The Last Word: The strange fabrication of Zidane's Gaza visit

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Throughout this week, excitement has been building over the news that former France international soccer star Zinedine Zidane will visit Gaza in March on a UNICEF humanitarian mission. Despite the lack of any official press release from either the UN or Zidane himself, the Internet has been awash with reports that the man who famously head butted Italian midfielder Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final will soon arrive in the region to speak out against violence. The story was given gravitas by a couple of quotes attributed to the ex-Real Madrid midfield maestro, who was reported on dozens of Web sites to have said, "I will make every effort to give Gaza residents great big smiles on their faces. Gazans have suffered serious losses, damage, and injuries due to Israeli acts of violence." The comments were somewhat worrying. Why was Zidane so concerned about Gaza's children but apparently had no plans to visit the youngsters of Sderot and Ashkelon, who have been terribly traumatized by rockets fired from Gaza for nearly a decade? In any case, the story gathered pace. By Thursday it had been featured on dozens of Web sites around the world, from Korea to Algeria and, of course, Israel. However, Zidane, The Last Word discovered, not only has no connection with UNICEF, but never made any commitment to visit Gaza or made any of the comments attributed to him. The story was apparently complete fabrication which someone created and used to dupe thousands of people across the globe. Queries about the visit on Thursday to UNICEF were met with pure bemusement. UNICEF's London-based media officer Gina Dafalia said she had no information about the trip as the 37-year-old is actually a United Nations Development Program - not a UNICEF - ambassador against poverty. But when asked about the planned Zidane visit, UNDP's New York-based Director of Communications Stéphane Dujarric said there was no basis to the story whatsoever. "I have checked with the office which handles our goodwill ambassadors and was told that the information you had on the internet is false," UNDP Communications Associate Amsatou Maty Ndiaye wrote in an email. "His team has told us that the information is not true. This seems to be a rumor started online." This is extremely worrying for all concerned: UNICEF, UNDP, Zidane, the children of Gaza who expected a visit from a soccer legend and Israel. And it is also troubling that so many journalists fell for it. The quotes, which were so widely reported, specifically criticized Israel without blaming Hamas or any other Palestinian groups for the conflict. They implied that Zidane, whose parents are Algerian-born Muslims, is willing to use his fame to slam Israel. It appears that someone, or some organization, made a decision to create the entire story in order to smear Israel and garner support for the Palestinian cause. Dujarric admitted that the UNDP was investigating the slanders. "Any false information on one of our Goodwill Ambassador is of concern to us. We are trying to find out who was the source of this 'news,'" he said. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how this rumor started. There are signs that it may have originated from an organization known as the Palestinian Information Center as some of the early articles attributed the story to it, although no story about Zidane can be found on the PIC Web site. The PIC has yet to reply to emails questioning its role, if any, in the Zidane affair. Whatever the source, there is every reason to be disconcerted by this episode. Clearly the many members of the media who should have been more careful in checking their sources must take some responsibility, but the fact that a person or group is willing to manipulate these reporters in an effort to tarnish the name of such a world-renowned sports star and spread anti-Israel propaganda demands investigation.