By Guy Gabriel
When asked about the alleged Israeli involvement in airstrikes in north-east Sudan in early 2009, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded: "There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know."
The Israeli leader was taken at his word; analyzing global media coverage of the story, it becomes clear that imaginations were used liberally by reports which felt it necessary to go into the details, despite Olmert’s interdiction.
In under a week, a story set in motion by the testimony of multiple unnamed sources in a new Egyptian newspaper, al-Shurooq, became a customized yet globally significant story that supposedly confirmed the long, clinical arm of Israel protecting itself from Iran.
However, certainty was an afterthought to a finished product that appeared assuredly in the Sunday papers and weekly news magazines, when in fact the foundations were provided by a sizeable number of unnamed and openly contradictory sources.
Furthermore, it would seem as though the lesson of the story – that Israel has a long, protective arm – was valedictory enough to credit obscure or fringe sources with enough substance to provide the central theme of the story in the absence of witnesses, or officially confirmed substantiation.
Piecing together information from various reports, this is a composite picture of what happened:
The attackers were American, Israeli, or of unidentified origin, using perhaps gunships, F15s, F16s, or Hermes 450 drones and Eitan UAVs, taking off from Eritrea, Djibouti or possibly south of Tel Aviv.
In January and/or February 2009, they attacked 1-2 convoys, consisting of 4-23 trucks, 1-3 times. The attacks left 39-800 dead (including some Iranian escorts or Revolutionary Guards), and there were between 0-50 survivors, which possibly included an Ethiopian mechanic. The attack left 18 craters, ranging in size from 160-430 metres (!).
In addition, 0-1 ship[s] were sunk. The convoy[s] were smuggling either goods, people, G4s and Kalashnikovs, or 120 tonnes of arms and explosives, including anti-tank rockets and Fajir rockets with a 25-mile (40-kilometre) range and a 99-pound (45-kilogram) warhead.
The Original Sources
In reality, no one can be sure about what did take place, and cannot be much wiser reading the coverage – as is true with many stories whose subject is inherently secretive and over long before the media get to hear of it. However, the certainty given to the story in various weekend papers and news magazines simply cannot be provided by the various reports that set the ball rolling, as the summary above shows.
This story is notable in this respect. Al-Shurooq is quite an obscure source; it is in Arabic, and is a relatively unknown quantity even in the Arab media scene (a matter of a few months old) – attributes that would normally preclude any source from forming the basis of a mainstream Western news story. Its follow-up story the next day reported contradictions.
More credence was given to the story by a 330-word report from American news organization CBS, which quoted statistics familiar from the al-Shurooq report and more unnamed sources – which then became a "semi-official" American version of the tale, after their security correspondent "was told" his version.
Crucially, the CBS report appeared not on the mainstream channels, but on a journalist’s blog (Dan Raviv), a space normally reserved for more ‘quirky’ or speculative stories that would not pass the subs on the way to mainstream broadcast – or simply would not be considered newsworthy or credible enough to broadcast or publish. Such blogs provide a low-rent way to extract more value for readers who want to read about less mainstream stories.
Reuters was one of the earliest Western outlets to cover the story; trying to make sense of the barrage of contradictory information were four journalists and one editor, according to the byline. Thus, it was a composite story, involving the piecing together of various snippets of information, a story that incidentally has suffered from the glaring lack of official statement on it.
One source was named and quoted a number of times, but he changed his tune as the story developed. Mabrouk Mubarak Saleem, the Sudanese state minister for transport, spoke to al-Jazeera by phone on 26 March 2009 and said 800 people were killed in the attack, and any weapons in the convoy were for the personal protection of those accompanying it. However, earlier in the week he had apparently made comments at a press conference in Kassala, Sudan, which appeared in print as confirming that the convoy contained weapons bound for Gaza. He was contradicted by his own foreign minister, Deng Alor, who denied any knowledge of an attack.
It is entirely normal that other, differing facts emerge as a story develops, and so details do change somewhat as things progress, but in this case, changing details are not the result of further investigation, but of the input of another host of unnamed sources, which is where the unsubstantiated information came from in the first place.
The reader has little choice but to invest their trust in the journalist and his or her choice of sources. Furthermore, many of the later reports referred to the earlier reports, cross-pollinating the story with selected details that do not add up in the big picture.
It is important to look at the alleged role of Iran in this story. By the end of the week, there was supposedly not really much doubt that the reported weapons were Iranian – Time Magazine, the Economist and the Sunday Times, among other heavyweight publications, asserted the primacy of Iran’s role in the story – but it appears that this assertion was down to the growing confidence with which the story was doing the rounds, and the general backdrop of the current regional political balance – the faint drum beat of impending collision between Iran and Israel.
The Sunday Times made clear what it thought the alleged Mossad / Israeli Air Force intervention had prevented: Palestinians enabled by Iran to "wreak terror on Tel Aviv."
At origin, Iran did not feature directly in the story. The early breakers of the story – al-Shurooq and CBS – did not report Iran as being the origin of the weapons. In fact, both make only oblique reference to Iran, saying that an agreement was signed between the US and Israel to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza, from sources that include Iran. Reuters also picked the story up early, but makes no mention of Iran.
However, as the story grew, Iran took on greater prominence: a Jerusalem Post editorial wrote: "Yesterday, CBS News reported that in January, Israeli aircraft bombed an Iranian arms convoy in Sudan bound for Hamas."
This is not exactly true, but it does not matter much. CBS actually reported under the headline "US Accused of Killing 39 in Sudan Strike," with a CBS correspondent being "told" by an unnamed source that the aircraft were Israeli. The report did not say any weapons being transported were Iranian, but mentioned Iran only in a direct quote from the Sudan Tribune, a Paris-based online (anti-Khartoum) newspaper – in the context of the US-Israeli agreement on smuggling prevention. Iran was given top billing in the story, without much substantiation.
It is quite possible that any one of these reports may be accurate, or perhaps none of them – or any combination of truth or falsehood in between. However, what is notable is that although we simply do not know the details of what happened, that has not stopped the story reaching the mainstream media with certainty that Israel’s long arm stopped a conspiracy involving Iran, Hamas, and smuggled weapons bound for Gaza.
Obscure or fringe sources were deemed passable in piecing together this story that in other situations would be rejected for being too unreliable. This was nearly the case here, relegated at first to blogs, but the significance of the ideal version of the story was too good to miss out on, and so graduated to mainstream Sunday newspapers and weekly news magazines.
When Olmert suggested that "everybody can use their imagination," his was an accurate prediction, although he did not suggest imaginations should be used at the expense of usual journalistic instinct.
– Guy Gabriel is an adviser to Arab Media Watch. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.