The BBC’s unhealthy reliance on information from medics in Gaza

A BBC Watch reader recently wrote to us concerning a reply he had received from the BBC to a complaint made several months ago. Among the issues he had raised was this:

“The referenced article states “Two Palestinian children have been injured by Israeli air strikes”. Can you confirm if this is based on information from Hamas, or was this independently substantiated by the BBC?”

The response he received was as follows:

“Our story clearly attributes the information to “Palestinian medics”. These are usually doctors, ambulance workers or paramedics. When Hamas officials provide information, we say so.”

That response suggests that the BBC considers “Palestinian medics” of all descriptions to be an impartial source of information on the subject of casualties and the causes of their injuries.

But is that in fact the case?

The Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip is of course run by Hamas, with the present Minister being Mufeed Mukhallalati – former dean of the college of medicine at the Islamic University. The Ministry runs a number of hospitals in the Gaza Strip (additional facilities are managed by NGOs or private organisations) with the most well-known being Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. 

Health care facilities Gaza Strip

According to a WHO report produced after the November 2012 hostilities, the vast majority of injuries were dealt with in Ministry of Health (i.e. Hamas-run) hospitals and the Ministry’s command and control centre was situated in Shifa Hospital, which was of course the main hide-out for Hamas leaders during Operation Cast Lead – turning staff and patients into human shields. 

As of January 2012, the Ministry of Health operated 56 ambulances and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society operated 40 ambulances in the Gaza Strip. In other words, over half the ambulance workers and paramedics from whom the BBC may get casualty figures or details of circumstances of injuries are Hamas employees. 

During Operation Cast Lead and throughout the second Intifada, PRCS ambulances were used to transport terror operatives and weapons.  

The spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Dr Ashraf al Qidwa, has been known to claim that terrorists were civilian casualties and ‘Palestinian medical sources’ are not averse to contorting stories for the sake of anti-Israel propaganda.  

One representative of the Ambulance and Emergency Services in the Gaza Strip is named Adham Abu Silmaya (aka Adham Abu Salima). Abu Silmaya has quite a history of feeding bogus stories to journalists, including an incident in March 2012 in which he claimed that a 15 year-old youth named Nayif Qarmout had been killed by an Israeli air-strike when no such strike had taken place. 

“A drone strike hit a group of students who were walking by empty land on their way to school,” said spokesman Adham Abu Selmiya, describing an incident which occurred at around 9:30am (0730 GMT).

In June 2012 Abu Silmaya was the source of a claim that a toddler named Hadeel Haddad had been killed by an Israeli air-strike. Although the little girl had in fact died as a result of a mis-fired terrorist rocket, the false story gained considerable exposure – not least because it had been Tweeted by the trusted BBC and a later retraction was largely ignored. 

Hadeel Haddad

Just recently, Rushdi  Abualouf from the BBC’s Gaza office relied on information from anonymous “doctors” when he Tweeted the following:

tweet Rushdi

However, there is another version to the story:

“Two Palestinian men were wounded by Israeli fire in the central Gaza Strip late Sunday, a Gaza health official said.

The Israel Defense Forces reports it is unaware of any Palestinians wounded from IDF fire. However it confirms shots were fired at the Gaza border around 9:00 p.m. Sunday, after Palestinians approached the fence, but reported the shots were fired in the air.

Health official Ashraf al-Kidra, said Israeli forces fired at the men east of Deir al-Balah late Sunday. Their identities were unclear.

The official initially said the men had been killed, but he said that the two were found to be seriously wounded.”

In other words, clearly an announcement had been put out before ‘medical sources’ had even examined the wounded men. 

It is unacceptable that a complaint from a BBC audience member should be dismissed on the grounds that the information provided came from “Palestinian medics” when members of that group – often employed by Hamas – have been known to exploit deaths and injuries for the sake of propaganda.

The BBC needs to acknowledge the fact that information from such sources cannot automatically be classed as reliable and that independent verification is imperative for the health of the BBC’s reputation as an accurate and impartial source.