, this very post from HonestReporting will also be present in a Google search the next time someone looks for the false story of how Israel denied the Palestinians of Gaza access to clean water.