In the information age, more than ever before, war is a threat not only to life and property but to the truth itself. The dueling narratives around the explosion at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza is just the latest example.
They say in war that truth is the first casualty.
Anyone who has been keeping abreast of the geopolitical crisis that is the Israel-Palestine conflict will have heard claims concerning the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday night, an explosion took place at the Christian hospital that was initially claimed to have been an Israeli missile causing the death of some 500 Palestinians. This whipped up a storm in both social media and on mainstream media channels that went along with the early narrative that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had targeted civilians in a heinous war crime.
Last week, I reported on the Israeli claim (again jumped on by mainstream media) that some 40 babies had been beheaded by Hamas terrorists. It still appears that this was a claim without significant substantiation that was either purposefully or unintentionally (or both) seized upon and exploited by those wishing to further demonize the terrorists and their cause. It’s not that Hamas hadn’t already committed significant enough atrocities.
As an independent reporter on the Ukraine War over the last year and a half (as well as writing articles on the subject here for OnlySky), I have been on the front lines in the information space battlefields. This is a new kind of conflict known as 5th-generation warfare. Where 3rd generation warfare is understood as fighting amongst nation-states with advanced weaponry and 4th generation warfare is about fighting with entities that exist over borders (such as ISIS), 5th generation warfare is the fight for hearts and minds.
This hybrid warfare is predominantly contested online or from mouth-to-ear-to-mouth. Information is weaponized and used to bring about similar overarching goals as conventional warfare. We have already seen an evolution in the way that one country can attack another. Cyber warfare involves hacking into systems, such as a hospital or energy grid, bringing them down in a way that can lead to deaths or to the crippling of critical infrastructure. This can achieve the same effect as physical damage to that infrastructure.
So where conventional wars and terrorism concern national security, and cyber warfare concerns threats to cyber security, we now have a threat to our epistemic security.
The war on truth
Epistemology, in philosophy, is the study of knowledge and truth. Epistemic security is the idea that we have to fight incredibly hard to work out what is true and what is not, and where chaos and confusion reign, bad-faith actors flourish. Different sides in a war will gain in various ways from getting the upper hand in the information spaces in which we exist. Misinformation— the unintentional spreading of incorrect claims—can be spread in good faith and still have dangerous ramifications. Disinformation—the purposeful spread of incorrect information— is very much a weapon of modern armies and geopolitical chess players in ways that only the internet age has been able to facilitate.
The strike on the hospital has been seized upon by both sides in this conflict and supporters worldwide in the public and private information spaces, becoming one of the most heated contests for narrative since the latest iteration of this conflict began.
The hospital claim started as Israel supposedly either purposefully or accidentally but irresponsibly striking one of the beating hearts of humanity: a hospital. The Hamas-run Health Ministry claimed that some 500 people died. This was immediately seized upon and used to vehemently attack Israel and the Israel Defense Force, pouring gasoline onto an already violent fire.
This information really did have consequences, as Jordan canceled President Biden’s visit to the country on the back of street protests there, disorder also seen in Iraq, Lebanon, and in the West Bank itself.
In Amman, Jordan, a palace statement referred to “the ugly massacre perpetrated by Israel against innocent civilians.”
The initial video footage made available can be seen here:
There are two fairly obvious observations to make about these videos. First, the explosion included a fair bit of flames. Second, it appeared to take place in a car park. If these media can be taken at face value—a question worth asking in this time and situation—the main hospital has taken no evident critical damage with only some roof tiles near the car park apparently being affected.
The aftermath of the strike can be seen here:
Without wanting to belittle anything about this conflict or the strike, it should be fairly clear that the damage caused to this car park is unlikely to have resulted in the death of some 500 people. The sort of destruction you would associate with that many fatalities can be seen in images here, where a truck bomb in Baghdad killed around 350, another in Mogadishu killed over 500, with a further truck bomb in Mogadishu killing around 125. As you can see in those linked images, the destruction was far, far greater than what can be evidenced in these hospital images.
