“Rebunking” the Lebanese ambulance story

On July 23, 2006, two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were attacked by Israeli forces, causing injury to the ambulance crews and the patients aboard – one of the patients, Ahmad Fawaz lost his leg in the attack. The incident generated a fierce burst of media attention because the attack on a marked Red Cross vehicle was a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

This media attention generated a wave of citizen media “debunking” of the incident, making an argument that the attack on the ambulances had been staged by Hezbollah sympathizers to frame Israel for war crimes. The debunking was led by the author behind Zombietime, whose analysis was picked up by prominent right-wing blog, Powerline, and later by conservative commentator Oliver North. This claim was later repeated by Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer, who stated “it is beyond all serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.”

Zombietime’s argument centered on published media photos of the damaged ambulances – commentators concluded that the vehicles had suffered minor damage, while a missle strike would have destroyed them, and that rust around the missle entry hole proved that the hole had existed well before the alleged attack.

Human Rights Watch has just issued a 25-page refutation of this analysis, based on visits to Lebanon, interviews with all three ambulance patients and four of the six ambulance crew. (The Zombietime analysis was based on analysis of the photographs – the debunker did not travel to Lebanon or interview eyewitnesses.) They conclude that the ambulances were both struck by missles, one of which removed Fawaz’s leg, but that the missles were likely Dense Inert Metal Explosives fired from an Israeli drone. Other attacks from Israeli drones caused substantial damage within vehicles without destroying them entirely – larger missles, fired from Israeli helicopters and airplanes tend to obliterate vehicles entirely, leaving large craters.

Human Rights Watch had a definite interest in clearing up uncertainty about the events of July 23. The illegal attack on the ambulances was one of the violations of international conventions that Human Rights Watch reported in their first report on the Lebanon/Israel war – once the attack had been characterized as a “hoax”, some commentators used this characterization to call into question HRW’s other accusations about Israeli conduct during the war. And HRW’s report does include a major correction – they no longer characterize the attack as coming from a manned Israeli aircraft, but now believe the attacks came from a remote-controlled drone.

I’m fascinated by the incident, the “debunking” and HRW’s response refutation of the debunking (a “rebunking”?) because it raises interesting questions about what citizen media can and can’t do. I’ll happily acknowledge that the debunking of the Bush National Guard memo was a high point for the idea of bloggers as fact checkers of the media, even though the incident was seen as a victory for right-wing bloggers. (I’d prefer to see it as a victory for the idea of blogs as an oversight mechanism for the media.) I think it’s very important that photographs which were digitally retouched to enhance smoke, making the destruction in Lebanon look more apocalyptic were debunked, and I note this even though the incident was very embarrasing to Reuters, which is a substantial sponsor of the main project I work on these days.

But this is a case where the armchair pundits apparently got it very, very wrong… and may not have gotten it wrong in especially good faith. The bombing of marked Red Cross vehicles is very damaging to the narrative embraced by the American right that the Israelis are standing up to “global terror” with the sort of care and restraint one would hope for from a democratic state. (Then again, as an American, I haven’t gotten a lot of care and restraint from my democratic government lately.) There’s a strong motivation for pundits supportive of Israel to analyze the photos closely and offer an explanation that absolves Israel of a major breach of the Geneva convention.

What’s disturbing to me about the situation is the timeframe. Zombietime and affiliated rightwing commentators got their story out very quickly, offering their analysis within days of the incident. HRW’s response is coming almost half a year later. This makes sense – HRW actually went to Lebanon and interviewed people who saw the incident, while Zombietime looked at press photos and offered theories. While HRW’s analysis is critical in determining what really happened on July 23rd and demanding accountability from the Israeli government, this report is hardly likely to call as much attention to the incident as it recieved when it was initially reported. Zombietime et. al. already accomplished their rhetorical goals – they gave an explanation that let some readers dismiss the reporting of the incident and cast doubt into the mind of other readers. It’s unlikely that many of those people will wrestle with the issues again as a result of HRW’s report, as much as I’d hope otherwise.

This raises an interesting question about the future of factual disputes in the age of citizen media: should we expect partisan refutation of all inconvenient facts? If this is the case, is it a victory for dispersed global fact-checking, or for rhetoric? Pro-Israel organizations like Honest Reporting are closely monitoring media for stories they consider critical. If they subject these stories to careful, factual analysis and reveal sloppy reporting, like that conducted by Dan Rather on the Bush memos, this is a good thing. But if they do their own sloppy reporting and the assertions they offer can’t be challenged until six months after the fact, we’re in for a very ugly chapter in the history of news media.

Organizations like HRW are going to have to get better at responding to situations like this one in a way that’s both fast and careful. HRW can’t respond as quickly as a blogger because they’ve got a long track record of offering careful research and analysis before publishing reports. But maybe they need to consider mobilizing their own affiliated bloggers – I am proud to be one – much earlier in the process, not just when they’ve finished their analysis.

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12 Responses to “Rebunking” the Lebanese ambulance story

  1. Pingback: Citizen Media Watch » The Lebanese ambulance attack and trust in citizen - and established - media

  2. Zionist Spy says:

    I agree with the idea that the story is an unfortunate hoax. The idea of right against left doesn’t so much apply here as the the notion that a mechanism is in place to question the reporting of the main stream press and such prominant groups as HRW.

    Btw, as far as I have seen they HRW that is has yet to condemn Hezbollah for a single violation.

    Seems one sided at best and goes to their credibility in my opinion.

