Israel’s ‘Flour Massacre’ – When A Crime Becomes A ‘Tragedy’

Corporate journalists are indeed ‘masters of self-adulation’, as Noam Chomsky has observed. In fact, they have to be; or at least they have to appear to be.

Consider BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson CBE, a long-term sparring partner and rare example of a BBC journalist who has bothered to reply to our challenges, often graciously. There have been times over the last two decades when Simpson genuinely seemed to get some of what we were saying. It’s no surprise, though, to read Simpson’s recent comment on X:

‘My colleagues at @itvnews, @SkyNews and @BBCNews jump through hoops to be balanced and impartial, and @Ofcom rightly holds us to the highest standard. Switch on @GBNews, and you watch unashamedly opinionated allegations being passed off as fact. What’s going on, Ofcom?’ (John Simpson, X, 25 February 2024)

Journalist Glenn Greenwald put this heroic claim in perspective:

‘The public despises the corporate media. There is almost nobody held in lower esteem or who is more distrusted and abhorred than the liberal employees of large media corporations. Nobody wants to hear from them, so in-group arrogance is all they have left.’

But British media are the best of a bad bunch, right? Greenwald again, accurately:

‘The worst media in the democratic world is the British media, and it’s not even close.

‘I know it’s hard for people in other countries who hate their own media to believe, but whatever you hate about your country’s media, the UK media has in abundance and worse.’

Indicatively, in November 2002, as Bush and Blair were trying to scare their way to war on Iraq, Simpson produced a BBC documentary called: ‘Saddam – A Warning From History’ (BBC1, 3 November 2002). The title was an unsubtle and ‘unashamedly opinionated’ reference to an earlier BBC series, ‘The Nazis – A Warning From History’. This, of course, was a comparison that dovetailed with the sleaziest themes of US-UK state propaganda.

In 2013, Simpson opined:

‘The US is still the world’s biggest economic and military power, but it seems to have lost the sense of moral mission that caused it to intervene everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq…’

Alas, the US continues to struggle to regain its ‘sense of moral mission,’ as it supplies the missiles, bombs and diplomatic immunity fuelling the genocide in Gaza.

Far from jumping through hoops ‘to be balanced and impartial,’ the BBC seems embarrassed even to associate Israel with its own crimes. A typical BBC headline read:

‘World Food Programme says northern Gaza aid convoy blocked’

Was there a landslide? Was Hamas playing politics with food aid? The headline should have read:

‘Israel blocks northern Gaza aid convoy’

Or consider the damning words of the Director-General of The World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who reported this month:

‘Grim findings during @WHO visits to Al-Awda and Kamal Adwan hospitals in northern #Gaza: severe levels of malnutrition, children dying of starvation, serious shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, hospital buildings destroyed…

‘The situation at Al-Awda Hospital is particularly appalling, as one of the buildings is destroyed.

‘Kamal Adwan Hospital is the only paediatrics hospital in the north of Gaza, and is overwhelmed with patients. The lack of food resulted in the deaths of 10 children.’

The BBC headline reporting this story read:

‘Children starving to death in northern Gaza – WHO’

Did the crops fail? If Russia had caused child starvation in Ukraine, we can be confident the words ‘Putin’ and ‘Russia’ would have appeared front and centre in BBC reporting.

Over a picture of an emaciated, skeletal child victim of Israeli starvation in Gaza, Peter Oborne made a related point:

‘If Gaza was Ukraine this terrible picture would be on every front page tomorrow morning.’

Needless to say, that was not to be.

On 29 February, a New York Times comment piece was titled:

‘Starvation Is Stalking Gaza’s Children’

Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented:

Israel is choosing to starve Gaza’s children by blocking aid.’

On 5 March, a Reuters headline read:

‘As Gaza’s hunger crisis worsens, emaciated children seen at hospitals’

Author Assal Rad responded:

‘Gaza’s “hunger crisis” is not a natural phenomenon. Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians in Gaza as a weapon of war, which is an act of collective punishment and a war crime.’

The Al-Rashid Humanitarian Aid ‘Tragedy’

What has been termed the ‘Al-Rashid humanitarian aid incident’ – also described as ‘the Flour Massacre’ because the food convoy involved was carrying sacks of flour – occurred in Gaza on 29 February. At least 118 Palestinian civilians were killed and at least 760 were injured after Israeli tanks opened fire on civilians seeking food from aid trucks on al-Rashid street to the west of Gaza City. The BBC’s immediate headline reactions were full of mystery:

‘Israel-Gaza war latest: More than 100 reported killed as crowd waits for Gaza aid’

And:

‘Biden says Gaza food aid-related deaths complicate ceasefire talks’

USA Today’s headline was surreal:

‘112 killed in Gaza food line carnage: Israel blames Palestinian aid drivers’

On 1 March, a Guardian front-page headline read:

‘More than 100 Palestinians die in chaos surrounding Gaza aid convoy’

The standfirst (sub-heading):

‘Israeli military rejects claims it fired on crowd and blames deadly crush’

Imagine that second, high-profile comment in response to claims of a Russian atrocity in Ukraine, especially if Russia had inflicted comparable levels of near-total destruction on Ukraine.

