Responding to the blood libel

Posted: September 1, 2009 by Jonathan Boyko in Anti-Israel, Israel, Own Articles, Palestinians, Politics, Press and Media, Setting Facts Straight, West Bank

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of the notorious blood-libel by Swedish Aftonbladet, Israeli officials and activists responded en-masse, discovering the weak spots within Donald Bolstrom’s reporting; demanding the Swedish government to condemn the publication. After all, it does seem ridiculous – Bolstrom says he simply relays the stories, but does not know if the allegations are correct.

Bolstrom points to the major point of defeat for the western media on subject of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a major point of victory for Palestinian armed factions. The international press always treated eyewitness testimony with respect, however, it is in the Middle East that many – if not most – stories are actually based on such testimonies. Aftonbladet’s story is excellent in reflecting on that subject: the article bases its allegations and conclusions on people’s accounts, rather than facts (as anyone practicing law will tell you, eyewitness testimony is the least reliable one). Yes, Bolstrom says he saw the bullet-riddled body. However, that is all he saw and it is unclear if he attempted to dig deeper. Just as it is possible that the man was shot by IDF troops (which, still, does not warrant the conclusion that his organs were stolen), it is also possible that this man what killed in a firefight between two armed Palestinian factions – those events are no rarity. Furthermore, during operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier this year, some IDF troops on the ground alleged some HAMAS fighters wore standard IDF uniforms, thus impersonating Israeli forces. Just another option Bolstrom should have considered writing his – currently baseless – article.

To be precise, the article – which can be found here – goes far beyond simple blood libel, accusing Israeli soldiers of stealing organs from bodies of Palestinian youths. The article goes to to allege IDF soldiers murdered people on purpose, in order to harvest the organs. Bolstrom alleges the troops murdered a young, 19-years-old teenager, for hurling rocks at them – by staging an ambush and gunning him down in cold blood. To spice the mix up, the author goes on to imply high-ranking Israeli officials were responsible for the murder of 19-years-old Bilal Ghanan.

Viewing the article impartially, some things are easily discernable. It is clear Bolstrom’s article is one of tabloid, not serious reporting. Author brings to light claims and allegations from as far back as 1992, now impossible to investigate. All ‘facts’ in the article are based on hearsay and on unsubstantiated sources. Some information Bolstrom received from Palestinian Authority, however, knowing the hostile standing of the Palestinian leadership towards Israel, it is unclear how trustworthy those facts are (they could be, in fact, as trustworthy as Palestinian claim of over 500 civilian deaths in Jenin refugee camp in 2003; final number – 65, five of them militants). While Aftonbladet editor Jan Helin claimed article he approved is "investigative journalism", there is really nothing investigative about the piece; what Bolstrom did is known in professional journalism as ‘interview’.

Article’s claims received another blow when Jerusalem Post journalist Khaled Abu Toameh actually investigated the case and found the victim’s family. When asked, the relatives replied they never told any journalist their son’s organs were "plundered", but they did remember a Swedish photographer at Bilal’s funeral:

"Obviously, they performed some kind of an autopsy on the body," the brother said. "When the army handed us the body, we were ordered to bury him quickly and in the middle of the night."

Jalal said that he and other villagers recall that a Swedish photographer was in the village during the funeral and that he managed to take a number of pictures of the body before the funeral. "That was the only time we saw this photographer," he recounted.

Ibrahim Ghanem, a relative of Bilal, said that the family never told the Swedish photographer that Israel had stolen organs from the dead man’s body.

"Maybe the journalist reached that conclusion on the basis of the stitches he saw on the body," he said. "But as far as the family is concerned, we don’t know if organs were removed from the body because we never performed our own autopsy. All we know is that Bilal’s teeth were missing."

Bolstrom’s version of events was also countered by some medical experts. For example, in an interview discovered by Backspin blog, Andrea Meyerhoff MD, an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine says the intent could not have been organ harvest, as troops’ actions clearly put those under grave danger:

According to his account, Israeli soldiers shot the young guy in the chest, then in each leg, then once ‘in the stomach.’

