ABC & NBC Relay Phony Claims of Israeli War Crimes, Fail to Retract

In recent weeks, both the NBC Nightly News and ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson repeated charges that Israeli troops had witnessed the deliberate killing of Palestinian civilians by fellow troops during the Gaza War. In recent days, the New York Times has informed its readers that, after investigation, the Israeli military concluded that the incendiary claims were untrue and that the soldiers in question had actually been repeating rumors rather than describing events they had witnessed. But so far, neither NBC nor ABC has updated their viewers on the story. And in the case of ABC, even though some of the allegations had already been debunked, as reported in the conservative Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, March 24, the original inaccurate accounts were still repeated two days later on the Thursday, March 26, World News.

Anchor Charles Gibson introduced the March 26 story: "There is a debate under way right now throughout Israel about soldiers, war and morality. Two months after the war in Gaza, Israeli soldiers are providing the accounts of what they saw and did on the battlefield. And some of those accounts are deeply disturbing."

After recounting that Palestinians had previously made accusations of war crimes against the Israeli military, ABC’s Simon McGregor-Wood continued: "The army denied it. And the public accepted the denial. But now, for the first time, disturbing evidence from Israeli soldiers themselves. Personal accounts from the front line, published word for word in the newspapers. From Aviv, a squad leader. "One of our officers saw someone walking on a road, an old woman. He sent people up onto the roof, and, using machine guns, they took her down."

On the March 19 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Martin Fletcher had similarly charged: "The Israeli army insisted during the war they were extra careful to avoid unnecessary damage and to protect Palestinian civilians. But today Israelis were shocked by reports of soldiers speaking out, saying they intentionally destroyed Palestinian property and killed civilians." (Complete transcripts follow)

Returning to the March 26 World News, after repeating claims that an officer had given orders to shoot an elderly woman and that there was a general attitude of aggressiveness toward Palestinians, McGregor-Wood translated a brief soundbite from Israeli Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi: "'Ours is the most humane army in the world,’ he said. ‘Isolated cases, if found, will be dealt with.'"

Without informing viewers that the accusations originated with cadets of a left-wing military school, the Rabin Military Preparation Center, and were pushed by its founder, Danny Zamir, who was jailed in 1990 for refusing orders to serve in one of the military’s campaigns, McGregor-Wood characterized the accusers as having greater credibility because they are themselves Israeli troops, and used a soundbite from Breaking the Silence -- a left-wing group of former Israeli troops who oppose military operations in Palestinian territories -- without informing viewers of its ideological bent, merely referring to the organization as a "group of former soldiers":

The Israeli army enjoys a special status here. Every Israeli serves in it; it really is their army. And they don't like to hear bad things said about it. But when the criticism comes from soldiers, it's not so easy to ignore. And there's more to come. A group of former soldiers is collecting evidence from colleagues who fought in Gaza. They're hearing similar stories of a "shoot first" policy.

After a soundbite of Breaking the Silence co-founder Mikhail Manekin calling the accusations "troubling," McGregor-Wood concluded his story by relaying the group’s distrust of the Israeli military: "They don't hold out much hope for the army's own investigation. They do hope the stories of ordinary soldiers will encourage a debate about what really happened in Gaza, and what is happening to their army. Simon McGregor-Wood, ABC News, Jerusalem."

The NBC Nightly News had picked up the story a week earlier on the Thursday, March 19, show. Substitute anchor David Gregory, who had notably been unusually balanced in covering the Gaza War in late December and early January, plugged the story before a commercial break, giving credibility to the accusations against the Israeli military as he referred to "shocking revelations": "When we continue this Thursday night, shocking revelations today about the price of war and charges that it was a lot higher than it had to be."

He introduced the report relaying allegations that Israeli troops had "acted far more brutally than previously thought": "Israel has always said that its assault on Gaza was an act of self-defense, a response to missile attacks against Israeli civilians. But now Israel has been shaken by charges from some of the soldiers themselves that the Israeli military acted far more brutally than previously thought."

Correspondent Martin Fletcher charged: "The Israeli army insisted during the war they were extra careful to avoid unnecessary damage and to protect Palestinian civilians. But today Israelis were shocked by reports of soldiers speaking out, saying they intentionally destroyed Palestinian property and killed civilians."

Fletcher then recited two stories – both of which have since been debunked – in which Israeli troops were said to have killed civilians:

A squad leader said a mother and two children were allowed to leave a building and turn right, but they turned left instead, and nobody had told a nearby sniper they were coming. He killed them. The squad leader said, quote, "I don't think he felt too bad about it. He did his job according to his orders." In another case, another soldier said his commander ordered that an old woman be killed, although she was 100 yards away. The squad leader said there was a general atmosphere that, quote, "The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers."

