Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Media and the war on Gaza


1) Media coverage: NY Times article
2) Media coverage: FAIR report
3) Amira Hass on the collapse of the infrastructure
4) The Times of London on Israel's use of white phosphorus shells

As the death toll approaches 700, the Israeli military continues to defy an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that foreign correspondents must be allowed into Gaza. As the New York Times reports (first piece below), foreign journalists are barred from seeing the scenes of carnage inside Gaza, while being given full access to Israeli government propaganda as well as guided tours of sites where Palestinian missiles have fallen.

The success of the Israeli government's concerted efforts to monopolize the narrative are apparent – the media watchdog group, FAIR, has issued a report criticizing coverage of the fighting (second piece below) and in particular the tendency of the press to blame the conflict on missile attacks by Hamas, often even while citing facts that put into question this deceptive chronology.

There is a lot that Israel does not want the world to see in Gaza. Amira Hass (third piece below) reports that the Gaza infrastructure is near collapse, about half the population does not have access to water or electricity, and raw sewage running in the streets. Civilian casualty reports (and a quarter to a third of casualties are reportedly civilian) would be much higher if they included the figures from this ongoing humanitarian crisis, people who are just as much the victims of Israeli policy decisions and wanton disregard (this would be a charitable interpretation) for human life as are the victims of F-16s. As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports, "the civilian population of Gaza continu[es] to bear the brunt of the violence." Phyllis Bennis gives a superb account of the international legal situation:

And finally there is Israel's use of white phosphorus shells, a decision that the Times of London (last piece below) somewhat delicately calls "controversial". In fact, as the article points out, white phosphorus causes severe burns and it is banned as a weapon of war in civilian areas by international law. Given that Israel is firing in and around even UN schools and clinics, the civilians packed into Gaza have nowhere else to go. But the foreign media is locked out just as the Palestinian civilians are locked in.

Judith Norman

January 7, 2009
Israel Puts Media Clamp on Gaza

JERUSALEM — Three times in recent days, a small group of foreign correspondents was told to appear at the border crossing to Gaza. The reporters were to be permitted in to cover firsthand the Israeli war on Hamas in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling against the two-month-old Israeli ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza.

Each time, they were turned back on security grounds, even as relief workers and other foreign citizens were permitted to cross the border. On Tuesday the reporters were told to not even bother going to the border.

And so for an 11th day of Israel's war in Gaza, the several hundred journalists here to cover it waited in clusters away from direct contact with any fighting or Palestinian suffering, but with full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel, where Hamas rockets have been terrorizing civilians. A slew of private groups financed mostly by Americans are helping guide the press around Israel.

Like all wars, this one is partly about public relations. But unlike any war in Israel's history, in this one the government is seeking to entirely control the message and narrative for reasons both of politics and military strategy.

"This is the result of what happened in the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah," said Nachman Shai, a former army spokesman who is writing a doctoral dissertation on Israel's public diplomacy. "Then, the media were everywhere. Their cameras and tapes picked up discussions between commanders. People talked on live television. It helped the enemy and confused and destabilized the home front. Today, Israel is trying to control the information much more closely."

The government-commissioned investigation into the war with Hezbollah reported that the army had found that when reporters were allowed on the battlefield in Lebanon, they got in the way of military operations by posing risks and asking questions.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said, "If a journalist gets injured or killed, then it is Central Command's responsibility." She said the government was trying to protect Israel from rocket fire and "not deal with the media."

Beyond such tactical considerations, there is a political one. Daniel Seaman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, said, "Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that."

Foreign reporters deny that their work in Gaza has been subject to Hamas censorship or control. Unable to send foreign reporters into Gaza, the international news media have relied on Palestinian journalists based there for coverage.

But it seems that many Israelis accept Mr. Seaman's assessment and shed no tears over the restrictions, despite repeated protests by the Foreign Press Association of Israel, including on Tuesday.

A headline in Tuesday's issue of Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest selling daily newspaper, expressed well the popular view of the issue. Over a news article describing the generally negative coverage so far, especially in the European media, an intentional misspelling of a Hebrew word turned the headline "World Media" into "World Liars."

This attitude has been helped by supportive Israeli news media whose articles have been filled with "feelings of self-righteousness and a sense of catharsis following what was felt to be undue restraint in the face of attacks by the enemy," according to a study of the first days of media coverage of the war by a liberal but nonpartisan group called Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel.

