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Crisis in US Media Coverage of Gaza


One element fueling the current crisis in Gaza is the ongoing failure of US corporate media coverage of Israel/Palestine. US policy, public opinion and mainstream media coverage of Israel/Palestine are all dangerously biased towards Israel. Media coverage both reflects and influences policy and public opinion. Media coverage of events in Gaza again illustrates how the US mainstream media privileges the Israeli narrative, and frequently ignores both Palestinian experiences and international law, providing the US public and policymakers with only part of the story.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that he intended to commit war crimes in Gaza, telling his cabinet that he wanted “no one to be able to sleep tonight in Gaza”. Olmert thus officially acknowledged Israel’s policy of collectively punishing 1.4 million Palestinians, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. But none of the US’ three leading newspapers – The New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times – reported Olmert’s statement, even though it was widely quoted around the world.

In the last week, these three leading US papers all also published editorials strongly supporting Israel’s right to “retaliate” after the capture of an Israeli soldier. Their editorials never mentioned a single element of Israel’s brutal 10 month siege on Gaza. In a reminder of The Washington Post’s editorial advocacy of the Iraq war, The Post took the most belligerent position, applauding Israeli “restraint” and approving an Israeli overthrow of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Although the major newspapers have published some good articles reporting Palestinians’ views in the last days, their overall bias towards Israel has been glaring.

On July 2 Ehud Olmert told his cabinet that, “I want nobody to sleep at night in Gaza. I want them to know what it’s like” in Israel’s communities near Gaza that have been hit by Palestinian Qassam rockets. His statement referred directly to Israel’s practices of waking Palestinians in the middle of the night by repeatedly flying jets overhead that create sonic booms, and of shelling Gaza at night. Additionally, Israel keeps Gazans awake at night with worry about poverty, siege, imminent attack, and lack of electricity, water, fuel and food. Olmert’s statement was widely reported in the Israeli media, and by the Associated Press, The Chicago Tribune, The International Herald Tribune, and the UK’s Guardian, among others. A google news search for his quote yields 279 articles, mostly from newspaper websites around the US. Some of these papers undoubtedly printed this story.

Yet there was no hint of Olmert’s words in LA Times or Washington Post. The New York Times’ coverage is more interesting. New York Times’ correspondents Steven Erlanger and Ian Fisher reported the quote in an on-line article that was also published in the International Herald Tribune. However, the quote never appeared in the Times’ print edition. The Times’ editors seem to have decided that Olmert’s words were not “fit to print,” and deleted them from their journalists’ report. The conspicuous absence of such a widely reported and telling quote raises the possibility that the leading US papers actively avoid printing information that makes Israel look too obviously bad.

What is certain is that the leading US papers generally omit the frameworks of human rights and international law as well as related concepts like collective punishment, and proportionality, all of which have been consistently violated by Israel. On July 3, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem specifically criticized Olmert’s statement, saying that, “The use of sonic booms flagrantly breaches a number of provisions of international humanitarian law. The most significant provision is the prohibition on collective punishment. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention… categorically states that “Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” In addition to criticizing sonic booms, Human Rights Watch noted on June 29 that “The laws of war prohibit attacks on “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” Israel’s attack on Gaza’s only power plant is in violation of its obligation to safeguard such objects from attack.”

Though collective punishment of Palestinians has historically been a cornerstone of Israeli policy, and characterizes Israel’s siege of Gaza, the US’ three leading papers have used the phrase “collective punishment” just four times since heightened crisis began on June 25. Each paper cited the same statement by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas once, and The New York Times also quoted a Palestinian grocery store owner. These same newspapers printed the phrase “collective punishment” a combined total of only six other times this year in their reporting on Israel/Palestine. Since June 25 those papers used the words “terrorism” or “terrorist” 28 times to describe Palestinians, while using “occupation” only six times to describe Israeli actions. Citations of the illegality of Israeli settlements, the Wall, home demolitions, detention of Palestinians, and many other measures are similarly rare. While these newspapers do document the humanitarian crises that Palestinians endure, they generally avoid suggesting that Palestinians have rights like Israelis, or that there is an accepted body of law that should be applied not just to Palestinian attacks, but also to Israeli actions.

Similarly, in taking positions on the current crisis, these newspapers’ editorial boards completely erased Israel’s most recent human rights violations. All three papers blamed only Hamas. The New York Times June 29 editorial noted “reckless Hamas provocations,” and The Washington Post’s July 1 editorial “Hamas’s War” highlighted Hamas’ “acts of terrorism and war.” Writing as if history began with the June 25 capture of the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian attack materialized from thin air, none of their editorials even hints at Israel’s disproportionate violence – Israel’s 39 year military occupation; the 176 Palestinians killed in 2006, many of them civilians and children, compared to 16 Israelis killed; 8300 Israeli shells launched into Gaza this year compared with 840 Palestinian rockets launched towards Israel; on-going Israeli land seizure; or Israel’s tightening siege of Gaza. Only The New York Times mentioned that Hamas was now breaking a unilateral 16 month truce. Israeli newspaper editorials have been more nuanced and balanced than these US editorials.

None of the editorials noted that Palestinians killed and captured Israeli soldiers implementing a siege of Gaza. None noted the irony that Palestinians were holding a single Israeli soldier prisoner, while Israel is holding 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, many civilians held without due process, and some enduring torture. In a sentence that could have been drafted by an Israeli government PR firm, The Post’s editors wrote that “the militants’ demand that Israel release Palestinian prisoners it has legally arrested in exchange for a soldier who was attacked while guarding Israeli territory.”

After rationalizing Israel’s arrest of 60 Hamas leaders, many of them Palestinian Authority Ministers and elected members of the Palestinian parliament, The Post’s editors then downplayed Israel’s destruction of an electric plant that provides half of Gaza’s power. In a final outrage that combined both blindness towards Israeli violence and complete disregard for international law, The Post’s July 1 editorial recommended that the Arab States and the UN stop “fulminating about supposed Israeli war crimes.”

Once again, Israeli government spin overpowers the Palestinian narrative, and human rights and international law are belittled. These examples illustrate how the US corporate media is actively shaping the information reported to the US public to Israel’s advantage, and promoting the view that Hamas and Palestinian terrorism are the sole problem in Israel/Palestine. Without more balanced reporting from establishment media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times, US policy and public opinion on Israel/Palestine are also unlikely to become much more balanced. The need for media activism on Israel/Palestine is more vital than ever.

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