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Israel-Palestine war: How unverified reports of Hamas 'beheading babies' filled front pages

Questions raised by reporting of deadly attack on kibbutz, with media warned that spreading unverified information could escalate tensions
Israeli soldiers remove a body from a house in Kfar Aza, on 10 October 2023 (AFP)

Newspaper headlines in the UK on Wednesday were dominated by reports of a massacre committed by Hamas fighters at a kibbutz in southern Israel in which the attackers were widely alleged to have beheaded babies.

But the reports – which a number of newspapers themselves acknowledged were unverified and which have been disputed and denounced by other journalists – have led to complaints that the publications could have been reporting “fake news”, “acting as a proxy for Israeli propaganda” and stoking Islamophobia.

Concerns about the accuracy of details in the stories were raised by Francesca Albanese, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories, who called for journalists to show caution in their reporting.

“Divulging unverified information risks to escalate tensions & endanger lives in a volative [volatile] context,” Albanese wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“This word of caution is with no prejudice to further findings.”

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Reports in many of the UK’s leading publications – including the Daily Mail, the Sun, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph – carried details of the alleged killings of 40 children, including babies, in the assault on Saturday morning on Kfar Aza after Hamas fighters broke out of Gaza and attacked communities in southern Israel.

Several newspapers, citing an Israeli soldier quoted by Israel’s i24 news channel, reported claims that babies had been beheaded or “had their throats cut”.

“Savages ‘beheaded babies’ in massacre,” the Sun said on its front page. “Hamas ‘cut the throat of babies’ in massacre,” said the Times. Both newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK company.

“They chop the heads off women and children,” the Telegraph quoted an Israeli commander who spoke to i24 as saying, adding that it could not verify the claim.

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The story was also widely shared on social media.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic researching disinformation in the Middle East, told MEE that tweets about the “40 murdered babies” story had picked up 44 million impressions by mid-morning on Wednesday.

Jones said he did not know if there was an organised campaign behind the spread of the story but said that narratives around murdered babies were “emotive” and had been used in propaganda campaigns since World War One to demonise enemies.

Many of the newspapers and websites that ran the story cited reporting by i24 journalist Nicole Zedeck as their main source. Zedeck was among a group of journalists who visited Kfar Aza accompanied by the Israeli military on Tuesday.

In social media posts, Zedeck said “one of the commanders told me they saw babies' heads cut off” and “soldiers told me they believe 40 babies/children were killed”.

Other journalists who visited the site said they had not heard or seen evidence to corroborate the reports.

“During the tour, we didn’t see any evidence of this, and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn’t mention any such incidents,” Oren Ziv, a journalist with +972 Magazine, wrote on social media on Wednesday.

Ziv said journalists were allowed to speak with hundreds of soldiers at the kibbutz without the supervision of the army’s spokesperson team, but none he spoke with mentioned beheaded babies.

Bethan McKernan, Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian, wrote: “Just looked at today's UK front pages and I am horrified by the headlines claiming ‘40 babies beheaded by Hamas’ in Kfar Aza. Yes, many children were murdered. Yes, there were several beheadings in the attack. This claim, however, is unverified and totally irresponsible.”

On Wednesday, Tal Heinrich, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN that babies and toddlers had been found with their "heads decapitated", the US network reported. In comments to LBC, a UK radio station, Heinrich said this had been reported by "soldiers on the ground".

Hamas denied the reports in a statement on its Telegram channel: "The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas has strongly dismissed the false claims promoted by some Western media outlets, such as Palestinian freedom fighters killing children and targeting civilians.”  

Sources who spoke to MEE on Tuesday said there were reports that children were among those who had been killed on the kibbutz. The resident of a neighbouring community, who had not herself visited Kfar Aza, said: “They aren’t yet publicising what exactly happened at Kfar Aza, but there’s nothing left there.”

Israel-Palestine war: Kibbutz resident describes the attack - ‘There is nothing left’
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She said a friend who had gone to Kfar Aza to help told her: “He says that people were killed without mercy, that they recovered the bodies of children, the bodies of infants, bodies of entire families.”

A Telegram channel that posted footage from first responders to communities in southern Israel after Saturday’s attack showed graphic images of widespread destruction in Kfar Aza, including the bodies of people who appeared to have been killed in their homes.

“Kfar Aza. We go house to house and see families slaughtered in their bedrooms and living rooms,” the accompanying text reads.

An Israeli military spokesperson told MEE: “We cannot confirm any numbers. What happened in Kibbutz ‘Kfar Aza’ is a massacre in which women children, toddlers and elderly were brutally butchered in an ISIS way of action.”

MEE has been unable to independently verify these reports.

On Wednesday, the number of Israelis confirmed killed in Saturday’s attack rose to 1,200. A military spokesperson said the victims were “overwhelmingly civilians”, and said more bodies were being discovered “in the various communities that Hamas infiltrated and where they conducted their massacres”.

But questions about the lack of verification of claims given prominence on the front pages and websites of UK newspapers were highlighted by the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), an organisation that promotes fair and responsible reporting about Muslims and Islam in the UK.

Citing a report on the Daily Mail’s website, the CfMM said: “The most shared article on the @MailOnline website is unverified and possibly fake news. Why is the most visited news website in the world acting as a proxy for #Israeli propaganda? #notjournalism”

In a separate post, it said: “But it’s not surprising anymore given this latest episode in the never ending nightmare for Palestinians has unleased Islamophobia from editors of newspapers which have supported the curtailing of the civil rights of British Muslims and shut down any criticism of Israel.”

Speaking to MEE, a spokesperson for the CfMM said: “The main issue with any story is whether it is true or not. What has taken place in Kfar Aza is horrific in itself, however, the job of journalists is to verify whether the details of what is being claimed are true.”

The spokesperson cited denials by the Israeli military over the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead by an Israeli soldier while reporting from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in 2022, as a reason for journalists to be cautious about information from Israeli military sources.

“Any claims the Israeli army makes should be treated with caution and verified before publishing, let alone leading with them as a front-page story.”

The spokesperson said the stories would be a test for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a press regulator, to see whether it would hold newspapers “responsible for printing unverified information as fact”.

Middle East Eye contacted IPSO for comment and to ask whether it had received complaints about Tuesday’s front pages, but had not received a response at the time of publication. News UK, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

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