For there to be 500 (471 to be precise) deaths, there would have to be at least an equal number of wounded as well. It seems incredibly unlikely that perhaps 1000 people would have fit in that area to have become deaths and casualties, as this anaylsis shows:
But 500's incredibly high number, honestly implausible. Overlaying the area of damage on Google Earth – keep in mind this is mostly from burning cars NOT the explosion – it is 228m2.— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) October 18, 2023
This is that sort of crowd density (assuming there were no survivors which is also implausible). pic.twitter.com/A6JoWTht7q
That is not to deny that there were casualties. The BBC’s Verify team has seen a “limited number of verified images available,” but their analysis of the graphic images seems inconclusive.
It is also important to note that most of the damage there is not kinetic but resulted from the fiery explosion. Indeed, the impact crater from whatever hit the car park can be seen below and is somewhat underwhelming:
The weapon that many anti-Israeli commentators have claimed the Israelis would be using is a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). These are otherwise dumb bombs (without guidance) that are fitted with fins and GPS guidance to give them greater range and accuracy in hitting targets. They pack, to differing degrees, quite the explosive punch.
The Israeli Air Force has provided their own comparison of a typical crater against the hospital scene:
Some who want to defend the narrative that the Israelis carried out the attack have claimed that it might be the airburst variant of the JDAM—one that explodes in the air just before it reaches the target:
But the airburst is designed to shower the target below with shrapnel, and this is not at all evidenced by the car roofs and scene in the photograph above. Moreover, cars that are only 10 to 15 meters away are largely undamaged, with kinetic damage restricted only to the few cars at the point where the munition landed.
Simply put, this was not a JDAM unitary or airburst warhead.
Taking sides and putting all of your eggs in one basket too often entails sacrificing all rationality to cling to a pre-conceived narrative. The above Twitter handle made this follow-on Tweet:
At the time of the bombing, there were many civilians sleeping/ waiting around the hospital building.— Zhao DaShuai 无条件爱国🇨🇳 (@zhao_dashuai) October 18, 2023
Depending on the height and size of the explosion (JDAM is an entire family of bombs), it rules out the argument of "small blast radius".
Shrapnel damage is hard to spot
To think it is reasonable to claim that 500 civilians were killed in a car park among all those cars but that every piece of evidence of their existence was cleared up in time for an early morning photo shoot beggars belief. I have seen countless images in my reporting on the Ukraine war to suggest that shrapnel damage is not hard to spot. There is no evidence of the serious shrapnel damage that you would expect from such a munition in the photograph of the hospital car park scene.
The much more plausible explanation is of a malfunctioning or misfiring rocket sent from Gaza itself. US intelligence has claimed it came from another Palestinian terrorist group known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ):
The American intelligence, first mentioned by President Biden, includes satellite and other infrared data showing a launch of a rocket or missile from Palestinian fighter positions within Gaza. American intelligence agencies have also analyzed open-source video — recordings collected by journalists and others — of the launch showing that it did not come from the direction of Israeli military positions, the officials said. Israeli officials have also provided the United States with intercepts of Hamas officials saying the strike came from forces aligned with Palestinian militant groups….
A senior Defense Department official said based on the launch data collected by infrared sensors that the United States was “fairly confident” the launch did not come from Israeli forces.“Early U.S. and Israeli Intelligence Says Palestinian Group Caused Hospital Blast,” The New York Times
Interestingly, this could also be a case of Hamas using PIJ as a scapegoat. The IDF has released what seems like a genuine intercept phone call between two members of Hamas admitting that the rocket was a misfire coming from them (sent from a nearby cemetery) and that is why they were blaming PIJ. It is worth noting that Israeli sources have also claimed the rocket was sent from another nearby location other than the cemetery (the cemetery claim could well be an erroneous belief from the intercepted caller).
Rockets or missiles that fail or misfire are not at all uncommon in war. There have been previous claims that 20% of all Hamas rockets fail. The US assessed at the beginning of the Ukraine War that up to 60% of Russian precision-guided missiles failed. The Israel Defence Force has released an infographic of what they believe are failed launches so far in the Gaza Strip since the latest outbreak began, though of course we should treat the claims of both sides with some skepticism:
A number of experts spoken to by the BBC’s Verify team have concluded that the evidence is more consistent with a misfiring Palestinian rocket, with the fiery explosion much more likely as a result of unused propellants from a rocket in its early stages.
