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Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

Response to Red Cross attack on Australian Foreign Minister Downer

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About Maurice Ostroff

 

An open letter to Mr. Balthasar Staehelin,
ICRC Delegate-General for the Middle East and North Africa
 
From Maurice Ostroff                         September 2, 2006
 
Sir,

Red Cross slams Downer's hoax claim
I refer to the above article of August 30, in the Australian and in News.com  in which the ICRC is reported to have rebuked Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer for relying on an unverified internet blog to claim an Israeli missile strike on one of its ambulances in southern Lebanon was a hoax
 
The claim by an ICRC spokeswoman that there was no evidence to support Mr Downer's assertion is evidently based on hearsay and is patently incorrect.
 
Journalists have stated freely that, as they are seldom able to gain access to sites of incidents in Lebanon when they occur, they rely on reports by local persons, most often Red Cross workers. The fact that such workers are drawn from the local population makes it unrealistic to rely on them to be unbiased.
 
In your recent BBC Hardtalk interview, you repeatedly stated that Red Cross workers are not permitted to give evidence as witnesses in any court hearings. A BBC profile of the ICRC (May 19), dealing with confidentiality and prisoners of war, reported that the ICRC does not discuss its findings, arguing that confidentiality enables it to access places that no other organization can reach.
 
But in Lebanon (and in Palestine), far from observing this policy, Red Cross workers have been vocal spinmasters, often contradicting each other and themselves, while enjoying immunity from ever having to substantiate their claims under cross-examination in a court of law. As Mr.Sackur so pertinently pointed out during the interview, this entails a glaring inconsistency.
 
Let us take, as an example, the much-quoted Red Cross worker, Qassem Shalin, a prolific source on whom the overwhelming majority of media reports have been based, and whose story changes form time to time.
 
Dahr Jamail, the award-winning, independent journalist reported that Shalin told him he was in the ambulance at the time of the bombing. However, in other reports Shalin was lifting the rear ramp of the ambulance when the missile hit. This would be quite a feat in view of the fact that according to other reports, including a July 26 article in the Australian, the two ambulances were traveling in convoy when "fired on by an Israeli Apache helicopter as they sped to the besieged port city of Tyre”
 
The report added that the convoy was struck by two rockets fired from an Apache helicopter, just before midnight, severely injuring all six people on board. In other reports all six were not injured; Shalin escaped with light scratches.
 
Here we have an even more serious inconsistency, because on August 31 the Australian reported that the ambulances were not hit by rockets at all, but by missiles fired from a drone, not a helicopter.  This claim was confirmed by the group manager of the first-aid team for the Lebanese Red Cross, George Kettneh, who said "I am sure the missile was fired from a drone” He also supports the version that Shalim was not in the ambulance, but was closing the doors when the vehicle was hit.
 
Shalin later told the Australian "There was not a sound in the sky before the explosions. And after that there was a battle for the next hour. We hid in a building nearby convinced we were going to die."
 
Nowhere else is a battle mentioned in relation to this incident. With whom?  With the drone or the helicopter? When the explosion occurred, was Shalin lifting the ramp or was he in the ambulance? In either case he was reportedly taken to Jamal Amal hospital. When then, was he hiding in a building?
 
To anyone who has seen pictures of buses attacked by suicide bombers in Israel, it is obvious from the pictures on Jamail's website that even a small bomb could not have struck the ambulance depicted. Comparing two photos from the site, an external view of a hole in the roof shows it as circular and clean cut, precisely in the position of the usual vent hole. It cannot possibly be the same hole viewed from the interior in another picture and claimed to be of the same ambulance but with very jagged edges and non-circular shape.  All the captions in Jamail's web page refer to one ambulance and show Kasssem Shaulan, looking unscratched though he claims on that web page to have been in the ambulance when it was bombed
 
When the ICRC spokeswoman says there was no evidence to support Minister Downer's assertion, is she accepting the self-contradictory reports by Mr. Shalin and other local workers as solid evidence? And does this flimsy evidence justify damaging allegations of war crimes by Israel, while giving no reason at all, for rejecting the responses of Israel’s spokespersons and the comprehensive, reasoned report in zombietime’s blog?
 
It is also important to know why the spokeswoman completely ignores an AP report by Kathy Gannon, of July 25, stating that both ambulances were destroyed, thus repudiating all the photographic evidence of an ambulance with a hole in its roof?
 
Surely we are entitled to expect greater attention to rigorous fact-finding from such a great humanitarian organization as the Red Cross.
 
To quote Minister Downers speech to the National Newspaper Publishers' Conference, on August 28; “. . . the first duty of responsible media is to get the facts straight, and to get the story right, even when that story might not necessarily conform to your own opinions or prejudices".
 
We owe a debt of gratitude to bloggers like zombietime and courageous statesmen like Australian Minister Downer for their serious contributions towards revealing the truth.
 


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