On Tuesday night an explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza killed an unknown number of people. From that moment two irreconcilable accounts of what caused the blast started to diverge.
So what? Whatever else happened it was a human tragedy and an object lesson in the power of misinformation to distort reality and influence real events:
- Hamas quickly blamed an Israeli airstrike and said up to 471 people had died.
- Israel denied responsibility, blaming a misfired rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
- By that time a summit aimed at containing the war had been cancelled. Yesterday pro-Palestinian demonstrations filled city centres across the Middle East.
When two sides in a conflict trade blame and social media blurs the lines between citizen journalism and propaganda, how can independent researchers pick their way towards the truth?
It’s not impossible. Minute analysis of raw footage uploaded to social media – in this case mainly Telegram – can provide a basis for sorting fact from fiction.
Yesterday researchers at Bellingcat, a pioneer of open source intelligence (Osint), were going frame-by-frame through more than 50 videos and images of the explosion and its aftermath.
They were looking for clues to
- the type of weapon that might have caused it;
- where it came from;
- where it landed; and
- its blast radius.
They found plenty, but certain aspects of this new nadir in Israeli-Palestinian history were already clear.
Uncontested. A weapon landed in the hospital car park in Gaza City at 6.59 pm local time on Tuesday. The hospital, which described itself as a “haven of peace and hope” on its website, was overcrowded with patients as well as hundreds of families seeking refuge from Israeli missile strikes.
Israel had already told Palestinians in the north of Gaza to move south ahead of an anticipated ground invasion, including ordering 22 hospitals to evacuate – something the UN described as a “death sentence” for the sick and injured.
Once sunlight hit the scene, images showed burnt-out cars and scorch marks in the hospital grounds. The buildings appeared damaged but intact.
Contested. Israel said Islamic Jihad fired ten rockets at 6.59 pm from a nearby cemetery at the same time as the hospital explosion and that one failed and fell to earth. A military spokesman said there was no structural damage to buildings and no craters consistent with a missile strike. Israeli officials also released what they said was a recording of Hamas operatives acknowledging the missile was fired from the cemetery.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of trying “to evade responsibility for the brutal massacre it committed”.
Osint input. Marc Garlasco, a military advisor at PAX for Peace’s Protection of Civilians team, said the apparent impact crater was not consistent with an airstrike. “It is more likely to be a weapon that failed and released its payload over a wide area,” he told the Guardian.
Bellingcat concurred but noted from Reuters footage and other images that the Israeli forces’ spokesman was wrong to say no craters could be identified at the site.
Potus. Biden backed Israel’s claims that it was not responsible. “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint appearance in Tel Aviv.
What next? “What we need to do is slow down and not reflexively retweet or like something or share with people without really taking the time to critically analyse what it is we’re looking at,” said Giancarlo Fiorella, director for research and training at Bellingcat. In addition to analysing footage from the blast site, he said his team was
- looking at previous images and pictures from Israeli airstrikes and Hamas attacks to build a sense of the damage patterns caused; and
- waiting to see if any images of munition remnants emerge to help identify their origin.
First casualty. Both sides lie. Recent examples include Israel’s claim last year its soldiers didn’t kill the journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh – disproved by open-source intelligence within days – and a Hamas claim last week not to have targeted civilians on 7 October. But, with patience, the platforms that spread misinformation can be used to expose it too.
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