I take this last to mean the abdomen, since it isn’t possible to see the individual organ called the stomach from the outside of the body.

A gunshot wound to the chest or abdomen is a serious injury because it can damage internal organs- either by interruption of the blood supply, which causes hemorrhage, or because it causes infection via perforation of the intestine and/or the introduction of a foreign body. A guy shot in both legs can’t go far. Why, if the goal is to steal organs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, would soldiers shoot an individual in both the chest and abdomen and risk damage to the valuable organs in these body cavities? Such organs are not usable for transplant.

While Aftonbladet claims the goal of the story is to raise questions and call for an investigation, it is clear that publishing baseless accusations is not the way to promote comprehensive inquiry. Some, however, join Bolstrom’s tune, such as Iranian journalist Kusar Aslam, who claims not only to witness similar events, but to possess mind-reading ability, as he was able to discern IDF troops’ intent to harvest organs:

According to Aslam, some of the Palestinians were still alive when they were "kidnapped" by IDF soldiers.

"I personally witnessed Israeli soldiers and army vehicles snatching Palestinian bodies from emergency rooms," the Iranian reporter said. "In other instances I saw soldiers follow Palestinians to cemeteries with the intent of stealing bodies before they were buried.

And so, irresponsible Swedish reporting is taken as fact by propagandists and dishonest individuals.


JUST AS BAD, however (well, almost just as bad), were futile efforts by Israeli officials and interviewees to counter Bolstrom’s points. In a YouTube video posted above, Donald Bolstron and Dr. Mordechai Kedar (whom I deeply respect) fight it out over the allegations. While I certainly commend Dr. Kedar’s passion (he is one of the view Arabic-speaking Jews often invited to speak on Arabic TV channels, and is never afraid to present his pro-Israel points), it is true that in this case his case is ineffective. Getting agitated, Dr. Kedar’s English stumbles, and average viewer would be tempted to take Bolstrom’s seemingly calm and calculated side against a fanatic crying out loud "Lies, lies!".

Government’s reaction was just as bad, mostly. While the step of delaying Aftonbladet‘s press credentials renewal was a correct one, the blame game was not. Benjamin Netanyahu‘s and Avigdor Lieberman’s furious reaction was understandable – but ineffective and, basically – useless. Releasing press statements with demands for Swedish government to condemn the publication would do no good.

What could be effective, is a more calm, but firm approach. Netanyahu should have immediately ordered Swedish ambassador to his office and reminded her, that Swedish government offered official apologies to Yemenite government, following publication of Muhammad cartoons on a Swedish website (as well as taking the website down). Netanyahu could also threaten deterioration in relations with Sweden and recall Israeli ambassador from Stockholm to Jerusalem for "consultation" – a reasonable step taken by any government, to let the other side understand – we are talking serious business.

Aftonbladet‘s press credentials should have been cancelled, with Israeli government announcing that the newspaper could either produce certain evidence of the allegations, or apologize for Bolstrom’s debacle. Free speech is sacred – but, as HonestReporting notices, it also bears a spoon of responsibility. The tabloid could publish everything to its liking – but it must also be ready to accept the consequences.

It is time for activists, academics and politicians to comprehend simple truth – the only way Israel can win the PR war, is by using specific facts at its disposal. The press will always be inclined to trust pro-Palestinian sources first, for variety of reasons. It is up to Israelis to use the evidence on the ground to prove the accusers wrong.

  1. Michael (UK) says:

    I don’t think Israel is suitable placed to suggest the Palestinians are not truthful. Just look at the claims that the genocide in Gaza in January this year was down to Hamas rockets, or that the genocidal invasion of the Lebanon in 2006 was down to two IDF members being kidnapped. Or that any conflict since 1948 has been down to Arab aggression.
    I remember just this year Israeli Gov spokesmen claiming that white phosphorus was not used, later it led to an adjustment that white phosphorus had been used but not on civilians, but yet we all saw that this was a lie by just watching our TV screens. Jews and the officials of the Apartheid State are not exactly renowned for their honesty.

