Israelis are not seeing all that is happening in Gaza

A walk into occupied East Jerusalem shows how differently the conflict is being portrayed to Israelis

Smoke rises from the Gaza Strip after Israeli air strikes this week. EPA
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On a recent reporting trip to Israel, several people I interviewed also had questions for me. Most were variations of this: “Why is the world calling for a ceasefire, when Israel is fighting terrorists?”

After nearly two weeks in the country, the reason for this disconnect became apparent. Israelis by and large weren’t seeing the full extent of what is happening in the Gaza Strip.

For instance, I only ever saw brief references to the soaring death toll in Gaza, which is on track to hit 20,000 within days.

I'm not a Hebrew speaker but when Israel's English-language newspapers and TV network did talk numbers, these were usually presented as an apparent exaggeration by the “Hamas-run” Gaza health authorities. Israel has also stressed that many thousands of the dead are combatants, and that any civilian casualties ultimately are the responsibility of Hamas, which uses Gaza residents as human shields.

I was particularly struck while watching news coverage in Jerusalem. In Jewish neighbourhoods, televisions ran rolling updates from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his hawkish Defence Minister Yoav Gallant – who said Israel is fighting “human animals” in Gaza – and from spokesmen giving the latest on the military’s Operation Swords of Iron.

News crews also had a permanent presence in “Hostages Square” in the plaza outside the art museum in Tel Aviv, and story after story was dedicated to the plight of those still missing.

But a short walk into occupied East Jerusalem, home to much of the city’s Arab population, things could hardly have been more different.

There, televisions were tuned in to Arab news outlets, with the horrors of what was unfolding in Gaza’s hospitals, neighbourhoods and camps being broadcast in vivid detail.

In barbershops, restaurants and grocery stores – not to mention homes – images of the unfolding devastation are being etched into the collective psyche. Footage of dead and dying children and elderly people being rushed into hospitals or pulled from the rubble is everywhere.

There must be no downplaying the abomination of October 7 and its impact on the Israeli people. More Jewish people were murdered that day than at any other time since the Holocaust.

Israel remains a country in shock and thousands of its young men and women are fighting on the front lines, so a focus on the trauma of the Hamas attack and the plight of the 137 remaining hostages is natural for a society in shock and facing fear.

But by shielding Israelis from the military’s intensely destructive campaign in the Gaza Strip, where entire districts have been wiped out, some elements of the Israeli media are doing a disservice, leaving many people struggling to comprehend why the global conversation moved so quickly from the casus belli to calls for a ceasefire.

A case in point. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said Israel is starting to lose global support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, implying that the military does not care about civilian loss.

Israeli newspapers – at least the English-language ones – immediately picked up on Mr Biden’s comments criticising the government of Mr Netanyahu, particularly the extreme-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. But initial reports downplayed or ignored the bit about “indiscriminate bombing”.

Last month, Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi criticised the coverage of the Israel-Gaza war by Haaretz, Israel’s longest-running newspaper.

After the left-wing paper reported an Israeli military helicopter may have wounded civilians at the country’s Supernova music festival during the October 7 Hamas attack, Mr Karhi called for the government to pull state-funded advertising.

It’s by no means a situation unique to this conflict.

The US media largely failed to ask the right questions in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the story of the war was so often viewed through the prism of US military operations, and not the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

In Israel, the death toll in Gaza will become increasingly difficult to downplay, with the military forecasting at least another month of fighting.

Perhaps soon Mr Netanyahu’s government, which has shown that it is willing to ignore international calls to reduce civilian deaths, will face more domestic pressure to address the crisis.

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Published: December 15, 2023, 7:00 AM