  3. Ethan says:

    Thanks for the comment, ZS. I’d recommend looking at HRW’s site – they’ve quite roundly condemned some of Hezbollah’s actions during the war. Here’s an example from http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/18/lebano14412.htm

    “Hezbollah launched cluster attacks that were at best indiscriminate, i.e., they violated the principle of distinction by using unguided and highly inaccurate cluster munition models against populated areas. At worst, Hezbollah deliberately attacked civilian areas with these weapons. “

  4. Peter N-H says:

    If one needed further evidence that much of the excitement about blogging is pure hysteria one need look little further than this post.

    Blogging is useful in situations such as that in Baghdad where reporters dare not venture out of the ‘Green Zone’ and individuals living the nightmare outside it are able to get their stories out via blogs. But there’s nothing about the process of putting your diary on a globally-readable medium rather than scribbling it in a book that only you glance at will somehow sanitize it of the biases of the writer (or add intelligence, knowledge, or perspicacity to his or her remarks).

    It is obvious that the temptation to put across a certain point of view will be increased by the knowledge of a larger readership, and that the next step is for individuals to start blogs principally to act as sources of disinformation and as a platform for their own bigotry.

    Indeed, the widespread adoption of the naive view implicit in the remarks above (that in its crudest popular form amounts to little more than ‘professional journalist lazy, dishonest, and corrupt; blogger guardian of truth’) was always going to accelerate the move of organised disinformation into the realm of blogs, as well as accelerate the race of the not-so-well intentioned to ‘expose’ conventional media laziness in return for global glory and back-slapping by the self-righteous but not particularly well-informed.

    If we make unfavourable comparisons between the reporters hiding in the Green Zone and the bloggers out in the realities of Baghdad, what are we doing praising the armchair Lebanon photo-analyst bloggers rather than waiting for real reports from the ground?

    Blogs need to be read not with as much scepticism as conventional media, but with more. Like everything else in the bedlam of the Internet, few have much reliability as reports of anything concrete if they are not already grounded in a real-world organisation subject to peer review and with a reputation to protect.

    It is surely blindingly obvious that serious research takes a great deal longer than rushing to judgment on flimsy evidence seen from a great distance, and there’s nothing that Human Rights Watch or anyone else can do about that. Nor ought we to be encouraging them to be anything other than completely painstaking.

    Rushing to publication with analysis part complete will only increase the possibility of errors that no doubt would be pounced upon by those seeking to publicise an alternative narrative. And if the rush to judgement on the ‘faking’ of the ambulance incident is going to continue to have more currency than the more measured but slower to arrive final conclusion that a major human rights breach was in fact committed by Isreal, then so would the speculations of some interim report be more likely to be remembered than the later final report.

    It’s the automatic and instant beatification of bloggers that’s the issue here, and the uncritical approval of the quick and the shallow. It’s the failure to distinguish between temporarily trendy medium and the quality of the content and analysis.

    Readers need to be more critical, and the vampires making careers out of hyping blogging need to fasten onto some new ephemera and leave everyone else to reflect on the importance of thorough research, solid evidence, and sound reasoning, and the near irrelevance of the medium through which this is conveyed to others.

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  6. Cos says:

    You raise a very interesting issue about blog fact-checking and quick response vs. slower research from other sources.

    Regarding the ambulance attack incident specifically, however, I believe the main line of criticism is that Israel is used to fighting groups that have been demonstrated to use clearly marked ambulances and UN vehicles to move fighters and weapons (Fatah, Hamas). I’m not sure if anyone has definitively demonstrated that Hizbullah does this too; however, I am aware of incidents in which Israel has confirmed that it attacked ambulances or UN-marked civilian vehicles, with that explanation. So it seems to me that another issue here is, why did blogs concentrate on trying to “debunk” something Israel has admitted it does sometimes do, and why wasn’t there more attention paid (both on the blogs and in the press) to the explanation Israel gives for it, and how that applies or doesn’t. It feels like they’re missing the story in favor of a tangent.

  7. David Kane says:

    Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. Has any similar work been done “rebunking” the Qana Massacre? The main “debunking” is here:

    My neologism for this, reuter’d, has yet to catch on.

  8. zionist spy says:

    Thanks for pointing me to the HRW website Ethan, however I must say I see a very one sided persective with Israel as the ‘bad guy’ here when clearly Hezbollah launched rockets from civilian areas and conducted a cross border raid that kidnapped Israeli citizens. No one has heard from those in Hezbollah custody. Nor has HRW asked they be released.

  9. zionist spy says:

    Cos, you make a good point. Yes, it has been documented that Hamas and Fatah as well as Islamic Jihad use ambulances to transport military soilders and arms.

    Here is a blog you might like Ethan: http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/

    Elder makes some excellent points on the ambulance story that you might find interesting.

    Great blog and very interesting discussion.

  10. Ethan says:

    Thanks Cos, ZS. Aryeh Neier has a useful response to the allegations of bias against HRW – I recommend it, as he does a better job of explaining HRW’s responses to these questions than I can:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19500

  11. aunursa says:

    Zombie has responded to HRW, with an exhaustive analysis that discusses the various types of missiles that HRW claims might have struck the ambulances. Zombie argues that the HRW report actually raises more questions than it answers. Zombie’s analysis is joined by others who agree that HRW has not in fact proven its claim.

    Zombie’s response to HRW is here: http://www.zombietime.com/fraud/ambulance/hrw/

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