  2. These are allegations, just as thousands others are made. Some people in Israel – and in Palestine – are criminals. When there’s substantial evidence of the fact, Israeli authorities investigate and arrest the criminals (hence your link on two Haifa men).

    By the way – not to be racist or anything – note that from links you posted it is clearly visible that most of those organ-trafficking criminals are, well, not Jews.

    In past nine years, there were some many inventions on Palestinian side (like the Jenin “massacre” for example) that, seriously, if I’d be Israeli politician I’d stop investigating too, unless there’d be substantial evidence to anything. If Palestinians want justice and investigations, they should stop inventing facts, such as that 2,500 Palestinians were killed in the first month of the “resistance”.

  3. Michael (UK) says:

    I don’t think in fact that I did miss your point. It seems that these allegations of organ harvesting are not new but have been made continuously over the last 20 years or so, mostly by Palestinians. Israeli authorities have had plenty of opportunities to investigate the allegations but have made no attempt to do so. Fact is if this Swede had not brought this matter to the attention of the Western world it would still be swept under the carpet.,

  4. Michael,

    I’m sorry, but I think you’ve missed my point.

    I am not saying that the allegations are definitely false. I am however saying that Bolstrom’s allegations are full of holes and this particular story does not seem to be credible.

    It is also true that Aftonbladet, while saying that the article was just supposed to bring some things to light that should be investigated, portrayed a horribly one-sided picture, never gave Israeli officials a real way to respond, and went through with unsubstantiated allegations.

  5. Michael (UK) says:

    So this is what Jews call blood libel? Does that mean every blood libel is actually true, here we are just one example of where Israelis or Jews, by their own admission, are involved in organ trade

    Moreover, Orr was well within her rights to be skeptical of the pathological findings of Hiss, who has long been the subject of controversy as director of Israel Institute for Forensic Medicine, at Abu Kabir. Last November, a local Tel Aviv paper Ha’ir ran a 12-page expose of Abu Kabir and revealed how the national lab allows medical students to practice on bodies sent there for autopsies, and transfers body parts for transplants without permission from the family of the deceased.

    Two Haifa men sentenced to jail for organ trafficking
    Police uncover illegal organ trade ring

  6. memiln says:

    oh, when I wrote “unbiased” I meant biased, sorry

  7. You know, I’m really glad I know you, because I could never get a perspective on Scandinavian countries before.

    Sadly, it seems you are correct, there is much anti-Semitism in Sweden (although I am far from proclaiming it to be an anti-Semitic country).

    I understand why Israelis took offense on the article, but I believe it’s blown out of proportion. Such article are run everywhere around the world all the time (I’m thinking, in Russia they’re probably reprinting The Protocols in major newspapers by now).

    The fact is, Aftonbladet might be widely-circulated, but it’s a cheap tabloid. No reason to go far away with it.

    I do believe, however, that this occurrence will probably encourage some to publish more articles like it. First – Aftonbladet already published a second article on the issue, even after the storm started. For now, around the world, Bolstrom looks like a hero to many, while Israelis again look evil. Yes, if you’re familiar with the actual facts, you are unlikely to think of it this way, but most people are not aware of the facts.

  8. memiln says:

    Although I the paper should never have published the article it has put focus on the unbiased portrayal of Israel in Swedish (and western media). You can hardly open a Swedish newspaper without having to read some unsubstantiated slander about Israel in news reports or public opinion. But the Boström affair has put a spotlight but in Sweden and world-wide and it may hopefully change this, newspapers probably don’t want to put themselves in this much trouble and will become more reluctant to allow anti-Zinosts write articles like Boström to get published, after all the newspapers should report news and not propaganda. I think this may be a wakeup call for many Swedes which previously have believed in unsubstantiated articles biased against Israel will now read between the lines.
    Yes, Aftonbladet should never have published the article in the first place (although it’s the worst kind of tabloid so the quality is generally very low) but it may have these positive side-effects.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s