The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus once proclaimed, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” More than 2,000 years later, his words still ring true.
A Jan. 5 Baptist Press article on the conflict in Gaza included several misleading claims and untrustworthy sources. The BP story quickly spread and was picked up by other news sites, including the Baptist Standard, Florida Baptist Witness, Townhall, Crosswalk.
The article first reported that the Gaza Baptist Church, the only Protestant church in the Gaza Strip, had been “seriously damaged” by an Israeli bomb. BP’s story referenced the BosNewsLife service, which claimed the church was “nearly destroyed” and suggested that some Christians were killed in the church. BosNewsLife is an online site based in Hungary that focuses on the persecuted church.
Although the church was damaged in the airstrike that targeted a police station across the street, EthicsDaily.com reported that the church was not destroyed and that the damage was that windows were blown out. This report was based on information received from the pastor of the church and two other Baptist leaders with contacts in the region.
The BP story claimed that “[m]ore specific information on the building and church members is not yet available.” Yet, EthicsDaily.com had already received information from the three Baptist leaders, suggesting that BP simply did not try to find more specific information. In 2004, the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance, which could partially explain the lack of contact between BP and Baptist leaders around the world.
The BP story also claimed, “The church’s pastor, Hanna Massad, was forced to flee Gaza after the Hamas takeover.” Although Massad did leave since Hamas has assumed control of Gaza, the BP story suggests a more direct correlation. Hamas won a majority of the parliamentary in a democratic election in January 2006 and gained full control of Gaza after armed conflict between Hamas and Fatah in June 2007.
Massad left Gaza in November 2007, shortly after a member of his congregation was kidnapped and murdered. As EthicsDaily.com reported—after communicating with Massad via e-mail—Massad has been on a sabbatical in the United States raising awareness and support for Palestinian Baptists and hopes to return this summer. Massad shared much of his story at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, an event attacked by BP reporters.
After providing these few details about the Gaza Baptist Church, the BP story shifted, with most of the piece providing justification and support for Israel’s military efforts. The article included comments from Daniel Pipes, a controversial commentator who pushed the debunked claims during the recent presidential election that Barack Obama had been a practicing Muslim. Also quoted were two Israeli military officials, an Israeli government leader and an Israeli journalist. No Palestinians or critics of the Israeli military strikes were quoted.
Also quoted in the BP piece was Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Although calling the situation “a human tragedy,” Land blamed Hamas entirely for the conflict.
In particular, Land blamed Hamas for not using “the opportunity provided by Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 to begin to construct a real Palestinian state by providing basic services to its people and building desperately needed roads and infrastructure.” He claimed that Hamas instead “chose to squander that historic opportunity.”
Whatever opportunity Hamas may have had in building Gaza was drastically impaired when hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid were cut following the victory of Hamas in parliamentary elections in January 2006. The United States led the efforts to cut aid, and Israel began a blockade that stopped most shipments to Gaza.
Land himself pushed for the response that isolated Gaza. He argued that the United States should not give any aid—including humanitarian aid—to Gaza because “[w]e have laws in place that forbid us from giving money to terrorist groups.” He added, “I think the ‘criminal’ act would be sending Hamas money and recognizing it as a legitimate political organization. “
During the Jan. 3, 2009, broadcast of his radio program, “Richard Land Live!,” Land justified Israel’s response and minimized the problem of innocent civilians killed by Israeli airstrikes.
Land’s biggest factual mistake was claiming that people criticizing Israel’s response for being disproportionate were complaining that Israel was “killing more Hamas terrorists than the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets.” Land called this argument “absurd.” However, the criticism of Israel’s response has been that it is disproportionate because the death toll of Palestinian civilians—not Hamas terrorists—represents about 100 Palestinians killed for every one Israeli.
During the two-week conflict, more than 600 Palestinians have been killed, of which most have been civilians and more than 100 have been children. On Tuesday, more than 40 Palestinians were killed when an Israeli bomb hit a school being used by the U.N. to shelter civilians.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.