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Journalistic Fraud

By Jack Kelly

His face swathed in bandages, Kassem Shalan had a chilling tale to tell the journalists who gathered around his bedside in the Jebel Amil hospital, where he was being treated for minor shrapnel wounds.

As he was loading patients into his ambulance from another in the village of Qana July 23, both were attacked by an Israeli Apache helicopter: "There was a boom, a big fire, and I was thrown backwards," Mr. Shalan told Time magazine.

But in the contemporaneous account Mr. Shalan gave Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent for the Australian newspaper, he was driving the ambulance when it was struck by the Israeli missile, and was "spared more serious injuries by the armoured vest he was wearing and the driver's canopy that protected him from a direct hit."

"He remembers nothing after the flash and bang of the missile then the crunch of the crash as his ambulance veered off the road," Mr. Chulov said then.

AP's Kathy Gannon got the ambulance attack story rolling with a dispatch July 24. "Israeli jets blasted two ambulances with rockets," Red Cross spokesman Ali Deebe told her.

"One of the rockets hit right in the middle of the big red cross that was painted on top of the ambulance," Ms. Gannon quoted Mr. Deebe.

It was Mr. Shalan's ambulance that was struck in the center of the Red Cross, Mr. Shalan told NBC's Kerry Sanders. "When the armament struck the vehicle, he says, it hit the Red Cross symbol on the roof dead on.

The volunteer thought at first he had died -- he said the blast through him back 15 to 25 feet," Mr. Sanders said.

The ambulance, number 782, was put on display at Red Cross headquarters in Tyre. When Web logger Dan Riehl saw a photograph of it in the Boston Globe, he was suspicious. There was a hole in the roof of the ambulance -- right where the siren and an air vent customarily are located. The hole was nearly perfectly round, and there were slots for screws around its circumference.

If a missile large enough to punch that hole had exploded within the ambulance, it should have been obliterated. And if a missile had exploded within the ambulance, the windshield should have been blown outward, not bent inward as it is in the photographs.

A San Francisco photoblogger (zombie) assembled in a massive post every available photograph and news clip of ambulance 782. Zombie's report impressed Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

"After closer study of the images of the damages to the ambulance, it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax," Mr. Downer told newspaper publishers meeting in Brisbane Aug. 27.

After Mr. Downer's comments, Mr. Chulov re-interviewed Mr. Shalan: "Everything I said happen did happen,' he told the Australian in Beirut."

Mr. Chulov failed to note that Mr. Shalan's story had changed in significant ways. The Apache helicopter had become a drone. The ambulance that was moving in the first account was parked in the second. Mr. Shalan had moved from the driver's seat to the rear ramp of the ambulance.

The drone change was essential to explain why the three people said to be inside the ambulance when the missile struck all survived, mostly with minor injuries. The Hellfire missile fired by the Apache helicopter is designed to kill 70 ton tanks.

"Israeli-made drones have many types of missiles, but the most regularly used have a small warhead designed for use in urban areas," Mr. Chulov wrote. "It aims not to kill anyone outside a small zone."

But a competing journalist, Andrew Bolt of the (Victoria) Herald Sun, consulted a military expert, who told him any of the missiles Israel possesses would have obliterated the ambulance if it had exploded within it. "There is no weapon that would deliver terminal effects consistent with the pictures, the alleged story, and the reputed damage done to ambulance and people," the expert said.

Another journalist who uncritically reported Mr. Shalan's story -- Sarah Smiles of the (Melbourne) Age -- tacitly conceded the missile strike on the red cross never happened. But she concluded, hilariously, that the "ambulance attack evidence stands the test."

"Both the Lebanese Red Cross and the International Red Cross have confirmed that two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances came under Israeli air attack near the village of Qana," Ms. Smiles wrote. Their word against our lying eyes.

Thanks to Alexander Downer, this journalistic fraud has received the attention it deserves in Australia, and Mr. Chulov and Ms. Smiles are receiving the ridicule they deserve. It's time the American journalists who bought into this fraud receive similar attention.

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