Traditionally, British media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been heavily biased in favour of the United States’ major ally in the region, Israel. A 2002 Glasgow University Media Group report found that television broadcasters were six times as likely to present Israeli attacks as “retaliating” or in some way hitting back as Palestinian attacks. This caused many viewers to believe that the Palestinians were to blame for the conflict. (Greg Philo and Mike Berry, ‘Bad News from Israel’;
Reporting of the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants at an army post at Kerem Shalom near Gaza demonstrated the same bias. The BBC, ITV News, the Guardian, Independent and most other media described the incident as a “kidnapping”. We emailed Guardian journalist David Fickling:
“In today’s article, ‘Israel detains Hamas ministers,’ you write:
“‘Israeli troops arrested dozens of Hamas ministers and parliamentarians today as they stepped up their campaign to free a soldier kidnapped by militants in Gaza at the weekend.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1808570,00.html)
“Why do Israeli militants ‘detain’ and ‘arrest’, whereas Palestinian militants ‘kidnap’?” (Email, June 29, 2006)
“There is a well-attested distinction between arrest – an action carried out by a state as the first step of a well-defined legal process – and kidnap, which is an action carried out by private individuals with no defined outcome, enforceable purpose, or rights of review or release.” (Email, June 29, 2006)
In reality there is no “well-defined legal process” protecting the Hamas politicians “arrested” by the Israelis. Of what crimes have they been accused? Are we to believe that they have any rights of review or release whatever? Quite the reverse; the press reports that the subsequent bombings of empty Hamas political offices were intended as a clear signal that Hamas’s leaders can be assassinated if Israel so desires.
The media have emphasised the capture of the Israeli soldier as key in escalating tensions. On June 29, Stephen Farrell reported in The Times “a dramatic escalation of the conflict sparked by the abduction”. (Farrell, ‘Tanks go into Gaza as Jewish settler is murdered,’ The Times, June 29, 2006)
On June 30, the Financial Times reported “the rapid escalation of the crisis sparked by last Sunday’s kidnap” (Ferry Biedermann and Roula Khalaf, ‘Abbas appeals to UN over arrests,’ Financial Times, June 30, 2006). The BBC described the Palestinian attack as “a major escalation in cross-border tensions”. (BBC World News, June 25, 2006)
Few readers will be aware that on June 24, the day before the “kidnapping”, Israeli commandos had entered the Gaza Strip and captured two Palestinians claimed by Israel to be members of Hamas. (See our Guest Media Alert by Jonathan Cook, ‘Kidnapped by Israel’; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060630_kidnapped_by_israel.php)
Nor have the press suggested that the one-sided nature of the killing in the weeks leading up to the capture of the Israeli soldier might have “sparked” Palestinian actions.
On June 8, the Israeli army assassinated the recently appointed Palestinian head of the security forces of the Interior Ministry, Jamal Abu Samhadana, and three others. On June 9, Israeli shells killed seven members of the same family picnicking on Beit Lahiya beach. Some 32 others were wounded, including 13 children.
On June 13, an Israeli plane fired a missile into a busy Gaza City street, killing 11 people, including two children and two medics. On June 20, the Israeli army killed three Palestinian children and injured 15 others in Gaza with a missile attack. On June 21, the Israelis killed a 35-year old pregnant woman, her brother, and injured 11 others, including 6 children. Then came the Israeli capture of two Palestinians, followed by the Palestinian capture of the Israeli soldier and the killing of the two other soldiers.
After the beach deaths, Hamas, the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority, broke an 18-month ceasefire and joined other militant groups in firing Kassam rockets into Israel. The Financial Times reported on June 23 that the missiles, principally targeted towards the Israel town of Sderot, have caused damage and some casualties but no fatalities in the recent barrages. A June 29 Guardian leader noted that the home-made Kassam rockets are “not in the same league as Israel’s hi-tech (though not always accurate) weaponry”. (Leader, ‘Storm over Gaza,’ The Guardian, June 29, 2006)
In an interview for Democracy Now, Norman Finkelstein, Professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago, compared the lethality of Israeli and Palestinian weapons:
“Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005 ’til today, the estimates run between 7,000 and 9,000 heavy artillery shells have been shot and fired into Gaza. On the Palestinian side, the estimates are approximately 1,000 Kassam missiles, crude missiles, have been fired into Israel. So we have a ratio of between seven and nine to one.
“Let’s look at casualties. In the last six months, approximately 80 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza due to Israel artillery firing… There have been exactly eight Israelis killed in the last five years from the Kassam missiles. Again, we have a huge disproportion, a huge discrepancy.” (‘AIPAC v. Norman Finkelstein: A Debate on Israel’s Assault on Gaza,’ June 29, 2006; http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/06/29/1420258)
Finkelstein also compared the situation with regard to hostages: “let’s talk about those 9,000 Palestinians who are effectively hostages being held by Israel. 1,000 of them are administrative detainees… Administrative detainees who are being held without any charges or trial. And the other 8,000 are being held after military courts have convicted them, almost always on the basis of confessions which were extracted by torture. So if we’re going to look simply at the numbers, we have one hostage on the Palestinian side, and effectively we have about 9,000 on the Israeli side.”
