Looking back at Gaza

Gaza entry exitAs the firing subsides in Gaza and Israel (at least for a while) so the post-mortem on the attendant aspects of the conflict has begun. Adding a substantial contribution to the already much discussed issue of the media coverage of the conflict and of Israel in general is a lengthy piece by a former Associated Press staffer, Matti Friedman in which he politely lambasts his former employer along with other foreign media organizations for bias and fuelling the fires of anti-Semitism that have flared around the world.

As a former correspondent (for the BBC) in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as well as a UN official based in Jerusalem the piece piqued my interest and caused me to reflect also upon my own experiences.

There is much that Matti Friedman writes that resonates, when he describes the disproportionate coverage that Israel receives, and the way that the foreign media has broadly speaking accepted a narrative of the conflict which prescribes given roles to Israel (as the guilty party) and the Palestinians (as the victims).

Firstly to deal with what he accurately pinpoints as ‘the global mania’ with Israeli actions. I alluded to the interest that the ‘Israel-Palestinian story’ gets in a previous post, describing the way in which it is perceived (often unconsciously) by many through the lens of history, along with much accompanying religious and cultural baggage.

The story of the Jews in particular has all the ingredients for a blockbuster; including drama from before the time of the Pharaohs to the current day.  There is much tragedy, some hope and ultimate victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The history of the modern State of Israel contains elements so unlikely that they seem to belong to fiction rather than fact.  On the basis of one (much debated) narrative – a ragged group of survivors and idealists founded a country (amid tragedy for the Palestinians), reviving a long dead language, fighting off its enemies while forging it into one of the most prosperous and dynamic nations on earth.

Very few around the world remain impartial when confronted with this on-going drama, particularly when it is set amid current global religious and ideological passions.  At times of crisis and combined with other elements it brings out both the anti-Semites (in their droves) and philo-Semites. Personally I prefer neither to be hugged nor kicked on the basis of my identity, but it seems that many people around the world are incapable of seeing Jews as ‘normal’ individuals.

These passions feed into the way in which the story is reported. Israel’s own choices have also opened it up to differing consideration from many other countries and conflicts around the globe. During the recent Gaza conflict the Israeli authorities facilitated the movement of international journalists in and out of the territory. This allowed high-profile reporters and presenters to come and go during the conflict and for news organizations to rotate their staff during the hostilities.  (This contrasted with the Israeli decision to close off Gaza to foreign reporters during a previous round of fighting in 2008- 2009, and for which it was rightly condemned by news organizations).

The Israeli actions enabled high profile presenters such as Jon Snow from the UK’s Channel 4 News to anchor the programme from Gaza and then to return to London to further excoriate the Israeli authorities with passion and emotion during a news broadcast. That may seem unfair (and unprofessional), but it is also the price of having a free society.

It was also notable during the recent military conflict that Israeli military fire came close to the hotel where journalists were staying in Gaza (and from where some missiles were launched by Hamas) but left them unscathed. This reminded me of my own experiences as a correspondent reporting during Second Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza as well as at other times, when we would ring up the IDF to inform them of our positions to avoid being hit.

Journalists could roam through Gaza with relative freedom (considering this was after all a war zone) to witness the deaths and destruction wrought by the conflict. They cannot be criticized for reporting on what they saw – most especially the numerous civilian men, women, and children killed by Israeli army actions. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to remain detached when faced with the body of a young innocent killed in a conflict. The media are right to pose questions about the use of Israeli force, how it was deployed and how much care was, or was not, taken to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions. And yet in reading and watching the coverage out of  Gaza it seems the media held Israel to an altogether different standard. Civilian casualties were often portrayed as the consequence of deliberate Israeli vengefulness and bloodletting.

I have seen for myself how Western armies operate during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, and tragically there is no such thing as a clean conflict. I still have the photos I took in an Afghan village of what remained after a US air strike destroyed a family compound killing about fifty civilians in pursuit of one Al Qaeda operative. While there has been some questioning by the media over the extent of civilian casualties (numbering in their tens of thousands) in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it has been muted by comparison to Gaza.

Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and ‘pressures’ both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations.

It was also notable in what remain unobserved. One senior BBC correspondent wrote after a week of reporting in Gaza that ‘he saw no evidence.…of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.’ This is a very strange statement to make. Firstly, just because the journalist didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t occur, particularly when missiles aimed at Israel were emerging from built up areas inside Gaza. Secondly, knowing Gaza’s physical geography it’s safe to conclude that if Hamas operatives did come out from the territory’s packed urban confines, they would have been quickly struck by an Israeli drone or aircraft fire. If they weren’t in the open they were by definition sheltering in civilian neighbourhoods – thus they were using human shields (similar to the way other guerilla forces  – such as the Taliban – operate).

The Gaza situation sits in stark contrast to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where Western journalists have become targets, and where danger severely constrains their ability to report. One only has to consider the monstrous murder of James Foley by crazed ISIS fanatics or the death by Syrian army missiles of Marie Colvin in Homs to understand how risky reporting from these areas has become. Word of journalists being abused and kidnapped in Iraq and Syria are kept quiet by media organizations, and I know of former colleagues exceptional in their bravery, who having suffered unreported close shaves now understandably choose not to return to these areas.

The openness and relative safety for journalists of Israel and by extension Gaza have made it the ‘convenient conflict’.  As a correspondent I benefited from the almost unrestrained access to report, excellent communications infrastructure (fast internet, well equipped TV studios, large local news bureau), short distances between locations (vital for breaking news), good air links between Tel Aviv and the outside world, as well as the decent hotels with well stocked bars. All these factors made this corner of the Middle East a journalist’s utopia.