It wasn’t that the truth was unavailable. One day before the Guardian headline appeared, the UK’s sole left-wing national newspaper, the Morning Star, published this online headline, which appeared in the print edition the following day:

‘ISRAELI ARMY FIRES INTO CROWD WAITING FOR FOOD, KILLING 104’

Compare also its standfirst:

‘ATROCITY: Gaza death toll tops 30,000 after soldiers gunned down starving civilians as they unloaded aid lorries’

On 1 March, Associated Press reported:

‘The head of a Gaza City hospital that treated some of the Palestinians wounded in the bloodshed surrounding an aid convoy said Friday that more than 80% had been struck by gunfire, suggesting there was heavy shooting by Israeli troops.’ (Our emphasis)  

The following day, a BBC headline read:

‘Fergal Keane: Aid convoy tragedy shows fear of starvation haunts Gaza’

A massacre is first and foremost a crime, not a tragedy. The BBC continued to muddle the picture:

‘After the events at al-Rashid Street in Gaza, in which more than 100 people were reported killed after a rush on an aid convoy, the international community is under pressure to tackle the growing crisis of hunger in the territory, as Fergal Keane reports from Jerusalem.’ (Our emphasis)

The focus on people reported killed in a ‘tragedy’ ‘after a rush on an aid convoy’ suggested death by trampling, or perhaps troops shooting in panic at a rampaging mob. It led away from the truth that Israeli main battle tanks fired on starving civilians with heavy machine guns. While the word ‘tragedy’ was used four times in the report, the words ‘massacre’, ‘crime’ and ‘atrocity’ were not mentioned. These were Keane’s opening sentences after the introduction specifically mentioning the mass death in al-Rashid Street:

‘They die in all kinds of places and ways. Broken under the rubble of their homes, blasted by explosives, punctured by high velocity bullets, cut open by flying shards of metal.

‘And now – as the war enters its fifth month – death from hunger has come to haunt Gaza.

‘It is essential to know the when, what and how of the tragedy at al-Rashid Street.’

Again, this obscured the fact that ‘now’ – in the incident actually under discussion – death also came from high velocity bullets, not hunger.

On 1 March, the much-vaunted BBC Verify – ostensibly tasked to sift truth from allegation – described the massacre as ‘a tragic incident’. The words ‘massacre’, ‘atrocity’ and ‘crime’ were not used. 9/11 was also ‘a tragic incident’, but that’s not how it would ever be described. Paul Brown of BBC Verify reported:

‘The tragic incident has given rise to differing claims about what happened and who was responsible for the carnage.’

Brown commented on video footage:

‘Volleys of gunfire can be heard and people are seen scrambling over lorries and ducking behind the vehicles. Red tracer rounds can be seen in the sky.

‘Mahmoud Awadeyah [a journalist at the scene] said the Israeli vehicles had started firing at people when the aid arrived.

‘“Israelis purposefully fired at the men… they were trying to get near the trucks that had the flour,” he said. “They were fired at directly and prevented people to come near those killed.”

Brown added:

‘Dr Mohamed Salha, interim hospital manager at al-Awda hospital, where many of the dead and injured were taken, told the BBC: “Al-Awda hospital received around 176 injured people… 142 of these cases are bullet injuries and the rest are from the stampede and broken limbs in the upper and lower body parts.”’

Clearly, then, it was a massacre; so why the lack of clarity? Why was the word ‘massacre’ not used to describe a textbook example of a massacre in a report supposed to verify and clarify the truth?

As we noted recently, the Glasgow Media Group examined four weeks (7 October – 4 November, 2023) of BBC One daytime coverage of Gaza to identify which terms were used by journalists themselves – i.e. not in direct or reported statements – to describe Israeli and Palestinian deaths. They found that ‘murder’, ‘murderous’, ‘mass murder’, ‘brutal murder’ and ‘merciless murder’ were used a total of 52 times by journalists to refer to Israelis’ deaths but never in relation to Palestinian deaths. The group noted that:

‘The same pattern could be seen in relation to “massacre”, “brutal massacre” and “horrific massacre” (35 times for Israeli deaths, not once for Palestinian deaths); “atrocity”, “horrific atrocity” and “appalling atrocity” (22 times for Israeli deaths, once for Palestinian deaths); and “slaughter” (five times for Israeli deaths, not once for Palestinian deaths).’

The Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring analysed 176,627 television clips from over 13 broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 from 7 October – 7 November 2023. The report found that Israeli perspectives were referenced almost three times more (4,311) than Palestinian ones (1,598).

