On Friday June 9, eight Palestinian civilians were killed in disputed circumstances by an explosion on a Gaza beach. The sequence of events that followed highlights the political power of NGOs in the region and the manner in which their reports influence governments and lawmakers around the globe.

Despite the contentious nature of the incident, and while the facts remained unclear, a number of NGOs immediately adopted Palestinian claims holding the Israeli army responsible and used the opportunity to attack Israel politically. These claims were then picked up by the international media which used NGO reports to demonstrate that the Israeli army (IDF) was responsible for the incident. A number of foreign governments and the UN used these reports as a basis for their own condemnations, blaming Israel for the civilian casualties. However, the results of a subsequent investigation by the IDF, based in part on forensic evidence taken by the army from casualties of the explosion, stated that the IDF was not responsible for the explosion. Despite this, the Human Rights Watch report on the incident dismissed the IDF findings and was used as a basis for further political activity against Israel.

The explosion on the Gaza beach took place on June 9. On June 10, the politicized Palestinian NGOs Miftah (headed by Hanan Ashrawi) and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) issued press statements condemning Israel for the incident, followed by the Palestinian "human rights" group, Al-Mezan, on June 11. These three NGOs all based their condemnations on video "evidence" provided by Palestinian authorities which appears to be actual footage of an Israeli warship firing at the beach at the time of the explosion. However, this controversial video was found to have been manipulated. It apparently took unrelated clips of an Israeli gunboat firing at the Gaza shore earlier in the day and then edited the clips into the scenes of the beach. It is now widely accepted that Israeli ships were not responsible for the explosion. The Human Rights Watch report (below) also rejects the claim that the source of the explosion was an Israeli naval artillery shell.

Miftah’s press release called on the international community to stop "Israel’s state-terrorism" and stated that the casualties were caused "when an Israeli navy vessel fired 3 shells at them." Miftah, which received a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 2005, also called the incident a "brutal massacre" and called on the international community to "hold Israel accountable for its war crimes against the Palestinians."

Al-Mezan, which is also funded by the Ford Foundation as well as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and International Commission of Jurists among others, said in its press statement that the incident was a "savage massacre." Al Mezan accused Israel of responsibility for the attack based on evidence gathered by "TV channels [which] reported that shells were fired from a naval ship located close to Beit Lahia beach." Al Mezan added that the incident "highlight[s] Israel’s organized killing of Palestinian civilians."

Similarly, PCHR based its claims that Israel was responsible for the incident on the falsified video, when it stated in a press release of 10 June that "the family was hit by artillery fired from an Israeli naval boat."

International media organizations then began to report on the incident and also claimed that the cause of the explosion was an Israeli artillery shell. Examples include these articles from the BBC, Reuters and Xinhua (Link has expired). The Reuters report explicitly stated that "shells fired from Israeli naval ships landed on a beach in northern Gaza, killing six Palestinians." The Xinhua article also stated "that Israeli naval boats gunship fired three shells at the beach of the town of Beit Lahia in northern Gaza Strip, killing at least 12 Palestinians and wounding fifty others." A BBC Palestinian eye-witness account asserted that an Israeli gunboat had fired the shells which caused the casualties. It appears that these media organizations were either using Palestinian NGOs as sources for their reports or using the same sources as these politicized NGOs.

International media accounts were in turn reflected in diplomatic statements following the incident. On the same day of the explosion, Friday, June 9, Margaret Beckett, the British Foreign Secretary stated that "we are deeply concerned by reports of the deaths from Israeli shelling of civilians, including children, on a Gaza beach this afternoon." The Russian Foreign Ministry also assigned blame to Israel on June 9 when it said in a press release "what has happened confirms the inadmissibility of the disproportionate use of force, especially when Palestinian civilians die as a result. We urge the Israeli leadership to refrain from actions which only add to the tension." On June 10, the French Foreign Ministry stated that "France deplores Israel’s bombardments on a beach in the Gaza Strip, whose disproportionate character has cost the lives of several civilians and injured many others." An Egyptian government statement of June 10 also blamed Israel for the event saying "Israel’s disproportionate use of power in a densely populated area contradicts international law."

On June 12, Amnesty International issued a press statement which blamed Israel for the Palestinian casualties. The statement was released before the IDF made the results of its investigation public at a press conference on the evening of Tuesday, June 12. At this conference, the IDF presented the evidence it had gathered and the summary of its report which said that the army was not responsible for the explosion.

On June 13, after the IDF report had been released, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press release on the alleged findings of Marc Garlasco, a former "battle damage expert", who held a widely broadcast press conference in Gaza. Garlasco was also the author of HRW’s "Razing Rafah" report of 2004 which contained many unverifiable and disputed claims. Ignoring evidence presented by the IDF that concluded that the deaths were not caused by an Israeli shell, HRW claimed that "the evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF." (Forensic evidence taken by the IDF from casualties of the explosion being treated in Israel, was inconsistent with this claim.) Garlasco’s report included unverifiable Palestinian claims as well as testimony and "evidence" brought by the Palestinian police – an organization whose credibility is extremely low. Maj.-Gen. Meir Klifi of the IDF, who headed the investigation into the incident, directly challenged some of Garlasco’s evidence. While not questioning the Palestinian police claims, HRW rejected the information provided by the IDF, reflecting HRW’s inherent bias.

Garlasco’s claims were then reported by the international media such as the June 14 article by the BBC and the article in the British daily The Independent. His comments were also reported in hundreds of other media outlets which syndicated a newswire piece written by the Associate Press (AP), such as this article in The Mercury News.

HRW’s report was followed by intense diplomatic activity (Link has expired) by the Palestinians and their supporters in the UN. Representatives from the Non-Aligned Movement, the U.N. Palestinian Rights Committee, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference requested that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan open a UN inquiry into the incident. This process, which highlights the role of NGOs, is similar to the standard pattern often used to condemn Israel in the UN, as in the case of the false reports of a "Jenin massacre" in 2002. Annan also criticized Israel over the incident on the basis of media reports, which had repeated the claims made by HRW. However, he then retracted the accusation, stating "I responded to speculations in the press. The answer was given before Israel published its findings. We need to wait for Israel to publish its final report."

HRW’s irresponsible and unbalanced approach to the incident was highlighted on June 19, when Garlasco met with Maj.-Gen. Klifi for three hours to discuss their investigations. Following the meeting, HRW says that it cannot contradict the findings of the Israeli inquiry and Garlasco now believes the most likely source of the explosion was "unexploded Israeli ordnance." He also reportedly said that the he was impressed with the IDF’s system of checks and balances concerning its artillery fire in the Gaza Strip and that the IDF invested a great amount of resources and efforts not to harm innocent civilians.

The political power of HRW and other NGOs ("the halo effect") is clearly underlined by this episode. Extremely politicized Palestinian NGOs relied on falsified evidence in the rush to accuse Israel of responsibility for the civilian casualties, and were quickly joined by international NGOs, particularly HRW. These accusations were reinforced by the media, and led to international condemnations, including by the UN. This incident highlights the urgent need for greater NGO accountability, particularly regarding their promotion of a highly political agenda in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.