In fact, the hospital scene looks very similar to other scenes of Hamas rockets that have landed in Israel recently:
Compare the damage from photos of rocket impacts in Ashkelon from last weekend. The only real difference is that this explosion appears to have involved more accelerant (which would track with reporting that this barrage was aimed at Tel Aviv). pic.twitter.com/NcI0Vp6OlI— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) October 18, 2023
American officials have had a wide range of resources at their fingertips to help them reach their conclusion:
U.S. officials said their assessment was not based only on the Israeli intercepts. American officials spent the night analyzing those intercepts along with the open-source data, videos captured by journalists and others that show a rocket flying in the vicinity of the hospital.
Senators Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday that the committee had reviewed the intelligence and also attributed the blast to a failed Palestinian rocket launch.
The United States regularly uses infrared satellite collection to analyze launches. The warning system was one of the first pieces of intelligence that showed that a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down by Russian forces over Ukraine in 2014.
In the course of analyzing the Ukraine War, I have become accustomed to the role played by missile and rocket fragments. These have been used on a host of occasions throughout the conflict to support one narrative or another. If there were fragments of an Israeli munition at the site, which there would be had there been an Israeli munition used, you can bet your bottom dollar that Hamas would have been shouting about it from the rooftops. For example, a whole host of photographic imagery has recently come out proving that the airbase in Russian-occupied Berdiansk was hit by American-provided ATACMS missiles. (Not that this was anything being denied in this case.)
There has been no such evidence provided by Hamas. Indeed, the intercepted phone call has one of those involved say, “They are saying that the shrapnel from the missile is local shrapnel and not like Israeli shrapnel.” This together with a lack of evidence provided by Hamas where we would otherwise expect it finds in favour of the Israeli narrative.
There are also many video recordings of rockets flying at the time and in the vicinity of the hospital strike. Channel 12 released footage that strongly suggests the strike was from a misfiring rocket:
For further analysis of the chronology and location of the above video, some open-source intelligence sources have done a good job:
Some v skilled OSINT practitioners have questioned aspects of the Channel-12 video, namely because the missile launch sequences don't fully match other videos of the strike. This thread looks at chronolocating that footage without the timestamp.https://t.co/eWTN3dF0iH— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) October 19, 2023
Both sides use these and interpret such video footage in ways to support their own narratives. For example, Al Jazeera (who have very much taken an anti-Israel stance in this conflict) have disputed the Israeli chronology in their own analysis:
However, this analysis does not deal with most of the substantive evidence referenced above.
It seems to me that, in this case, that the Israeli Air Force was not immediately responsible for the damage caused and resultant deaths at the hospital in Gaza.
This is not to absolve the Israeli armed forces from responsibility for the death of huge numbers of civilians in this iteration of the conflict and many others.
Personally, I am striving to be as fair as possible in my attempts to understand the causes and reponsibilities of those involved historically and presently in this ongoing conflict:
I have seen footage from this conflict that I cannot unsee. I have seen imagery of such atrocious and sadistic lack of humanity that you cannot even say it is animalistic since no animals would stoop to do the things I have seen. I worry that the more I look into the abyss, the more the abyss stares into me. But I feel I need to witness some of these terrible acts so I can understand the feelings on both sides. This is one of those occasions where bothsidesism is justified. There is no easy solution to this crisis, and so many actors need to do some serious introspection to own up to terrible deeds.
But of this, I can be sure: It doesn’t help to veer from the path of truth, to err from the righteousness of accuracy. If we give in to the insidious pull of disinformation, we more likely become victim to the extremes. As skeptics, we should always be wary, even if—and particularly most in light of—those claims that most accord with our pre-conceived ideals. The draw of confirmation bias is a daily temptation, but we must not believe things simply because they fit, because we want them to be true. The well of wishful thinking can quench our thirst, but it can also poison and addict us.
Whether it be beheaded babies or hospital massacres, we all need to have our wits about us lest we hear the cry of “wolf” and move on, undeterred.
Sadly, for every false claim of an intentional horror in this cauldron of violence, there are those that are sickeningly true. We have a job to do, as a global community, to stanch the flow of pain and suffering. In this, truth and accuracy are vital tourniquets. We must be ever alert and hold ourselves to the highest levels of epistemic accountability. For as the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is not to fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Garbage in, garbage out: If we want to be equipped with the best tools of assistance, our thinking must be clear and cogent.
But as much as we can help, those involved must have the strength of will to help themselves by first looking inward. And after some truly honest and uncomfortable introspection, only then can they offer the handshake of peace.