Earlier this month, the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, published fatality figures for June 2006 in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Forty-two Palestinians, six of them minors, were killed by Israeli armed forces. Twenty-four of the fatalities were bystanders not involved in the conflict. (http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EKOI-6RC53K?OpenDocument&rc=3&cc=isr )
B’Tselem’s figures do not include the seven members of the Ghaliya family killed on Beit Lahiya beach. However, a June 17 report by Donald Macintyre in the Independent “cast doubt on crucial elements of the conclusion of the military investigation which absolved Israel of any responsibility”. (Macintyre, ‘Hospital casts doubt on Israel’s version of attack that killed seven Palestinians,’ The Independent, June 17, 2006)
According to B’Tselem, in May 2006, 36 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, one Israeli civilian died from injuries he sustained the previous month. At time of writing, Israeli soldiers have killed a total of six Palestinians since the re-invasion.
Collective Punishment – Frailer Palestinians Are Dying
Having killed many more people in recent weeks, Israel’s response to the soldier’s capture has been to heap yet more suffering on the Palestinian people. Israel re-invaded Gaza with 5,000 troops on June 27 and then bombed Gaza’s only electrical generating station, so depriving half a million people of electricity. Human Rights Watch commented:
“The destruction of the power station could quickly cause a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as electricity is essential to power the water system, sewage treatment, and medical services”. (‘Gaza: Israeli Offensive Must Limit Harm to Civilians,’ June 29, 2006; http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/06/29/isrlpa13662.htm)
In the same attack, Israel destroyed three bridges, and the main water pipes for two refugee camps. Will Hutton noted in the Observer: “Sealing off access to water and food can only inflict acute discomfort on the people there; already, frailer Palestinians are dying.” (Hutton, ‘Israel’s act of war is inexcusable,’ The Observer, July 2, 2006)
The Guardian wrote: “The electricity supply to half of Gaza has been cut, and all supplies of fuel and food have been halted.” Amazingly, the same article added: “Israeli aircraft and forces operated without harming anyone.” (Conal Urquhart, ‘Israel rounds up Hamas politicians,’ The Guardian, June 29, 2006)
Prior to these attacks, Save the Children’s UK Programme Manager Jan Coffey reported that 78% of the population in Gaza were living below the poverty line with 10% of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition. In June, the World Food Programme reported that 51% of Palestinians – 2 million people – were unable to meet their food needs without aid, and that in Gaza, “the situation is becoming critical”. (Justin Podur, ‘Summer rains,’ ZNet; http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10500)
The extent of media bias is exemplified by the New York Times which reported July 3: “for all the pyrotechnics, the [Israeli] operation has been relatively restrained”. (Ian Fisher and Steven Erlanger, ‘Israel steps up Gaza raids in bid to free soldier,’ New York Times, July 3, 2006)
This represents the view of Western journalists numbed to the suffering the West and its allies consistently heap on impoverished Third World people. To merely inflict intense suffering on hundreds of thousands of people, rather than to kill them, is “relatively restrained” for elite media executives. On July 2, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that “Israel’s ‘public diplomacy’ efforts”, aimed at getting the Western media to support Israeli army operations had borne fruit: “The American newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post have published editorials that placed responsibility for the crisis on Hamas.” (Aluf Benn, ‘US warns Israel not to harm Abbas or civilians,’ Ha’aretz, July 2, 2006) Quite an achievement.
On the BBC’s July 3 Newsnight programme, anchor Jeremy Paxman reported breaking news that a Palestinian had been killed and two wounded in an Israeli airstrike in Northern Gaza. Paxman then went on to interview an Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev. Regev said: “Our preference, our chosen policy preference, is that he [Shalit] is released and this can end peacefully.” Paxman said not a word in response about the death he had just reported, about the five other deaths, or about people dying because of the attack on the power station.
In a rare departure from Western silence, the Swiss Foreign Ministry declared this week: “A number of actions by the Israeli defense forces in their offensive against the Gaza Strip have violated the principle of proportionality and are to be seen as forms of collective punishment, which is forbidden.” (Bradley S. Klapper, ‘Switzerland: Israel violating law in Gaza,’ Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 2006;
The Swiss statement referred to provisions of the 1949 treaty of the Geneva Conventions, regarded as the cornerstone of international law on the obligations of warring and occupying powers. A key section reads:
“It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” (Cited, ‘PCHR Warns of a Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip,’ July 2, 2006; http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/PressR/English/2006/66-2006.htm)
At time of writing, the word ‘Gaza’ has been mentioned in 314 UK newspaper articles over the previous two weeks. The words ‘Geneva conventions’ have been mentioned in just 12 of these.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to David Fickling
Email: [email protected]
Write to Conal Urquhart
Email: [email protected]
Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]
Write to Jeremy Paxman
Email: [email protected]