As 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.