The NBC correspondent quoted a Hamas member as charging that "these confessions confirm the criminal and terrorist mentality of the Israelis," before showing a soundbite of Major Avital Leibovich, Israeli Army Spokesperson, as she relayed that the military would investigate the accusations and defended the integrity of the Army’s general operating procedures.

But the Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday, March 24, that one of the stories of civilians being shot was debunked, in the article "Ashkenazi Rejects Reports that Gaza Civilians were Targeted," by Yaakov Lappin:

Regarding one incident mentioned in the division commander's report, which deals with a claim that a soldier shot a Palestinian woman and her children, a soldier is quoted as saying, "I saw the woman and her children and I fired a warning shot.

"The squad commander went up on the roof of a Palestinian home and shouted down to me, 'Why did you fire at them?' I explained that I did not fire at them, but fired a warning shot.'"

Officers in the division believe that soldiers who were staying on the bottom floor of the same home thought the soldier had shot the woman and children, leading to the false rumor of killings.

Also in the March 24 Jerusalem Post article, "Our World: Israel's Media Star Chambers," conservative columnist Caroline Glick informed readers of the dubious nature of the accusations and their sources. Glick: "[The Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy] is the only pre-military academy that is openly and avowedly leftist. Its founder and director Danny Zamir was jailed in 1990 for refusing to serve in Nablus during the height of the Palestinian uprising. In 2004 he allowed his 1990 manifesto calling for soldiers to refuse orders to be reprinted in a book Refusnik: Israel's Soldiers of Conscience which was published with a forward by Susan Sontag and a recommendation by Noam Chomsky."

Glick further charged that Zamir, after publishing some of the accounts in the school bulletin, "gave the bulletin to two far-left reporters -- Ofer Shelach from Channel 10 and Amos Harel from Ha'aretz. In an act of unmitigated journalistic malpractice, on Friday night Shelach presented the unattributed testimonials as first-person accounts. He used actors to read out the soldiers' statements as if they were the soldiers themselves, and never told his audience that the voices they were hearing were not the voices of the actual soldiers."

In a March 28 New York Times article, "Israel Disputes Soldiers' Accounts of Gaza Abuses," Ethan Bronner relayed: "[Israeli] officers familiar with the investigation say that those who spoke of the killing of the mother and her children did not witness it and that it almost certainly did not occur. Warning shots were fired near the family but not at it, the officers said, and a rumor spread among the troops of an improper shooting."

The March 28 National Post, a conservative newspaper in Canada, ran an article titled "From Gaza, with Lies," in which Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz complained about inaccurate reports in the media:

[News consumers] don't know that the aforementioned head of a school for new soldiers, who compiled the targeting-the-innocent allegations, went to jail for refusing to serve in the West Bank, that key soldiers involved now say they were discussing "rumors" and have no direct evidence of any such crimes and that the central terrible charges of "cold-blooded" killing have been refuted after investigation by the relevant unit's brigade commander.

Horovitz continued:

As The Jerusalem Post was told by the IDF on Thursday: In the [central] incident of the alleged shooting of the mother and her children, what really happened was that a marksman fired a warning shot to let them know that they were entering a no-entry zone. The shot was not even fired in their general direction ... The marksman's commander ran up the stairs of a Palestinian home, got up on the roof, and asked the marksman why he shot at the civilians. The marksman said he did not fire on the civilians. But the soldiers on the first floor of that house heard the commander's question being shouted. And from that point, the rumor began to spread. We can say with absolute certainty that the marksman did not fire on the woman and her children ... We know with certainty that this incident never took place.

In the March 31 New York Times article, "Israeli Army Ends Inquiry Into Soldiers' Accounts of Gaza Abuses," Isabel Kershner reported:

The military police found that ''the crucial components of their descriptions were based on hearsay and not supported by specific personal knowledge,'' the army said in a statement.

Specifically, a soldier's claim that orders had been given to fire at an elderly Palestinian woman who entered a no-go zone was found to be based on a rumor, according to the military. Another case, in which a soldier had supposedly been ordered to fire at a woman and two children, was also found not to have been witnessed by the soldier who gave the account.

''After checking the claim, it was found that during this incident a force had opened fire in a different direction, toward two suspicious men who were unrelated to the civilians in question,'' the statement said.

