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The MetroWest Daily News

Battle lost in rush to apologize

By Ilana Freedman / Local Columnist

Friday, June 16, 2005

Israel's rush to apologize for the death of seven picnickers on a Gaza beach last week gave Hamas an opportunity it did not need, but which it hastened to exploit.

Functioning on the principle of what I like to call "First Story Out Wins," Hamas spun the event as an intentional attack on Palestinian civilians, and declared the deaths a "war crime." Palestine Authority President, Mahmoud Abas, the "moderate," called it a "bloody massacre."

The principle of "First Story Out Wins" is based on the premise that if you can get the story to the press first, no matter how outrageous or false it may be, it will be the story that is remembered. This practice has been used against Israel for decades by an enemy determined to see her destruction.

Jenin, April 2002, is a perfect case in point. When Israel mounted an offensive against a neighborhood in the Jenin refugee camp from which suicide bombers were being deployed, Palestinians cried "massacre," claiming Israeli soldiers had butchered and buried over 500 innocent residents.

The Palestinian news agency Wafa was reporting that Israel had committed the "massacre of the 21st century." The truth, which never made it to the front pages, was that 56 Palestinian combatants had died, along with 23 Israeli soldiers. But the story of the massacre of innocent civilians took on a life of its own. The movie, "Jenin, Jenin," which perpetrates the lie, is still being shown around the world.

"First Story Out Wins" is a powerful tool. When Muhammed al-Dura, a 12-year-old boy from Gaza, was caught on film cowering next to his father during a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian street fighters, the video of his apparent death was quickly broadcast around the world.

What is never mentioned, but was uncovered through forensic evidence, was that the place in which they hid was not in the line of fire from the Israeli positions. It was, however, in the direct path of Palestinian gunfire. The bullet that purportedly killed the boy could not have come from an Israeli gun.

But the "First Story" to the press -- that his "martyrdom" was caused by Israeli gunfire -- is the one that still circulates today, and, in fact, was used as a lightening rod for the Second Intifada. Al-Dura has become the poster child for insurrection. Streets have been named after him and he has joined the ranks of those who have been "martyred" in the cause of holy jihad.

Now, after the first furor following the tragedy on the Gaza beach, there is growing evidence that Israel may have had very little to do with it.

Several things are already clear: Israel was, was in fact, carrying out a sea-based attack against Hamas' Kassam rocket launching pads that were located over 250 yards north of the site (approximately two and a half football fields away), and not against civilians on the beach.

The operation, in which six shells were fired (and all were accounted for well north of the site), was in direct response to Hamas' relentless barrage of rocket attacks against towns in Israel. Several Israeli civilians were injured in these attacks, some critically. At the time of the explosion on the beach, Israeli gunboats had already ceased their fire, a full seven minutes earlier, and the kind of crater that the gunboat's 155mm shell would have produced in the sand was nowhere to be found in the video clips provided by Palestinian television.

There are several theories about what really happened. Among them is the possibility of an errant rocket from a Hamas launching pad, or an unexploded ordnance from either a Palestinian or an Israeli military source.

The most damning information to have come out of the investigation, however, is that shrapnel found in the victims, some of whom were treated in Israeli hospitals, does not match the composition of Israeli shells. This leads to speculation that the explosion was the result of a mine that was planted in the sand by Hamas to stop Israeli intrusion from the sea.

What makes the fact-finding difficult is that, according to Palestinian eye-witness accounts, Hamas rushed to the scene immediately after the explosion, quickly sanitized the area of all evidence, and then refused to cooperate with the IDF investigation.

The facts in the case are already coming to light. Clarification and the probable vindication of Israel's role, will most likely be buried in fine print in the back pages. The "First Story," however, will be the one that people remember. Israel's rush to take the blame before uncovering the facts will only make it more vulnerable to international censure. It is time for Israel's government to show restraint and not rush to sit on the bench of the accused before knowing all the facts.

(Ilana Freedman is a specialist in counter-terrorism preparedness. She welcomes your comments and questions at ilana@gerardgroup.com.)