Press coverage of this ugly war on Gaza has only served to remind us of the fundamental problem that has plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the very beginning: Israelis are seen as real individual people; while Palestinians are an abstraction— objects of contempt, scorn, or pity—but not real people with whom we can relate.
Because Israel knows how important it is to maintain this unbalanced equation, in any battle they rely on their ability to dominate and shape media messages and images to the same extent that they depend on their military to win battles. And because the Israelis have cultivated all too compliant partners in the press and in politics, their narrative of events often trumps reality.
This past week’s coverage of the war in Gaza by the Washington Post, can serve as a case in point.
Each day, in addition to the reporting of events as they unfold, we have been presented with moving stories of Israelis who have lost their lives or those who are living in fear. On Sunday, for example, as the Israeli ground offensive was beginning, the Post featured a front page headline, in large type, reading “Two Israelis Killed in Gaza Clash.” In smaller type there was a subhead, “Death toll tops 330 as Hamas militants step up attacks.” The story began, “Hamas militants intensified their attacks on Israeli forces…”
The impact of this presentation is quite clear. In the first place, the loss of the two Israelis trumps the deaths of 330 Palestinians. While the Israelis are “killed”, the 330 dead are presented as a body-count— we are not even told that they are Palestinians. To add to the confusion, the 330 died “as Hamas militants stepped up attacks”— making Hamas appear as the sole responsible agent. And because the story begins with “Hamas militants intensified their attacks on Israeli forces…”, unless the reader had another source of information and knew that the Israelis had just invaded Gaza, it would appear that Hamas was on the offensive.
Then on Wednesday, as the casualty toll grew, on two facing pages the Post featured stories that added insult to this injury. Page 9 featured two moving human interest stories. The first was about a grieving mother whose son, an Israeli soldier, had perished in battle. The headline for this piece was “You fought the battle for us”. It was accompanied by two pictures, the largest showing the weeping mother embraced by family members. Below this appeared profiles of two young Israeli-Americans, both soldiers who died fighting in Gaza. The accounts were personal and touching. With the story were two photos of the two clean-cut boy soldiers.
On the facing page, the Post provided a diagram of the war’s total casualties, using little stick figures— one for each person who died. Adults were presented in black, while children and babies were in red. Not only did the 406 Palestinians figures dwarf the 2 Israeli figures, but especially poignant were the number of tiny little red figures (129 in all). There were no pictures, no names, no personal stories, and no interviews with sobbing Palestinian mothers, just little stick figures in red and black.
Above this obscene chart there was an account of the difficulties Gazans were having finding places to bury their dead. Again no touching stories to put flesh on the bones of the stick figures. The story had a picture of a man, who was said to be “overcome by emotion”— but whose face looked more like he was shouting in anger.
This is the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been presented— the Israelis are real people whom you can see and know, as individual stories, versus an amorphous Palestinian mass, whom you do not know and with whom you cannot identify.
In defending themselves, reporters will argue that while the Israelis provide them access to the stories and will bring them to the grieving families, they don’t have the same access to the Palestinian side of the story. But that simply won’t wash. There are a number of courageous souls covering the situation within Gaza. The remarkable media website Al-Monitor, for example, features daily reporting from Asmaa al-Ghoul. Every day, at great personal risk, Asmaa walks the streets of Gaza telling, in heart-breaking detail, the personal stories of families who’ve lost loved ones or survivors whose homes were destroyed. Her writing deserves a wider audience— as do the tales told by the victims she has uncovered in her relentless pursuit of the truth. And NBC and CNN’s international team have also been on the ground in Gaza showing the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.
The Washington Post and too many other news outlets have also failed to bring home for their readers the impact of Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure. I have read stories in Al-Monitor, and reports from humanitarian relief groups like the American organization, ANERA, or the UNWRA. But US readers have not been told that Israel has bombed much of Gaza’s power plant facilities leaving most of the Strip with only about 3 hours of electricity each day. And because the delivery of Gaza’s limited drinkable water supply requires electricity, 600,000 Palestinians are now without water, while much of the rest of the population is making due with impure water sources. Reading from the reports of the international relief agencies still operating, we also learn of deplorable living conditions in over-crowded shelters, of traumatized children in need of counseling, or the severe shortages of basic medicines.
These stories have not been given the attention they deserve. Instead we are provided with gripping tales of Israelis in shelters or the inconveniences caused by the cancellation of some flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport or the scenes of Israelis in lawn chairs sitting outside of the Gaza Strip cheering the bombs falling on Gaza City, as they might a firework display.
Sadly, much of this reminds me of how little progress we have made in the last 30 years. I once wrote a report on media coverage of Israel’s bombing of the Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut in 1981. There had been a border clash between Israeli forces and the PLO in which two Israelis were killed. The next day, Israel bombed an apartment complex in Beirut killing 383 Palestinians. TV coverage showed dramatic scenes from Israel with ambulances roaring, people crying, and running in fear. There were interviews with family members of the dead and wounded. There was no coverage from Beirut. The next evening, the news on all three major networks featured repeat footage of the same scenes from Israel. One network covered the story from Beirut with a reporter standing at the end of a bombed out street showing damaged buildings behind him. When I later met the reporter and asked him why he didn’t cover the story differently, he told me how they had arrived on the scene the night of the bombing but, he said, “There was fire and smoke and people running about. It was chaos. So we waited until the next day so we could get a better shot of the destruction.” The lesson: in Israel, the story was the people; in Lebanon, it was the buildings.
It’s one thing for governments to lack a moral compass; it’s quite another for the media to operate in the same way. It is not that people are immune to Palestinian suffering. They just don’t know about it or they can’t relate to it as being about real people who have been living a decades-long nightmare with no end in sight.