The Foreign Press Association has been fighting for weeks to get its members into Gaza, first appealing to senior government officials and ultimately taking its case to the country's highest court. Last week the justices worked out an arrangement with the organization whereby small groups would be permitted into Gaza when it was deemed safe enough for the crossings to be opened for other reasons.

So far, every time the border has been opened, journalists have not been permitted to go in.

On Tuesday, the press association released a statement saying, "The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world's media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs."

At the same time that reporters have been given less access to Gaza, the government has created a new structure for shaping its public message, ensuring that spokesmen of the major government branches meet daily to make sure all are singing from the same sheet.

"We are trying to coordinate everything that has to do with the image and content of what we are doing and to make sure that whoever goes on the air, whether a minister or professor or ex-ambassador, knows what he is saying," said Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media in the Foreign Ministry. "We have talking points and we try to disseminate our ideas and message."

Israelis say the war is being reduced on television screens around the world to a simplistic story: an American-backed country with awesome military machine fighting a third-world guerrilla force leading to a handful of Israelis dead versus 600 Gazans dead.

Israelis and their supporters think that such quick descriptions fail to explain the vital context of what has been happening — years of terrorist rocket fire on civilians have gone largely unanswered, and a message had to be sent to Israel's enemies that this would go on no longer, they say. The issue of proportionality, they add, is a false construct because comparing death tolls offers no help in measuring justice and legitimacy.

There are other ways to construe the context of this conflict, of course. But no matter what, Israel's diplomats know that if journalists are given a choice between covering death and covering context, death wins. So in a war that they consider necessary but poorly understood, they have decided to keep the news media far away from the death.

John Ging, an Irishman who directs operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, entered Gaza on Monday as journalists were kept out. He told Palestinian reporters in Gaza that the policy was a problem.

"For the truth to get out, journalists have to get in," he said

The Blame Game in Gaza
Erasing Israeli actions to fault only Hamas


The Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip that began in late December have reportedly killed over 500 Palestinians, many of them civilians and children. As is often the case, U.S. corporate media's presentation of the events leading up to this dramatic escalation in violence have laid the blame for the violence mostly with Hamas, whose rocket attacks on Israel are often cited as the cause for the current Israeli attacks.

In many media discussions about the events that led to the fighting, emphasis is placed on Hamas' decision in late December to allow a cease-fire agreement with Israel to expire, or the group's failure to adequately suppress rocket attacks into Israel during the cease-fire.

A USA Today timeline (1/5/09) explained, "In November, the truce frays as Hamas rockets continue to land in Israel, which closes several border crossings and kills militants building tunnels Hamas was using to smuggle weapons and other goods into Gaza." On NBC Nightly News (12/27/08), Martin Fletcher explained that "a six-month truce ended this week and Palestinians fired rockets into Israel, as many as 60 a day. Israeli leaders said enough is enough."

A Washington Post editorial (12/28/08) announced that Hamas "invited the conflict by ending a six-month-old ceasefire," while Post columnist Richard Cohen (1/6/09) was much blunter: "It took no genius to see the imminence of war. It takes real stupidity to blame it on Israel."

The Dallas Morning News (12/30/08) agreed emphatically in an editorial titled, "Blood on Hamas' Hands": "The pictures of the civilian victims of Israeli airstrikes-- especially children-- are heart-rending. But let's keep straight whose fault this tragedy is: Hamas, the fanatical Islamists who rule Gaza and who have used the land as a launching pad for firing rockets into Israel."

The New York Times' December 28 lead declared, "The Israeli Air Force on Saturday launched a massive attack on Hamas targets throughout Gaza in retaliation for the recent heavy rocket fire from the area." The next day, Times reporter Stephen Farrell asked (12/29/08), "Why did Hamas end its six-month cease-fire on December 19?" He argued that the "rejectionist credo" of Hamas made this step all but inevitable.

These accounts fail on several grounds. For starters, the cease-fire agreement from June through mid-December was credited by many for ratcheting down the violence-- rocket fire into Israel dropped significantly and claimed no Israeli lives during the truce. (Prior to that, rocket and mortar attacks since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in late 2005 had killed 10 Israelis-- After the cease-fire expired, rocket attacks increased, though no Israelis were killed until after the Israeli attacks were launched; four have been killed since then (Agence France-Presse, 1/6/09).

