Sitting in my living room for the last month and watching European and American TV coverage of the war between Hamas and Israel was a confusing experience. While sirens were going off in my residential suburb of Tel Aviv, signaling rockets coming in from Gaza, I never saw the Palestinians shooting them. In fact, I never saw on TV any armed men in Gaza, or their rifles or their launching pads – only epic scenes of rubble and destruction. And yes, lots of children and elderly women.
That’s a bit odd, given the fact that Palestinians launched some 3,000 rockets since the beginning of the war, killed more than 60 Israelis and wounded hundreds. But who shot the rockets? Who was killing Israeli soldiers? While we saw Israeli tanks maneuvering near the border, we never saw Palestinian combatants.
Foreign journalists who left Gaza this week admitted the obvious: Hamas controlled every image coming out of the Palestinian territory, not allowing photographers and reporters to document military activity, or even to show wounded Hamas men in hospitals. Adamant on winning a PR battle, the Palestinians used intimidation methods and would not allow any snapshot that could damage their image as harmless and defenseless victims.
Gabriele Barbati, an Italian reporter for the TV station TgCom24, tweeted upon leaving the Palestinian territory last week: “Out of Gaza, far from Hamas retaliation”. He then refuted the Palestinian version of an incident in which 10 children were killed on July 28th. According to Barbati’s own account, a misfired Hamas rocket – and not an Israeli bombing – was responsible for the killing, and Hamas militants “rushed and cleared debris”. While the Palestinian version that accused Israel for the killing was circulating in all major media outlets, Barbati’s account was not (in a phone conversation, he declined to elaborate on the “Hamas retaliation” he was fearing).
A Spanish journalist coming out of Gaza this week admitted in a private conversation that he saw Hamas fighters very close to the hotel where he, and many other foreign journalists, were staying. “If ever we dare pointing our camera on them,” he said, “they would simply shoot and kill us.” He refused to go on-the-record.
Another example of this overwhelming absence of realistic representation of what really went on in Gaza came from France, where the daily Libération published on July 24th a first-person account of a French-Palestinian journalist, who was intimidated by Hamas armed men and ordered to leave immediately the Palestinian territory. Of all places, his interrogation took place in a hospital, a few meters from the emergency room, affirming Israeli claims that Hamas uses hospitals and other civilian compounds. This account was taken off the French newspaper’s website a few days later, per the journalist’s request.
In 15 years of work as journalist in Israel, I met professional, honest and truth-seeking foreign reporters, who are doing their job in a difficult environment. However, many tend to hide the fact that their accounts are heavily flawed, since Hamas would not allow any other outcome. Others tend to bring with them their biases – personal, journalistic or ideological.
First, there is a basic fear for safety, working under a fundamentalist Islamic regime, which is stifling free speech. No difficult questions can be asked, and real investigative journalism is simply impossible. In the words of a senior journalist for one of Europe’s biggest newspapers, “what I can write from Tel Aviv I cannot do from Gaza”.
This can be especially true for women reporters, such as the Dutch TV journalist, Annet Röst, who told me how she was harassed in Gaza a few years ago by a large group of men. She was eventually saved by the Palestinian police.
But sometimes problems run even deeper, as the story of a Spanish correspondent in Israel, proves. Upon sending one of his stories to the newsroom, where the editor found it not sympathetic enough to the Palestinians, he was asked: “Why are you so objective?”
Consciously or not, some foreign journalists sympathize with the Palestinian side. For them, Israel is the oppressor and Hamas is the victim. With this post-colonial worldview, Israel is always at fault, and the Palestinians are always their victims, no matter what. The fact that Hamas does not recognize Israel in any border, and that its stated goal is to destroy the Jewish state, is never mentioned in their reports.
Despite many cases of misinformation in the past (such as reports of “massacres” on board the Marmara in 2010 and in Jenin in 2002), many international reporters still tend to air anti-Israeli accusations very quickly. While questioning every Israeli statement, they treat Palestinian communiqués as if they were the Bible. There is no possible way currently to know exactly how many of the Palestinian casualties are civilians, and still most reporters simply repeat Hamas’ official statements, that “most victims are women and children”. In previous cases this was proved to be wrong.
The bottom line is that what’s coming out of Gaza these days is not free press. What’s been shown is what Hamas wants the media to show – not how it operates from within residential areas, not how it stores weapons in mosques and clinics, and not the vast network of tunnels it built in order to attack Israel.
Gaza was indeed bombed by the Israeli army, and civilians were getting killed. But by not showing the true nature of Hamas’ war against Israel – with all its cowardice and cruelty – the context that could explain Israel’s actions was missing. That’s not only a disservice for Western viewers and readers, but a great service – intentional or not – for Hamas’ propaganda machine.