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Journalism during wartime

Israeli Defence Forces operating in the Gaza Strip.
By Janine Zacharia
Slate (*)
Israeli reporters pride themselves on thorough press coverage except when in conflict

When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008 to stop Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israeli journalists were hungry to cover the military operational details. They wanted to know how many Hamas militants had been killed or captured, what of the terrorist group’s infrastructure had been hit, what remained on the Israel Defence Forces’ target list, and so on.

What didn’t interest most newspapers or newscasts was the wider impact on the other side, especially the civilian death toll. If there was any questioning, it wasn’t why so many Palestinians were being killed, but why the campaign hadn’t started sooner. By the time Israel launched Pillar of Defence, its next Gaza military offensive in 2012, the Israeli media watchdog group Keshev concluded that the war had “blurred the distinction between the IDF spokesperson and Israeli media outlets more than ever.”

The same can be said today.

Israeli journalists are skilled. They can be relentless questioners, brutal in their analysis, and still maintain their access to key figures. Give them a good old-fashioned financial or sex scandal and they’ll make that politician wish he’d never run for office. But in times of war many Israeli journalists hunker down with the rest of the country and are afraid to ask tough questions. Instead, they tend to parrot the country’s political and military leaders. (The Hebrew phrase critics have for journalists in these times is meguyasim — the drafted, or recruited.) Israelis are barred from entering Gaza. And with that access cut off, few Israeli journalists have cultivated Palestinian sources because there is amazingly little interest among the Israeli public in understanding Palestinian affairs.

It helps explain why Israel and the world see the war in Gaza so differently. With their country under fire by rockets and with soldiers fighting and now dying on the battlefield, the Israeli journalists’ role transforms from dogged inquirer to purveyor of piecemeal information provided by the military.

That leaves Israelis an incomplete picture of what is happening. Public support for the war is bolstered. And the narrative put forth by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Gaza and Hamas simply becomes the consensus.

US media acted similarly by failing to question intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. But the situations are decidedly different. There just isn’t the same intimate relationship between the US press and the military the way there is in Israel. In 2003, there was a multitude of voices in the US media arguing against the war. Today in Israel there are very few speaking out against this campaign.

Vehement criticism

The few who do are vehemently criticized. “You’re a traitor!,” a man yelled at Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist, as he was being interviewed on a street corner about a column he wrote criticizing Israeli pilots for carrying out bombing runs in Gaza. “Have you no shame? You should be the one to live with Hamas. We have the most ethical fighter pilots. You think children should spend the summer holiday in a bomb shelter? Shame on you!”

One newspaper reported that Israel Channel 2’s telephone circuits crashed after the flood of calls protesting even having him on air. Similarly, the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned a radio broadcast produced by a human rights organization because it included the names of some of the Palestinian children who have died in Israel’s shelling.

In a climate where almost any dissent is deemed treason, Israeli media mostly choose to limit the coverage of what is actually happening in Gaza.

Long before this calamitous war, fatigue with the issue and a dramatic drop in Palestinian attacks on Israelis allowed the country to turn inward and pretend the conflict had gone away. Most Israelis have today become decidedly post-Palestinian, and as a result so has the media. That is why, for many, this war feels like it came out of nowhere.

The lack of interest is not mirrored on the Palestinian side. “Can you believe what happened?” a Palestinian woman asked me on a 2010 trip to Gaza while I was reporting for The Washington Post. An Israeli man had killed his wife in a case of domestic violence. She had heard about it on the radio.

Israelis rely on their hourly mivzak (news update) on the radio; the prime-time evening broadcast on Channel 1, 2, or 10; and commentary in the mass-circulation dailies Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv — colourful tabloids that place serious news and analysis alongside photos of bikini-clad beachgoers.

Sunday night’s prime-time broadcast of Mabat, the Channel 1 Israeli news show, was emblematic of the coverage. It was almost exclusively devoted to the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers. It was understandable. Reporters were stationed in Israel near the Gaza border, at the hospitals, and at the funerals. Even though the government forbids Israelis from entering Gaza, the channel didn’t bother to have a US citizen, a European, or a Palestinian journalist report on it.

Shejayah tragedy

As the Mabat newscast aired, reports of scores of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces in the eastern Gaza City neighbourhood of Shejayah were already hours old and dominating international news outlets’ coverage. Brutal, horrific images of dead children were everywhere. Netanyahu would later refer to some of these images as “telegenically-dead Palestinians.” Early in the broadcast, one Israeli reporter made a passing reference to the civilian deaths by saying Hamas was using the images of Shejayah against Israel internationally.

Near the end of the hour-and-eight-minute broadcast, a three-minute package on Shejayah, put together from Arab network footage, finally aired. The Israeli reporter introduced the segment by saying there were allegations that more than 60 Palestinians had been killed and that the Israeli military had warned residents to evacuate days earlier. While viewers got some sense of the destruction, the reporter said he was sparing Israeli viewers the most gruesome images of victims being shown elsewhere.

In the middle of the newscast, the anchors had cut to Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon addressing the nation. “We have to be united together, strong, in difficult days like this,” Netanyahu said. “We are in a fight for our home,” he added.

Everything Netanyahu said was intended to make this war seem absolutely necessary. “We didn’t choose this,” he said. He talked about the need to destroy Hamas’ tunnels so they couldn’t be used for a future attack.

The first question from an Israeli journalist wssas smart. He asked if the tunnels were an existential threat, why did Israel agree to a ceasefire five days earlier that would have precluded the current ground offensive? Netanyahu replied that the tunnels could have been dealt with through diplomacy had Hamas agreed to a ceasefire.

It was an astonishing acknowledgment that the ground operation may not have been necessary. Still, no reporters followed up. Netanyahu and Ya’alon were left to brag about the success of the operation so far.

Questions that went unasked:

Is it for this limited tactical achievement — destroying some of the tunnels — that the IDF is killing so many Palestinian children and so many young Israeli soldiers are dying?

I know Hamas rejected the original ceasefire plan. But if you are acknowledging that this could be resolved diplomatically, why didn’t Israel continue to negotiate the terms of the ceasefire and try to avoid this escalation?

If Israel weakens Hamas too much, are Israelis going to actually regret this when al-Qaeda-type groups gain more of a footing there?

How long will it take for Hamas to build new tunnels?

Eighty percent support

These are just some of the most questions that aren’t being posed. Instead Netanyahu has silenced any broad questioning of his strategy. And it’s working: a poll this week showed 80 percent of the Israeli public supports the operation.

If the war drags on and Israeli military casualties mount without a clear end game, more Israeli journalists will surely become more critical. As Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most influential analysts, wrote in the daily Maariv on Monday: “We need to continue to grit our teeth, shut our ears and get the job done.”

There’s been too much discussion of how social media is shaping how this war is being perceived. Facebook and Twitter are simply vehicles for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates to have a vitriolic, virtual slugfest. How Netanyahu continues to maintain support for this offensive has more to do with how the leading Israeli writers allow him to shape the story. Diplomats will never get Israel to explore alternatives until the Israeli press leads a domestic debate that is as honest and exhaustive as its democracy deserves.

@janinezacharia
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