Below are complete transcripts of the relevant reports from the Thursday, March 19, NBC Nightly News, and the Thursday, March 26, World News with Charles Gibson on ABC:

#From the March 19 NBC Nightly News:

DAVID GREGORY, BEFORE COMMERCIAL BREAK: When we continue this Thursday night, shocking revelations today about the price of war and charges that it was a lot higher than it had to be.

...

GREGORY: We're back now with our "In Depth" report. And tonight we revisit a war that dominated the headlines as the year began, the fight between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has always said that its assault on Gaza was an act of self-defense, a response to missile attacks against Israeli civilians. But now Israel has been shaken by charges from some of the soldiers themselves that the Israeli military acted far more brutally than previously thought. NBC's Martin Fletcher has the latest tonight from Tel Aviv.

MARTIN FLETCHER: To keep their own soldiers safe in Gaza, Israeli tanks flattened Palestinian homes rather than drive on roads with land mines. The price today? Palestinians homeless in crushed neighborhoods. The Israeli army insisted during the war they were extra careful to avoid unnecessary damage and to protect Palestinian civilians. But today Israelis were shocked by reports of soldiers speaking out, saying they intentionally destroyed Palestinian property and killed civilians.

OFER SHELAH, CHANNEL 10 REPORTER: These soldiers, most of them, did not think that they were telling anything unusual. They basically thought that was their experience, that's the way they told it.

FLETCHER: A squad leader said a mother and two children were allowed to leave a building and turn right but they turned left instead, and nobody had told a nearby sniper they were coming. He killed them. The squad leader said, quote, "I don't think he felt too bad about it. He did his job according to his orders." In another case, another soldier said his commander ordered that an old woman be killed, although she was 100 yards away. The squad leader said there was a general atmosphere that, quote, "The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers." Hamas spokesmen responded saying, quote, "These confessions confirm the criminal and terrorist mentality of the Israelis." During the war the army spokesman routinely denied such claims. But today-

MAJOR AVITAL LEIBOVICH, ISRAELI ARMY SPOKESPERSON: We have decided to open an investigation, a thorough investigation, to check these matters. It's important for me to say that the IDF policy is to save lives on both sides of the border.

FLETCHER: It isn't clear how widespread these acts were during Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, but tomorrow the newspaper said there will be more revelations by Israeli soldiers. Martin Fletcher, NBC News, Tel Aviv.

#From the March 26 World News with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON, BEFORE COMMERCIAL BREAK: Disturbing reports about the Israeli army: The accusations come from Israeli soldiers themselves.

...

GIBSON: There is a debate under way right now throughout Israel about soldiers, war and morality. Two months after the war in Gaza, Israeli soldiers are providing the accounts of what they saw and did on the battlefield. And some of those accounts are deeply disturbing. Here's Simon McGregor-Wood.

SIMON MCGREGOR-WOOD: After three weeks of fighting in Gaza, Israelis expected accusations from the Palestinians, even from human rights groups. And they came: The army had used disproportionate force, had targeted civilians and even committed war crimes. The army denied it. And the public accepted the denial. But now, for the first time, disturbing evidence from Israeli soldiers themselves. Personal accounts from the front line, published word for word in the newspapers.

From Aviv, a squad leader. "One of our officers saw someone walking on a road, an old woman. He sent people up onto the roof, and, using machine guns, they took her down." Ram, another infantry commander. "The feeling was that the lives of Palestinians were much less important than the lives of our soldiers. That was how they justified it." And there was this cell phone video of an officer's briefing on the eve of battle. "If a person comes towards you," the officer says, "even if unarmed, and we’ve shot in the air, and he keeps coming, this person is dead." The army rushed to defend itself.

[LIEUTENANT GENERAL GABI ASHKENAZI, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCE, IS SHOWN SPEAKING WITH MCGREGOR-WOOD TRANSLATING]

"Ours is the most humane army in the world," he said. "Isolated cases, if found, will be dealt with."

The Israeli army enjoys a special status here. Every Israeli serves in it; it really is their army. And they don't like to hear bad things said about it. But when the criticism comes from soldiers, it's not so easy to ignore. And there's more to come. A group of former soldiers is collecting evidence from colleagues who fought in Gaza. They're hearing similar stories of a "shoot first" policy.

MIKHAEL MANEKIN, CO-FOUNDER OF BREAKING THE SILENCE: It's troubling for me, as somebody who lives here, as somebody who sees his future here, I, you know, somebody who loves this place.

MCGREGOR-WOOD: They don't hold out much hope for the army's own investigation. They do hope the stories of ordinary soldiers will encourage a debate about what really happened in Gaza, and what is happening to their army. Simon McGregor-Wood, ABC News, Jerusalem.