Israel’s latest attack on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of more than 200 Palestinians, mostly women, children, the elderly and the disabled. Their campaign has seen more than 800 tonnes of bombs dropped over the Gaza Strip in eight days, more than in the three-week assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009.
The humanitarian toll is devastating. In addition to those killed and injured, the attacks have resulted in outright destruction or severe damage to more than 1,000 Palestinian homes and public buildings, including a home for the disabled, hospitals and mosques.
Israel’s campaign also has put the water supply to 600,000 of Gaza’s 1.7 million at risk. All of this comes on the heels of two previous and similarly massive bombing campaigns, in December 2008 and November 2012 respectively. The Gaza Strip had not recovered from these bombardments owing to the repressive, and illegal, blockade that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip for seven years.
Yet, reading Western newspapers and watching most television news, one would have no idea about the devastation faced by Palestinians.
This asymmetrical bombing campaign is covered with reverse asymmetry: one would not be told that a seven-year old child in Gaza has now survived three major bombing campaigns. One would not know that 43 per cent of the Gaza Strip’s population is under 14 years of age. And one would be oblivious to the fact that 80 per cent of the Gaza Strip’s population are refugees and that Palestinians continue to live under Israeli military rule.
Rather, much of the Western media has largely focused on the other side – Israel – and the impact of this assault on Israel’s Jewish citizens.
For example, on the first day of Israel’s assault, and as more than 50 Palestinians, including at least two entire families were killed by Israeli bombs, countless newspapers spanning the globe ran headlines proclaiming that rockets were raining down on Israel.
Other media outlets focused on Israelis rushing to bomb shelters, with some journalists even broadcasting live from these shelters.
In some “news” outlets, the impact on elephants in an Israeli zoo received more attention than the wiping out of entire families or of attendees of a beach party killed by an Israeli bomb while watching a World Cup match.
Palestinians have become nameless, faceless, story-less numbers whose evident sole purpose is to fill the body count tally buried in the ninth paragraph of a story.
This is not to say that the media should not report on what is happening on all sides. But reporting all sides does not mean that the media should ignore the context of current events or mimic the words of those in power. Rather, the media’s highest goal should be to hold the powerful and other duty bearers accountable.
Sadly, in the case of Palestinians, parroting the words of Israeli officials has become commonplace, if not the norm.
Reporters blindly repeat statements from Israel’s political and military establishment claiming that Israel is merely “responding”. These statements conspicuously omit any reference to the crucial context of Israel’s maintenance of a 47-year military occupation maintained over the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the brutal siege and naval blockade imposed on Gaza, and the almost daily firing from Israeli tanks and drones to maintain the deadly “no-go buffer zone” that Israel has enforced within the Gaza Strip forcing Palestinians to flee inland.
While Israel repeats the refrain that it is not targeting civilians, journalists fail to question why 80 per cent of those killed are civilians.
Journalists fail to question the legality of Israel’s intensive bombing of a stateless and defenceless refugee population with some of the most sophisticated weaponry on the planet, repeating instead Israeli assertions that the bombs are designed to “stop Hamas”.
Worse still, without questioning Israel’s officials and claims, too many journalists, repeat unsubstantiated Israeli propaganda that Palestinians hide themselves behind civilians.
Ignored is the history of international investigations that have found no evidence to back such claims or the numerous investigations that have concluded that it has in fact been Israel that has used Palestinians as human shields.
At the same time, Palestinians are often questioned about whether there is a “culture of martyrdom” and whether they simply want to die. In short, Palestinians are castigated for being killed, rather than Israel castigated for killing them.
One can only imagine how Palestinians would be received if they repeatedly alleged that rockets from Gaza targeted the houses of the Israeli army, for virtually every house in Israel houses someone who has served or is serving in the army.
What if Palestinians claimed that, should a rocket ever reach Tel Aviv, it was aimed at the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which Israel situated in the civilian heart of Tel Aviv, and that they “made a mistake” – as Israeli officials endlessly claim when Israel’s military is found to have wiped out an entire family or helpless disabled Palestinians? Would international headlines ever read “Palestinians respond to Israeli bombings”?
Unfortunately, such biased and unprofessional reporting has not been confined to these dark days when blood is shed on a large scale. Israel’s military occupation, racist system of rule and constant illegal actions are rarely covered in any depth by most Western media.
The daily grind of home demolitions (over 150 in the past nine months), illegal construction of Israeli-only colonies (over 13,000 new colonial homes in the past nine months), the seizure of Palestinian land, the takeover of Palestinian homes, the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians, without charge or trial, including children and lawmakers, the hunger strikes in protest of illegal detention, and all of the other attempts to make Palestinian life miserable.
For most journalists, these are not stories to be told because they have become part of the everyday fabric of Palestinian life.
To be clear, the Palestinian Authority also shares the blame for failing to highlight Palestinian living conditions. With the facade of a Palestinian president, a prime minister, numerous ministries, negotiators and self-proclaimed “leaders”, it is easy for one to wrongly conclude that Palestinians are living free in their own state.
And, with their own failure to adequately speak about daily Palestinian suffering, while welcoming Israeli war criminals to Palestinian cities, one easily could conclude that meetings, handshakes and negotiations – the issues that the media covers – are the central feature of Palestinian life and will end all of Israel’s illegal activity.
By portraying themselves as equals to Israeli leaders, Palestinian officials aid in fostering the misperception that this is merely a “conflict” or, even worse, a “border dispute” rather than Israeli settler-colonialism and resistance to it.
This is not the first conflict in which much of the media has failed to accurately inform about the true state of affairs. One need only read newspaper accounts from the years before the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Then, as now, journalists failed to focus on the daily grind of apartheid, focusing instead on violence. Then, as now, journalists implored the world not to isolate Apartheid South Africa, arguing that it was “unfair” and “discriminatory”. Then, as now, journalists highlighted violence carried out by those resisting apartheid rule while downplaying violence perpetrated by the apartheid state. We later learnt that they were wrong.
As the late Malcolm X once said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Sadly, his words continue to ring true today.
Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer who previously served as a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s negotiations department
On Twitter: @DianaButtu