Interestingly, as the truce expired, the New York Times published an article (12/19/08) that began with a typical corporate media formulation-- Palestinians are attacking, Israel is retaliating-- before noting that Hamas was "largely successful" in curtailing rocket fire into Israel: "Hamas imposed its will and even imprisoned some of those who were firing rockets. Israeli and United Nations figures show that while more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel in May, 10 to 20 were fired in July, depending on who was counting and whether mortar rounds were included. In August, 10 to 30 were fired, and in September, 5 to 10."

The Times article, by Ethan Bronner, noted that what Hamas expected in return from the Israelis never arrived: But the goods shipments, while up some 25 to 30 percent and including a mix of more items, never began to approach what Hamas thought it was going to get: a return to the 500 to 600 truckloads delivered daily before the closing, including appliances, construction materials and other goods essential for life beyond mere survival. Instead, the number of trucks increased to around 90 from around 70.

Bronner also added that "Israeli forces continued to attack Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire rockets," which produced Hamas response attacks. The Times continued: While this back-and-forth did not topple the agreement, Israel's decision in early November to destroy a tunnel Hamas had been digging near the border drove the cycle of violence to a much higher level. Israel says the tunnel could have been dug only for the purpose of trying to seize a soldier, like Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli held by Hamas for the past two and a half years. Israel's attack on the tunnel killed six Hamas militants, and each side has stepped up attacks since.

This straightforward recitation of events is rarely heard in much of the rest of the media coverage of the violence in Gaza-- including in the Times, since Israel began its full-scale assault. But for many consumers of U.S. media, history is made irrelevant; a Time magazine piece (1/12/09) began:

Two sounds dominate the lives of Israelis living near Gaza: the wail of a siren and, 25 seconds later, the whistling screech of an incoming rocket fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. That gives Israeli families just enough time to dive for cover-even as they pray the rocket will miss.

At 11:30 a.m. on December 27, a new sound filled the azure Mediterranean sky: the rolling boom of Israeli bombs and missiles slamming into Gaza.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are anything but "new," but presenting them as such--and pairing that presentation with an Israeli family sheltered against an incoming Hamas rocket--gives a wildly misleading impression of a conflict where the deaths and suffering are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side.

Officials warn: Gaza infrastructures near breaking point
By Amira Hass

Between 600,000 and 700,000 Gazans have no water, some of them going on a week.

About one million have no electricity, raw sewage is running in the streets in some places and various localities, especially in the northern Gaza Strip, face the threat of sewer backups.

Repairmen cannot easily get out to make repairs, due to the shelling and poor conditions of roads. The mobile and land-line phone networks in the Strip have been seriously damaged from both air strikes and the power shortages. Increasingly, Gazans have no way to contact relatives, local authorities or aid and emergency services, heightening their sense of panic and isolation.

That is the picture of the Gazan infrastructure that emerges from the reports of residents and of the Deputy Director of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, Maher Najjar, and Maxwell Gaylard, UN Humanitarian Coordinator. Judging by the number of wells that are inoperable or operating at very low capacity, Najjar estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of Gazans do not have access to water.

Every day, air raids cause additional damage to the water system, and the number of complaints to the water utility increases hourly. Yesterday, for example, the pipe supplying water to the village of Umm al-Nasr, in the Rafah area, was damaged, suspending the supply of water to its 10,000 residents.

A pipe that provides water to about 30,000 people in the central Strip was also damaged by Israeli air strikes. According to statements by Gaza residents to Haaretz, as well as an affidavit submitted by Najjar to Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, people are running out of potable water in their homes and are unable to reach public faucets to obtain additional supplies because of the Israeli offensive.

The homes of about one million Gazans have been without electricity for between five and seven days straight, due to a combination of war-related infrastructure damage and shortages of diesel oil for power plants.

Gaza's water and sewage pumps run on electricity. When there is not enough electricity, they run on standby generators, which are powered by diesel fuel. If the supply of fuel is not renewed to these generators within two days, the remaining 25 operating fresh-water pumps in Gaza City and the rest of the Strip will stop pumping. In Rafah, for example, 70 percent of residents could be without water within two days.

Spare parts, such as tubing, pipes, and air and water filters, are in short supply because Israel has prohibited their entry into the Strip since during the cease-fire.

The Red Cross yesterday was negotiating with the Israel Defense Forces over the transfer of about 20,000 liters of diesel fuel that arrived at the Erez border terminal yesterday. The drivers are afraid of being hit by IDF fire, in addition to the dangers of negotiating Gaza's poor roads.

