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Tall tale: Gaza source powers media falsehood about mountain of batteries

Distortions and lies about daily life and conditions in the Gaza Strip have reached a new height.

Discarded batteries, March 20, 2008. Credit: John Seb Barber via Wikimedia Commons.
Discarded batteries, March 20, 2008. Credit: John Seb Barber via Wikimedia Commons.
Tamar Sternthal
Tamar Sternthal
Tamar Sternthal is director of the Israel office of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

History shows that it doesn’t take much for Gaza sources to override the essential journalistic dose of skepticism.

In 2015, Agence France Presse and Al Jazeera were compelled to correct, after relying on a Gaza resident’s fabrication, that Israel’s release of southern dams caused major flooding in the coastal Hamas-run territory. Journalists’ failure to check with Israeli authorities before publication opened up the proverbial floodgates and enabled the so-called “flood libel.” In reality, there are no dams in southern Israel.

In 2018, The New Yorker, an esteemed publication that takes pride in its purportedly high standards of fact-checking, parroted the falsehood that there are no MRI machines in the Gaza Strip. The most perfunctory Google scan would have exposed the Gaza cancer patient’s claim as unfounded.

Last week, false tales about daily life and conditions in Gaza reached a new height. According to a Gaza source initially quoted in Agence France Presse, a toxic and polluting mountain of discarded batteries reaches up to 50 meters (164 feet) high.

Thus, AFP’s initial March 9 article, republished on March 13 on Ynet (“In Gaza, mountains of used batteries waiting to be recycled“) and also available at France24, reported about the abundance of spent batteries in a territory with electricity shortages. AFP’s Saker Abou El Oun wrote: “While ‘tons of batteries are piling up in landfills, sometimes reaching up to 40-50 meters in height,’ there is no recycling process, Ahmed Hillis [director of the National Institute for the Environment. and development in Gaza], too, laments. ‘Unfortunately, they are even considered sources of income.’ ”

The suspension of journalistic skepticism inherent in this AFP reporting is as astounding as the suspended promenade in Bastia, France, is an architectural marvel.

The soaring mountain of a falsehood appeared in AFP’s English, French, Spanish and Arabic reporting. Following the publication of its March 9 article, our colleagues at the Paris-based InfoEquitable noted that Paris’s Arc de Triomphe is some 50 meters (164 feet) high.

After InfoEquitable challenged the claim that the pile of batteries reached up to 40-50 meters high, AFP removed the claim in English, French and Arabic.

AFP’s most recent English version of this story (March 13, available at Gulf News), does not contain the ludicrous allegation that the batteries were piled up to 50 meters.

While Ynet initially ailed to respond to CAMERA’s requests to correct the AFP story on its site (even days after AFP itself had corrected), the Times of Israel promptly corrected its story, which also originated at AFP.

The battery mountain’s stunning albeit mythical height recalls another Gaza tale of greatness. In 2008, a Boston Globe op-ed by Eyad al-Sarraj and Harvard University’s Sara Roy put the territory’s daily needs for flour at 680,000 tons, or half a ton of flour per person daily for the population of 1.5 million. As this researcher quipped at the time: “There’s going to be a new strongman in Gaza. That’s right. In the name of national unity, Hamas and Fatah have come together and agreed to bring in a third party—a giant gingerbread man modeled after the Muffin Man’s oversized creation in ‘Shrek II’ (himself a close cousin of the towering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in ‘Ghost Busters’).”

Update: ‘Ynet’ corrects

In response to an additional follow-up with Ynet on Tuesday, editors removed the fallacious claim about a mountain of batteries up to 50 meters high. The amended quote now states: “While ‘tons of batteries are piling up in landfills, sometimes reaching up to several meters in height,’ there is no recycling process, [Ahmed Hillis] too laments.”

The alteration of a quote raises the question as to whether Ynet contacted Hillis and asked him to clarify his remarks, or whether editors simply took the liberty of changing his words to make them more in line with reality. While repeating false information without challenge is poor journalistic practice, there is also a strong prohibition regarding tampering with quotes.

The proper course of action, in this case, would be to a) either delete Hillis’ false information or b) insert additional information in the reporter’s voice pointing out that the claim is not true.

Tamar Sternthal is director of the Israel office of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

This article was first published by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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