For the same reasons it has made it a convenient place for international political and humanitarian organizations to function. During my time with the UN in Jerusalem, there were approximately 23 separate agencies and organizations working in the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory). It was – a former senior official told me – the greatest per capita concentration of UN resources in the world – more than Iraq or Syria with millions displaced, more than Congo or the Central African Republic wracked by conflict, gross human rights violations and disease.

So what can be concluded from all this? Is this – as Matti Friedman suggests – connected to deeply rooted anti-Semitism? My answer is that I don’t know.

I do know that if Israel is to remain a free society, then it has to allow the media to operate without interference.  On this point during the recent conflict, it remained true to its democratic roots. But in that same vein, it must also account for the Palestinian civilian casualties, and explain to the fullest extent how it operated, and if more could have been done to avoid those deaths.  Israel has in the past instituted State Commissions of Inquiry in the wake of conflicts to examine its conduct, notably after the First and Second Lebanon Wars. It would do well to similarly examine the recent Gaza conflict.

But just as importantly, the (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began, if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others, and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.  Its coverage had consequences in fuelling the passions (and hatred) of many on the streets of Paris, London and elsewhere towards Israel, and by extension towards Jews.

The media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself, and will – in all likelihood – veer away from any self-examination. It is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults. But whatever it chooses to do or not, the picture it painted of Gaza 2014 and its consequences are already etched in the consciousness of many around the world, and will serve as a further chapter in this never ending story.

5 thoughts on “Looking back at Gaza

  1. You say, “…Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions”.

    There are no other Western armies that have operated, or are operating under similar conditions.
    No western army is defending its own territory and its own civilians located within a minute’s rocket flight time from its enemies while simultaneously supplying said enemies with electricity, uninterrupted humanitarian aid convoys and a field hospital for wounded. All this while giving unfettered access to enemies in the global media whose unbridled malice has unleashed a tsunami of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world.
    You call this the price of a free society. I disagree. The anti-Semitism has limited the freedom of many in Europe be be openly proud of who they are. It has put Israel on
    the defensive internationally, more so than had Israel banned all journalists from Gaza – or at least the BBC, sworn enemy of the Jewish People.

    • Rafi
      You are suggesting that Israel limit the freedom of the press because of the criticism it gets. Firstly criticism – fair or not – is the price you pay for being a democracy and operating as a ‘free society’. Sceondly who gets to decide when are where that criticism is fair or not? Israeli politicans (if so which ones), a self-appointed group of thought police, Honest Reporting, the judiciary? And how do you decide what is malicious or what is fair criticism? Additionally isn’t the freedom of expression the freedom also to say the unsavoury, not just what that version which is OK in the eyes of some? What you are proposing is a short cut to curtailing a fundmantal aspect of a free society, which is what PM Netanyahu said was a core element of Israel’s fight against Hamas.

  2. The job of a reporter is to report facts – the truth. It is interresting that even the author of the above article – who is exceptional in his honest introspection – still makes the following statement: “Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions.” But a reporter’s job is not to hold anybody “accountable”. Holding Israel “accoutable” actually sounds more like advocasy than reporting. This is where the problem starts. When a reporter has the mind-set that he needs to hold Israel accountable – then certain facts become more important than others, and some facts actually stand in the way of this accoutablilty goal. The fact that Israeli bombs kill childern – this is part of holding Israel accoutable. Other detials, like the reason why the children where in harms way, Hamas intimidation of reporters, etc. etc., are actually harmful to this “holding Israel accoutable” goal, and thus must not be mentioned in a report. Honesty is only a second-thought.

    • Benjamin,
      The job of the reporter is not just to provide a list of facts any more than history is there to provide a list of dates. Also the ‘truth’ concerning events is dependent upon from where it is viewed and by whom. It is not an absolute, and the Middle East is a perfect example where different truths are true for different sides about the same thing (about who owns the land, whose scripture offers the final version, how many have died, who is responsible and so on). Good journalists (or news reporters) are guided by honesty in detailing what they see, ‘fairness’ in offering context or explanation and an absence of bias in how they go about their job.

  3. Observations:

    1) A LOT of people in this world, including many media members, seem PERFECTLY EXCITED at any opportunity to bash/criticize Jews. You can see it in what they emphasize, the wording they use, what they ignore, etc.

    2) Many people seem to WANT Jews to be losers. They seem to get some sort of personal satisfaction when Israelis are on the losing end of ANYTHING, no matter what it is.

    3) Israel’s neighbors aren’t sane. Israel’s neighbors are LITERALLY Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, etc. Israel’s neighbors are LITERALLY jihadist organizations and brainwashed loons who don’t want Israel to exist. Yet somehow this never gets taken into account. Reporters judge Israel as if Israel is up against sane people who are being mistreated. But the reality is, Israel is up against people who LITERALLY say to themselves “All glory to Allah, we must vanquish the zionists foes no matter how long it takes.” That is LITERALLY how Israel’s neighbors talk. Israel’s neighbors don’t sit and say “if Israel would just give us most of the West Bank and be nicer, all would be cool.” Israel’s neighbors say “the sons of pigs and apes must be eliminated. The zionist entity will never know peace.”

    That’s how Israel’s neighbors talk, yet when Israel defends itself a ton of media members act like Israel is doing it in a vaccuum.

    Serious question: How can Israel prove that the crazy lunatics that surround Israel are actaul crazy lunatics?

    Because, they are.

    This isn’t about “occupation,” Israel’s neighbors only accept Muslim states. They reject any Jewish state, and they reject Israel. Yet reporters just babble about “Jewish settlements.” Yet reporters ignore the fact that the ENTIRE REGION AROUND those Jewish settlements are “NO JEWS ALLOWED” Arab-dominated settlements.

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