Out of the 37 sewer pumping stations in the Gaza Strip, 32 are operating only partially because of the lack of electricity, while the remaining five are not operating at all.

A pumping station in Beit Lahiya stopped operating after its generator was damaged by the IDF operation, and as a result sewage is collecting in the street. Four pumping stations in Gaza City have run out of diesel for the backup generators and the sewage from three of them is flowing into the sea, while runoff from the fourth is flooding nearby farmland. If the fuel supply to the remaining pumps is not renewed within a few days the sewage will be flowing into the streets as well.

In Beit Hanun, sewage has flowed in the streets for six days since a pipe carrying it to the treatment plant was damaged. As of yesterday, efforts to coordinate the dispatch of technicians with the IDF have failed.

The sewage levels in the giant wastewater treatment plant in the northern Strip (which was to have been emptied out over a month ago to prevent flooding) are steadily increasing, posing a danger to the 10,000 people living nearby.


December 5, 2008
Israel rains fire on Gaza with phosphorus shells
Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem and Michael Evans, Defence Editor

Israel is believed to be using controversial white phosphorus shells to screen its assault on the heavily populated Gaza Strip yesterday. The weapon, used by British and US forces in Iraq, can cause horrific burns but is not illegal if used as a smokescreen.

As the Israeli army stormed to the edges of Gaza City and the Palestinian death toll topped 500, the tell-tale shells could be seen spreading tentacles of thick white smoke to cover the troops' advance. "These explosions are fantastic looking, and produce a great deal of smoke that blinds the enemy so that our forces can move in," said one Israeli security expert. Burning blobs of phosphorus would cause severe injuries to anyone caught beneath them and force would-be snipers or operators of remote-controlled booby traps to take cover. Israel admitted using white phosphorus during its 2006 war with Lebanon.

The use of the weapon in the Gaza Strip, one of the world's mostly densely population areas, is likely to ignite yet more controversy over Israel's offensive, in which more than 2,300 Palestinians have been wounded.

The Geneva Treaty of 1980 stipulates that white phosphorus should not be used as a weapon of war in civilian areas, but there is no blanket ban under international law on its use as a smokescreen or for illumination. However, Charles Heyman, a military expert and former major in the British Army, said: "If white phosphorus was deliberately fired at a crowd of people someone would end up in The Hague. White phosphorus is also a terror weapon. The descending blobs of phosphorus will burn when in contact with skin."

The Israeli military last night denied using phosphorus, but refused to say what had been deployed. "Israel uses munitions that are allowed for under international law," said Captain Ishai David, spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces. "We are pressing ahead with the second stage of operations, entering troops in the Gaza Strip to seize areas from which rockets are being launched into Israel."

The civilian toll in the first 24 hours of the ground offensive — launched after a week of bombardment from air, land and sea— was at least 64 dead. Among those killed were five members of a family who died when an Israeli tank shell hit their car and a paramedic who died when a tank blasted his ambulance. Doctors at Gaza City's main hospital said many women and children were among the dead and wounded.

The Israeli army also suffered its first fatality of the offensive when one of its soldiers was killed by mortar fire. More than 30 soldiers were wounded by mortars, mines and sniper fire.

Israel has brushed aside calls for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged territory, where medical supplies are running short.

With increasingly angry anti-Israeli protests spreading around the world, Gordon Brown described the violence in Gaza as "a dangerous moment".

White phosphorus: the smoke-screen chemical that can burn to the bone

-- White phosphorus bursts into a deep-yellow flame when it is exposed to oxygen, producing a thick white smoke

-- It is used as a smokescreen or for incendiary devices, but can also be deployed as an anti-personnel flame compound capable of causing potentially fatal burns

-- Phosphorus burns are almost always second or third-degree because the particles do not stop burning on contact with skin until they have entirely disappeared — it is not unknown for them to reach the bone

-- Geneva conventions ban the use of phosphorus as an offensive weapon against civilians, but its use as a smokescreen is not prohibited by international law

-- Israel previously used white phosphorus during its war with Lebanon in 2006

-- It has been used frequently by British and US forces in recent wars, notably during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its use was criticised widely

-- White phosphorus has the slang name "Willy Pete", which dates from the First World War. It was commonly used in the Vietnam era

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