This is an exact reversal of performance on the Russia-Ukraine war by our supposedly independent and impartial ‘free press’.

A BBC report on 5 March stated:

‘Last Thursday, more than 100 Palestinians were killed as crowds rushed to reach an aid convoy operated by private contractors that was being escorted by Israeli forces west of Gaza City.

‘Palestinian health officials said dozens were killed when Israeli forces opened fire. Israel’s military said most died from either being trampled on or run over by the aid lorries. It said soldiers near the aid convoy had fired towards people who approached them and who they considered a threat.’

Those are indeed the two competing versions of events. Was the BBC unable to find meaningful testimony from the hundreds of eyewitnesses to what happened, as they invariably manage to do in reporting alleged Russian crimes in Ukraine?

According to Al Jazeera’s Ismail al-Ghoul, an eyewitness at the scene, Israeli firing occurred in two bursts: the first as people seized food from the convoy, the second when the crowd returned to the trucks:

‘After opening fire, Israeli tanks advanced and ran over many of the dead and injured bodies,’ he said.

‘Accounts from the thousands of Palestinians who were there are clearer: Israeli forces fired indiscriminately into the crowd which killed dozens of people and led to a stampede in which more people died.’

Hossam Abu Shaar, a 29-year-old resident of Gaza City, who was injured in the attack, said of the gunfire:

“‘It was so huge that nearly everyone was either killed, shot, injured. I was among the very few lucky ones,” he said, recalling how he had felt the wind of the bullets pass him by.

‘”I was hit in the leg by shrapnel from an artillery shell that landed nearby.

‘”I saw bodies being scattered all across the road. It was horrific. We’ve faced similar situations before, when Israeli tanks fired at us, killing and injuring many. But this time the world paid attention, maybe because we were killed on camera.”‘

CBS reported eyewitness Anwar Helewa:

‘We ran towards the food aid. The soldiers then started firing at us, and so we left the food and ran.’

On 5 March, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights commented:

‘UN experts condemned the violence unleashed by Israeli forces, which killed at least 112 people gathered to collect flour in Gaza last week, as a “massacre” amid conditions of inevitable starvation and destruction of the local food production system in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

‘“Israel has been intentionally starving the Palestinian people in Gaza since 8 October. Now it is targeting civilians seeking humanitarian aid and humanitarian convoys,” the UN experts said. “Israel must end its campaign of starvation and targeting of civilians.”’

The UN added of its experts:

‘They noted that the 29 February massacre followed a pattern of Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians seeking aid, with over 14 recorded incidents of shooting, shelling and targeting groups gathered to receive urgently needed supplies from trucks or airdrops between mid-January and the end of February 2024.

‘“Israel has also opened fire on humanitarian aid convoys on several occasions, despite the fact that the convoys shared their coordinates with Israel,” the experts said.’

None of this has been of much interest to the Western press. Media Matters reported that from February 29 to March 3, Fox News dedicated just 12 minutes of coverage to the massacre, noting:

‘During that period, Fox News aired only 1 interview about the carnage: a conversation with spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which she blamed Hamas for Israeli military violence without evidence.’

Conclusion

It is instructive to compare this latest apologetic performance with media responses to the Houla massacre in Syria in 2012 where words like ‘murder’, ‘massacre’ and ‘atrocity’ – all instantly pinned on Syrian government forces – were the norm. This BBC headline was standard:

‘Syria massacre in Houla condemned as outrage grows’

Note the very different, damning tone of the opening lines below:

‘Western nations are pressing for a response to the massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, with the US calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s “rule by murder”.

‘UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council this week.

‘The UN has confirmed the deaths of at least 90 people in Houla, including 32 children under the age of 10.’

On the BBC’s News at Ten, the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent James Robbins claimed:

‘The UN now says most victims, including many children, were murdered inside their homes by President Assad’s militias.’ (Robbins, BBC News at Ten, 29 May 2012)

See our 2-part media alert, ‘Massacres That Matter’, for detail and discussion on this long-term trend in reporting. See, also, our alert, ‘A Tale of Two “Massacres” – Jenin and Racak.’

Even more striking, of course, is the fact that in 2011 all major Western media propagandised heavily for the US-UK overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya, not for committing a massacre, but on the basis of fake claims that Gaddafi was planning a massacre in Benghazi.

We began with John Simpson’s lauding of the BBC, so let’s end with a couple of comments from the great and the good of BBC journalism. The BBC’s then Chief Political Correspondent, Norman Smith, declared that then British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘must surely feel vindicated’ by the fall of Gaddafi. (Smith, BBC News online, 21 October 2011)

With Libya in ruins, the BBC’s John Humphrys asked sagely:

‘What, apart from a sort of moral glow… have we got out of it?’ (Humphrys, BBC Radio 4, Today programme, 21 October 2011)

The answer, of course, was oil.

DE