I was wrong about the Al-Ahli hospital blast in Gaza. Israel didn’t do it. Al Jazeera should retract.

Austin G Mackell
6 min readOct 20, 2023

But also… so what?

As someone who has dedicated large portions of their life to the fight against disinformation and misinformation, it’s painful to admit you’ve made a mistake. It is however, significantly less painful than being burned alive, bombed, shot, or crushed under rubble, etc. And, I have long argued that only a commitment to the truth can, in the long run, reduce human suffering of that sort.

It is then incumbent upon me to make a big fucking deal of it when I get something wrong. So here goes:

Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct 7, committing heinous atrocities, I have been glued to the TV, watching Al Jazeera English, as Israel commits attrocitied in return. It has, I still think, on balance, the best coverage of the Middle East out of any news outlet.

But, two days ago, they got something wrong, and I went right along with them. I woke up to a blazing lower third, and animated, angry presenters, telling me that 500 had been killed in an Israeli airstrike on Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. I scanned my phone and saw a Rueter’s report which seemed, at a glance, to also confirm the airstrike. A closer read, later, would reveal they only reported on the statement of a Palestinian official on Al-Jazeera — so provided zero independent corroboration — simply repeating a claim (with a figurative asterisk in the form of attribution). Had I been in work mode, using Stone to capture my research as I have since for this story, I like to think I would have paid more attention to those details. Since I wasn’t, and had just been consuming media in a casual manner, I shouldn’t have repeated the claim with such confidence.

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By this stage the Israeli airstrike was firmly planted in my head as a fact. The outrage prompted me to join into a discussion on a Discord forum for the Fusion Party of which I am a member, among which discussion was raging about whether the Greens or Labor was more wrong in their statements about the conflict. A key phrase was “Israel’s right to self defence” and how the Australian government supported it, and that was taking sides. With a head full of steam I jumped in. Well Israel just bombed a hospital, killing 500 people I said. Was that “self defence”?

This was when I first heard that Israel was denying responsibility, blaming a misfired Palestinian rocket. I immediately dismissed the possibility, without looking at the evidence, a claim I immediately dismissed as “bullshit”. The blast, I told myself, was far too big to be a Palestinian rocket. At least one Palestinian rocket had hit a hospital in Israel, earlier in the conflict, but caused zero casualties and minimum damage. That bomb, — the one that killed 500 — I confidently responded, was made in America — like the bombs I had seen dropped on Lebanon, in 2006, or the kind that have flattened whole neighbourhoods in Gaza already in this war. However when the sun rose a different picture emerged.

What I thought was the rubble of a collapsed building was actually, I now think, burning cars, bodies and other wreckage in the car-park, between buildings, where innocent civilians were encamped in hope of safety.

This large burned area, with only a small impact crater, fits much better with the Israeli version of events, where part of a rocket, including large quantities of fuel and only a moderately sized explosive payload, just so happened to fall in the worst possible spot. These two things — the unburned fuel, and the nature of the location — the most densely packed part of the densely packed Gaza strip, explain why the death toll of this “friendly fire” strike is so much greater than comparable strikes which actually explode in Israeli territory as intended. Because of this, at least according to the BBC, there seems to be a tentative lean by experts towards some version of the failed-rocket scenario.

Al Jazeera however, are sticking to their innitial reporting, at least for now. Sort of.

Their internal digital-investigations team Sanad released a follow up piece yesterday, in which they counter-analyse the analysis released by the IDF of footage originally streamed by Al Jazeera Arabic.

Israel says the footage shows a misfire, but Al Jazeera argues it actually shows the rocket being taken out by Israel’s Iron Dome — and, this is key, being “destroyed completely in the air”. They even put some kind of colourising filter over the footage, as if they have conducted some kind of scientific analysis confirming the completeness of this destruction, eliminating any possibility that a payload and/or fuel-tank survived and fell to the earth.

Consistent with this version of events, where the rocket was intercepted and wreckage fell to earth and exploded in the hospital carpark, is the fact this rocket was fired alone, rather than as part of a barrage. Perhaps it was a somewhat “special” munition, with a larger fuel tank than usual, intended to strike further into Israel — a big tactical swing by a ragtag militia that went horribly wrong, even from their sadistic point of view.

By comparison with other footage of Iron Dome interceptions, they do make a compelling case for interception over misfire, but that leaves open the possibility that it was wreckage from an intercepted rocket which caused the explosion at the hospital, which they note occurred 7 seconds after the apparent interception. The implied story then, is that an Israeli strike happened at the hospital just seconds after the Iron Dome interception. This would be a reasonable proposal if the blast-damage was consistent with Israeli munitions, but the only expert I can find saying that is a Turkish “expert” quoted by the highly partisan Anadolu English who suggests it might be a MK-84 guided bomb with a proximity fuse set to explode just above the ground. If this turns out to be true, it would be interesting to know if concealing their authorship of the attack was a factor in the choice of munition — choosing something that wouldn’t leave a large, telltale, crater.

But this is now, in my amateur opinion, the second most likely explanation, and by a long way. The most likely being a combination of the IDF and Al-Jazeera narratives. The IDF was right, and telling the truth, when they said it was a Palestinian rocket. Al-Jazeera was right — in their subsequent reporting -that this rocket, rather than being misfired was intercepted by the Iron Dome system — a detail that seems of only minor moral significance, considering the previous — as of now unretracted — reporting by Al Jazeera.

But also… So what?

Well in terms of journalism and misinformation, it fits with my long standing view that the big problem in journalism is not bias, it’s quality. The problem is not the Al Jazeera takes a pro-Palestinian angle, but that they jumped to conclusions and rushed to publication. They were quick to make a claim, and seem to be slow in backing away from it. This is bad no matter which side does it.

As it happens I have approached the Al Jazeera digital investigations team, being given a warm intro by a mutual contact. I was pitching them the Stone transparency system. If they had been using it, we would know more about their follow-up investigation and the steps they took — including the evidence they chose to leave out, and what gimmick filter they were using in their “analysis”, and why. The fact they have chosen not to document this process leaves me free to speculate.

In terms of politics, except for underscoring the significance of media failures and the need for a revolution in media, I don’t see how it changes anything, really.

A ceasefire — like the one the US just vetoed — is still the best possible short term outcome. An escalation is the worst — and most likely. Palestinians still have a right to resist occupation which is at least at the level of Israel’s right to “self defence”. Neither side has the right to kill civilians, either with bloody intent or ruthless indifference.