Dam lies and flood libels

False ‘Israel drowns Gaza’ claims sweep internet

Residents of Strip forced from homes after winter storm, and Jerusalem is blamed for opening invisible dams

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Palestinians take a boat through flooded streets in Gaza City, December 17, 2013 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Palestinians take a boat through flooded streets in Gaza City, December 17, 2013 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” Mark Twain is believed to have said.

Indeed, an annual lie about Israel flooding the Gaza Strip circled the globe this week, with newspapers making wild allegations against Jerusalem that a minute of fact-checking could have straightened out.

France’s AFP wire service posted a video showing flooding in the Gaza Strip in the wake of last week’s storm, entitled “Gaza village floods after Israel opens dam gates.”

Al Jazeera and Palestinian news agency Ma’an also reported that Israel had caused the flooding by opening dams. The official Palestinian Al Wafa news service even said Israel “pumped large amounts of rainwater into the Gaza Strip, causing tens of neighboring homes to sink, according to witnesses and media sources.”

A writer at Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper outdid the other reports, contorting herself into knots to tie the flooding in with Israel’s Electric Corporation temporarily suspending service to West Banks cities Nablus and Jenin.

“Hundreds of Palestinians left homeless after Israel opens river dam and floods houses… hours before Jewish state’s electric company cuts off power in West Bank cities,” read the initial Daily Mail headline.

“The flooding was today compounded after an Israeli power company cut electricity to two of Gaza’s major West Bank cities,” read a whopper of a sentence in the article.

Of course, Gaza doesn’t have any major West Bank cities, because Gaza and the West Bank are two distinct and separate geographic entities.

What’s more, Israel doesn’t have any dams in the Nahal Habesor/Wadi Gaza watershed that it could open to flood Gaza. “There is a diverting dam one meter high which directs water to reservoirs. This is a low dam which cannot be opened or closed,” Nechemia Shahaf, head of the Drainage Authority for the Shikma-Besor Region, told the CAMERA media watchdog.

“There are no dams in the southern part of Israel so we couldn’t open any dams because there aren’t any. I don’t know how these rumors got around,” a spokesman for the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Palestinian Territories told VICE News.

By now, truth had it shoes laced up and was ready to take off running.

“An earlier version of this article stated that Israel had opened river dams in the south of the country, causing flooding in the Gaza strip,” the Daily Mail offered at the bottom of its updated article, with the new headline “Hundreds of Palestinians left homeless by heavy flooding after water levels in Gaza Valley rise by up to 10 feet.”

“In fact, there are no dams in southern Israel and the flooding was caused by rain and drainage issues. We are happy to clarify this,” continued the correction.

Ma’an, however, left open the possibility Israel was to blame. Its updated article ran under the headline, “Israel denies Gaza govt floodwater allegations,” leading with official Israeli denials.

But then the article details “a giant system of reservoirs” that was built “along the Besor River, which leads into the Gaza Valley.”

“The reservoirs have a capacity for 7 million cubic meters, according to the site, and in drought years ‘reclaimed sewage water from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area can be channeled into them instead,'” continued the Ma’an piece, seeming to hint that Israel could channel a lot of water into Gaza if it was so inclined.

This isn’t the first time that the easily refutable claim was made against Israel. In 2013, in the wake of the storm Alexa between December 11 and 13, Hamas’s Disaster Response Committee chairman Yasser Shanti told journalists that Israel opened dams just east of the Gaza Strip, causing a flood in the area of Moghraqa near the town of Deir El-Balah.

A variation on that claim was made by Palestinian Civil Defense spokesman Muhammad Al-Maidana, who told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that Israel had opened sewage canals east of the Gaza Strip, “exacerbating the crisis and raising the water level, causing homes to be submerged.”

Al-Majd, a Palestinian security-oriented website, went so far as to claim that Israel opened the dams in order to expose Hamas tunnels leading into Israel and impose an unbearable financial burden on Gaza’s government. “For Gaza to drown is an old Zionist dream,” the site wrote in a report.

Then, too, Israel denied Hamas’s claims out of hand.

“The allegation of [Israel] opening dams and flooding the Gaza Strip is baseless and false,” Uri Schor, a spokesman for Israel’s Water Authority told The Times of Israel in an email correspondence Wednesday. No dams even exist in the area, he added, noting that water reservoirs have overflowed across the country, causing flooding.

“The opposite is true: due to the damage caused by the storm — which affected all neighboring countries and not only the Palestinian Authority — Israel responded to a special appeal conveyed through the UN, transferring four high-power pumps to the Gaza Strip intended to help residents remove water from flooded areas.”

But Hamas’s false reports had already run their course. Articles claiming Israel intentionally flooded Gaza went viral on news channels, blogs, and social media.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, acknowledged Israel’s assistance to Gaza, claiming that Israel was acting in a contradictory manner with regards to the crisis.

“The Zionists, of course, have taken advantage of the situation, sending some pumps and supplies which they had deprived the besieged Gaza Strip of,” the Hamas official wrote on his Facebook page Sunday.

“Later, the occupation forces opened the Wadi Salqa dams to sink dozens of Palestinian homes in the central region of the Gaza Strip, thereby sending two contradictory messages!”

A spokesman for the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told The Times of Israel in an email that rumors of Israel flooding Gaza “repeat themselves every year when Gaza is drenched in rain.”

Elhanan Miller contributed to this report


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