When the whole truth is the first casualty: Reporting on Israel-Gaza

Reporting on Israel-Palestine, especially during the August exchange of rocket attacks from Gaza and Israel’s bombing of the densely populated strip, drew criticism from supporters of one side and those on the other. Since declaration of the ongoing cease-fire, things are not improving. Both sides insist that reporting generally ignores the whole truth, especially the part they deem central to understanding the “real” issues at the root of the conflict. This is a case where critics are right much of the time.

Take the story in The New York Times about the speech delivered by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to the U.N.(“Palestinian Leader Urges U.N. to Press for Deadline to End Israeli Occupation,” September 27, p. A6). Reporter Somini Sengupta offered an outline of many elements in his speech but leaves out almost all of those that would show Abbas as less than enthusiastic to embrace a full or final peace agreement.

Segupta does quote him as saying that that we (Palestinians) “will not forget and we will not forgive and we will not allow war criminals to escape without punishment.” Nowhere else in the story can a reader find those words from the speech reflecting that frame of mind. Instead,  in talking about the history of the conflict in general and the recent war in particular we find the following hurled at Israel: “genocide,” “unmatched in modern times” and a new Nakba,” (the “catastrophe” referring to the 1948 Israeli victory over Arab armies and the flight or expulsion of Palestinians from the brand new Jewish state).

The Times reporter leaves out the bitter tones of the speech in favor of focusing on the presence or absence of concrete proposals or steps and ignores the speech’s “sweet” ones as well. Abbas depicts the Palestinians, including Gaza’s Hamas and its followers, as possessing “open minds, good faith and a positive spirit.” He praises their “humanity, values and ethics” and admires the “unimaginable self-restraint” they have exhibited. Since more than 4,000 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel in 2014, and 2,874 in the month of July alone just before Israel’s retaliation, Gazan self-restraint exhibits a distinctly quirky nature. And those recalling the dancing in the streets and passing out of candy as the Trade Towers collapsed on 9-11 might wonder just a touch about the “tolerance and co-existence and non-exclusion” Abbas discovered in Gaza.

But the worst omission is not the lack of scrutiny of Abbas’s remarks. It comes when the story brings up the 100 United Nations schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed by the Israeli strikes. Sengupta writes, “Israeli authorities said (they) were near Hamas holdouts.” Sengupta should have informed readers of these and other revelations: “”Finnish TV Reporter at Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital: ‘It’s True That Rockets Are Launched Here From the Gaza Strip Into Israel” (Aug. 1) and “Watch Hamas set up and fire rocket next to residential building” (Aug.5) and finally on August 25: “Unprecedented! Italy, India, Finland and France Expose Hamas Human Shield Strategy.” But for the Times reader all that remains stuck in the “he said, she said” scenario assigned to the players in the bloody conflict’s public relations theater.

A columnist for The Nation, venerable voice of left-wing or progressive views, chided Fox News on September 24 for bringing on former American ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton to say that President Obama, in his speech to the organization, “took the opportunity to slam Israel.”

“Maybe,” wrote Leslie Savan, “he (Bolton) meant Obama’s clear-eyed observation that there’s “a growing recognition within Israel that the occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state.” Maybe, but if so he can’t tell a slam from a tribute. The recognition in Israel has led to lively and occasionally acrimonious debate. Readers can look at the battle between the country’s left-wing paper Haaretz and its conservative rival The Jerusalem Post by Googling ”Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post duel over democracy.” Or they can read the columns of Haaretz’s Amira Hass, more often than not fiercely critical of Bibi Netanyahu’s West Bank policies and retaliatory war on Gaza.

There was a real slam of Israel in Obama’s speech, when he claimed that “the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the work of peace. And that is something worthy of reflection within Israel.” The debate about Israel’s democracy includes reflection about peace, as in this contribution to the topic by American-born Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi: “Every poll in recent years confirms that, if peace were possible, most Israelis would agree to far-reaching territorial concessions. But these same polls reveal that most Israelis believe that no amount of territorial concessions will win Israel real peace and legitimacy among its neighbors. And so, at least for now, most Israelis want to be doves but feel they are compelled to act as hawks.”

Savan, author of “Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics and, Like, Whatever,” (2004) eschews such reflection and facts to support conclusions one’s reflection might reach. She closed her mind to one “whatever,” namely the preamble to the Hamas charter: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.

The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and Kill them.”

A slam dunk in waiting, but a no-brainer so far. The Unholy Land is a God-awful place to cover. The questions media pose to Israelis and Palestinians routinely fall into the “Will you stop beating your wife?” category. Neither leaders in Israel nor those in Palestine can look at each other and call each other what Israeli historian Benny Morris labeled both sides of the Zionist-Arab conflict: “Righteous Victims.” At least for now, the media is in the boat with them, set apart primarily by which side reporters and columnists are on. It’s a prescription for perpetual war in pursuit of unattainable peace.

Note: On the day after this piece was completed (October 1) Haaretz published an editorial headlined “Netanyahu’s message of unending war.”

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