Background Briefing

Claims of a Hoax

On July 23, 2006, at approximately 11:15 p.m., in the midst of the Israel-Hezbollah war, Israeli drones struck two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances, numbered 782 and 777, in the village of Qana. The ambulances had spotlights on top of their vehicles identifying their Red Cross flags and flashing blue strobe lights. The ambulance crews had just transferred three wounded Lebanese civilians from one family – Ahmad Fawaz, 41, his mother, Jamila, 80, and Muhammad, his son, 13 – from ambulance 782 to ambulance 777 when the missiles struck. The first attack hit ambulance 777, and a second attack struck ambulance 782 a few minutes later, injuring all six of the Red Cross crew; their three patients suffered additional injuries. Ahmad Fawaz lost his leg in the ambulance strike, while his mother was partially paralyzed, and remains bedridden because of nerve damage to her leg. His son received multiple shrapnel wounds to the head. Most media accounts featured pictures of ambulance 782 with its Red Cross roof emblem penetrated by a missile.

Shortly thereafter, on August 3, Human Rights Watch issued its first report on the war, “Fatal Strikes,” including an account of the attack on ambulances in Qana. The report noted that international humanitarian law prohibits attacks on personnel or objects involved in humanitarian assistance.

Ahmad Fawaz, who lost his right leg in an Israeli strike on the Qana ambulances.
© 2006 Nadim Houry/Human Rights Watch.

Jamila Fawaz, 80, sustained injuries to her leg as a result of an Israeli strike on the Qana ambulances, and has been bedridden since.
© 2006 Nadim Houry/Human Rights Watch

However, some commentators claimed that the ambulance attack was nothing more than a Hezbollah-orchestrated hoax. Zombietime, a website based in California, asserted that the attack “never happened.” Oliver North, a former US official of the Reagan administration and now a conservative commentator, claimed that a Hezbollah “disinformation” campaign had misled Human Rights Watch and the “mainstream news” about the true nature of the attack on the ambulances. Writing in the Washington Times on September 3, 2006, North argued that:

The 33-day Israeli military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon is rife with examples of how disinformation has become “mainstream news.” One of the most egregious examples was the claim, widely circulated in the Western media, that IDF [Israel Defense Forces] aircraft intentionally targeted a Red Cross convoy of clearly marked ambulances in Qana on July 23. Though photographs clearly show no such attack occurred, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch used published accounts of the attack as evidence of Israeli “war crimes.” Bloggers – like Powerline and Zombietime – who reported this incident as disinformation were dismissed as “right-wing extremists.” (emphasis added)1

North’s claims challenged the credibility of one of the most widely reported attacks during the Israel-Hezbollah war. Major media outlets such as the BBC and Independent Television News in Britain, and the US cable station MSNBC, as well as newspapers, weeklies, and wires, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and Time Magazine, had carried the story of Israel’s attack on the Qana ambulances. North’s allegations, and the websites cited by him, also challenged the credibility of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Lebanese Red Cross, charging that they had been involved in an “anti-Israel hoax.” Their claims gained further credibility when Australia’s foreign minister publicly claimed that “it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.”2

Staunch defenders of IDF and Israeli policy like Dr. Avi Bell of Bar-Ilan University quickly joined in, using the hoax claims to question other reports of Israeli abuses during the war: “If one looks at the photographs of the ambulances in question, it is quite clear that they were never struck by any missiles and that such damage as they suffered occurred long before the war.…How many others of Human Rights Watch’s claims are hoaxes may never be known.”

The hoax theorists based their conclusions on the analysis of Zombietime, whose authors never visited Lebanon, but reached their conclusion by reviewing photographs and stories about the attack in the media. Specifically, they purported to refute the media accounts of the ambulance attack with the following claims:

  • It was not an Israeli missile that pierced the Red Cross emblem on the roof of the ambulance. Instead, Hezbollah propagandists removed a pre-existing circular air vent in the roof of the ambulance to make it appear that a missile pierced the ambulance.
  • The attack could not have happened on July 23, as reported, because photographs taken about a week after the incident show the presence of rust on the roof of the ambulance where shrapnel had scraped the paint away. Such rust would not develop so quickly “in dry climates such as Lebanon in the summer.”
  • Reports of a “huge explosion” inside the ambulance are false, because the damage to the ambulances should have been worse. The windshield of the ambulance is caved inward (whereas a large explosion inside the ambulance would have projected the windshield outward), and the metal frame of the ambulance is pretty much intact, showing much less damage, comparatively, than vehicles targeted by Israel in Gaza. Reports of “an intense fire” inside the ambulance are also false, as the equipment inside the ambulance was not burned.
  • A missile could not have sheared off the leg of the man inside the ambulance because the gurney inside the pictured ambulance is undamaged and there is no blood on its floor. Also, media accounts are inconsistent, with some claiming he lost his left leg, others his right, and still others both his legs. While two ambulances were hit, they are confident that they are analyzing pictures of the correct ambulance – numbered 782 – because that is the one reported to have been transporting the wounded man.
  • Reports that the attack injured all six ambulance crew are false: one ambulance driver (Qasim Cha`lan), pictured with a bandaged ear and chin right after the attack, appeared without bandages and visible wounds a week later.
  • The ambulance drivers were “apparently sympathetic to Hezbollah and could have staged the incident.” Citing a Lebanese Red Cross worker who was not present during the Qana ambulance attack who said, “whether they are civilian, a resistance fighter or an Israeli soldier, our policy is to help any human who needs help,” the bloggers argue that the use of the term “resistance fighter” rather than “Hezbollah militant” shows a political bias in favor of Hezbollah and hence a proclivity to staging a hoax.

1 Oliver North, “Masters of Manipulation,” Washington Times, September 3, 2006.

2 Misha Schubert, “Downer Attacks Lebanon Coverage,” The Age (Australia), September 1, 2006.