It’s incredible to watch this war being covered on the inside, as it should have been during the previous war, by hundreds of foreign as well as local journalists.
In 2008 Israel and Egypt sealed their borders confining the journalists to the outskirts of the war inside the Strip. Myself and Ayman Mohyeldin (now NBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent) were left to describe what was happening to the outside world. We couldn’t cover every strike, every tragedy, we couldn’t be everywhere and we weren’t awake 24 hours a day. Now, Gaza is under the microscope, whether via social media, print, radio, TV — there is no ignoring what is raging within.
I have my own theories as to why Israel decided not to lock out the journalists this time around, but that is for another post.
Gaza is not a particularly hard story to cover; it’s happening all around you. The biggest problem for journalists is in fact that it is so obviously an unbalanced conflict — there is no equating Israel with Gaza, Palestinian fighters with the Israeli Army and rockets with missile strikes.
But it’s precisely that which journalists struggle with. We are taught to be neutral, impartial, balanced. But this is not a balanced conflict and in the pursuit to even things out, some have ended up reporting the wrong story, emphasizing things they would normally not emphasize in the interest of looking balanced.
This week I heard a TV correspondent, who I very much respect and admire, throw back to the studio with the words « as Palestinians call it, the Israeli siege on Gaza. » She was standing in Gaza City where Israeli ground forces were surrounding the perimeter of the Strip. Warships surrounded the sea and drones and F16s patrolled the skies above. If there was ever a time to call Gaza under siege with certainty, it was then. Yet as she stood talking about the strikes and the people killed, her need to be balanced at the end made her unable to tell the cold bold truth.
There is a general problem with media when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The need to sanitize events so as not to be controversial and upset the wrong people, the lack of humanizing the conflict for fear that it will make you look sympathetic or worse empathetic to the Palestinians, which could be career suicide. But not being bold and telling it how it is ultimately is a disservice to the truth and to journalism.
There are some simple facts about this story that I challenge anyone to disagree with yet are so often missing from coverage:
Hamas is not Gaza. Gaza has over 1.5 million Palestinians living in it. There are mothers and fathers and brothers and babies. There are people that have no interest in politics. Gaza is a society, not an island of terrorists. You cannot use the words Gaza and Hamas interchangeably. Similarly, Hamas is the ruling authority in Gaza — there is no such thing as a Hamas school, or a Hamas police station or a Hamas ministry. These are adjectives are used by Israel to justify the targeting of these sites. Many if not most who work in these institutions are not members of the Hamas organization. There is also a difference between a member of Hamas and a Palestinian fighter. Again a distinction is so often lost.
But the thing journalists seem to be struggling most with right now is what constitutes a legitimate target. A house with 10 family members, including kids, women and old people is struck with a missile. They all die. There is initial outrage. But then the Israeli army says it was targeting a « Hamas official. » Suddenly the coverage is different. The line about the Hamas official is put into every script without question or context — all is well now because initially the story seemed unbalanced, too risky to report because it sounded too bad to be true (even though in 2008 Israel shelled the Samouni house killing over 25 members of the same family).
Does anyone stop and ask: even if there was a Hamas official inside the house, is killing ten innocent civilians to take out one official who is obviously under Israeli surveillance justified? Isn’t that exactly what the Goldstone report highlighted? Israel has a choice when it decides to hit whether this strike is worth the gain — if the aim is to take the target out, can they achieve it another time when he is not with his entire family? If the situation was reversed and Palestinian fighters struck a house of an Israeli Army commander, killing him, his mother, his wife and four children, would the media so blindly accept the justification of this being a legitimate target?
The missing context is key. Hamas rocket fire is not a response to the last missile; it’s a reaction to six years of siege, bombardment, assassinations, entrapment. The missiles from Israel are not in response to today’s rocket fire at Ashkelon; it’s the years of rocket fire on communities in Southern Israel. The trigger to this war was an assassination, but the war has been coming for at least two and a half years.