A photo taken from space that purports to show explosions in Gaza and rockets flying over Israel went viral Thursday, posted on dozens of Facebook pages and blogs, including the official blog of NASA, the US space agency. Just one problem — it’s a picture of routine nighttime lights in Israel, not blasts.

At first glance, the image might appear to show explosions over the coastal strip and Israel, as it’s presented. At second glance – one taken by Professor Michael Harper of Utah Valley University – the photo turns out to show the lights mainly of Tel Aviv, and as far away as Beersheba in Israel’s south. Gaza is in the picture, but it’s mostly dark.

There is no sign of bombs or rockets, Harper says.

“I’ve been to Israel personally and know the geography — even when looking at the nighttime image,” Harper told The Times of Israel. “The story makes the statement that bombs and missile attacks can be seen. I refute that with the images I posted.”

The brouhaha erupted Wednesday night, after Alexander Gerst, who is in orbit around the earth, posted a tweet that read “My saddest photo yet. From the International Space Station we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over Gaza and Israel.”

The tweet with its accompanying photo was retweeted 25,000 times in the 24 hour period after it was first sent, and it was picked up by Space.com, NASA’s official blog, Space.com. “As fighting continues in Israel and Gaza, astronauts living aboard the International Space Station can see signs of the deadly conflict from space,” the Space.com entry read. “Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut with the European Space Agency, posted photos online Wednesday showing Israel and the Gaza Strip alongside a grim caption. The astronaut’s view of rockets over Gaza and Israel from space served as a stark reminder of the unrest on Earth, despite the planet’s beauty from space.”

The NASA post went on to describe how “Israeli troops and Hamas militants have been embroiled in conflict for more than two weeks, exchanging heavy fire that has left 680 Palestinians and 34 Israelis dead so far.” The specifics of the 2,000-plus Hamas rockets fired at Israel, and the dozens of terror tunnels terrorists have dug into Israel, were not mentioned. The item did go on to describe the frustrated efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a cease-fire.

The tweet set off the usual firestorm on both Twitter and Space.com, with advocates of both sides stating their cases in no uncertain terms. Some responders pointed out NASA’s failure to include Hamas attacks and tunnels, while others expressed their sympathy with Gaza’s Palestinians. Then Harper showed that the whole thing was a sham.

The tweet sent out from outer space by Alexander Gerst (Screenshot)

The tweet sent out from outer space by Alexander Gerst (Screenshot)

In his response, Harper asserted that the photo’s contours perfectly matched that of the Israeli coast, and that the clusters of lights seen were not Israeli bombs or Hamas rockets, but ordinary electric lights in Israel’s cities.

That leaves the motivation in question — mistake or plot. Harper was sure the misrepresentation was intentional, though there was no way of knowing for sure.

In an extensive response on his Facebook page, he said Gerst, who has posted dozens of photos from space, was unlikely to be ignorant of what he was seeing, and “NASA is most likely playing a political game, that the image showed Gaza being bombed by Israeli forces. I assume it’s the brightest light that is being pointed to as shelling. Sorry, but I’ve got proof that it’s not. Simple map reading skills can debunk even the most official statement by so called space leading organizations. For shame NASA!”

Harper compared the space image with an actual map of Israel (Screenshot)

Harper compared the space image with an actual map of Israel (Screenshot)

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Harper said that it wasn’t necessarily the politics of the thing that bothered him – but the inaccuracy and ignorance it highlighted. “The problem is that using the image fans the flames on the issue without clarifying locations with facts. It’s sensationalism at its best,” Harper said. “The conflict doesn’t need this type of ‘flash point’ to help resolve concerns or bring clarity to what is actually happening on the ground. My point in posting the adjusted image was to educate people on locations so a better understanding of the area could be had. As you know, most people just react to these types of stories, and little thought is given to actual fact.”

Harper said that Gerst did not respond to his criticism, and was unlikely to, considering where he was — in orbit. Space.com did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

“Regardless of our position, we must all try to be cautious of what others say or share,” Harper added. “My feeling is that Space.com and even NASA should be very careful what they post. They should also verify the information and help promote knowledge. How easy would it have been for NASA, Space.com, or any other agency to create what I created, so confusion was kept to a minimum? That’s my primary point.”