Five years on from the devastation of Operation Cast Lead, the picture of Israeli victimhood painted by official propaganda remains the dominant image of the conflict, writes Peter Slezak
Reports of large explosions are coming in from Gaza via Twitter, apparently air strikes by Israeli warplanes. As we await clarification of this latest round of violence it is important to recall what happened five years ago during the large-scale Israeli military assault on Gaza. On Saturday 27 December 2008 Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, after months of careful planning.
Volunteer Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, working at Shifa Hospital at the time, described the assault as a war against the civilian population of Gaza — estimating that half the casualties were women and children.
Footage in the documentary Tears of Gaza shows heart-breaking, harrowing scenes: frantic crowds dragging limp, dust covered children’s bodies from the rubble of residential apartment buildings that were entirely demolished together with much other civilian infrastructure – among the war crimes judged by the UN Fact Finding Mission.
Soldiers’ testimonies report use of illegal US-made “white phosphorus ammunition in densely inhabited neighbourhoods, massive destruction of buildings unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces, and permissive rules of engagement that led to the killing of innocents.” It was a cruel and cynical campaign, as Noam Chomsky describes:
“Two weeks after the Sabbath opening of the assault, with much of Gaza already pounded to rubble and the death toll approaching 1000, the UN Agency UNRWA, on which most Gazans depend for survival, announced that the Israeli military refused to allow aid shipments to Gaza, saying that the crossings were closed for the Sabbath. To honor the holy day, Palestinians at the edge of survival must be denied food and medicine, while hundreds can be slaughtered on the Sabbath by US jet bombers and helicopters.”
On this fifth anniversary of Cast Lead, it is appropriate to consider media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict and especially the perennial debate about bias. First, however, it must be appreciated that the taken-for-granted will be seen as “neutral” and only departures from the received view will be perceived as bias. The idea that the consensus opinion may itself be biased is difficult but essential to entertain. In particular, the most usual bias of this kind is the universal assumption that we, or our allies, are the “good guys” in any conflict.
Of course, media bias must be judged in the light of independently ascertained facts. On this basis, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is easy to show that mainstream Western media suffer from an extreme form of self-censorship and selective reporting. Contrary to the impression created in reporting and commentary about the sources of violence and terrorism, according to Israel’s own human rights organisation B’Tselem, since 2000, there have been 10 times as many Palestinian deaths than Israeli deaths and 80 per cent of these were initiated by Israel.
For a typical example, on 1 January, the ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a story about a bereaved Israeli family on the occasion of the release from prison of their son’s murderer. It is not to deny or minimise the family’s anguish to ask about the journalistic values in choosing to tell this story, when it goes unreported that unarmed Palestinians are being regularly shot and killed in their own villages, such as Bil’in and Nabi Saleh.
In recent days, two unarmed Palestinian boys were killed after being ambushed by armed Israeli combat forces. In 2013, 44 people were killed in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The vast majority of them (38) were Palestinian, six were Israeli. Five of the Palestinians were minors and one was a woman. The youngest was two years old, the oldest was 61.
According to B’Tselem, three times as many Palestinians were killed in the West Bank in 2013 compared with 2012. In this context and given the overall 10:1 ratio of killings, the ABC’s choice of the tragic story of an Israeli family has the obvious effect of reinforcing a framing of the conflict in which Israel is victim. No bereaved Palestinian family was sympathetically interviewed together with the Israeli murderer of their son. Israeli killers of innocent Palestinians were not asked whether they regret their action as the Palestinian was asked.
Furthermore, obviously relevant to the question of bias concerning such a story is the context of Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine. The usual protestation that Israel acts in self-defence against an “existential” threat is increasingly difficult to maintain. There are no Palestinian tanks or armed combat troops patrolling Tel-Aviv. Palestinians have no F-16 jet fighters, Blackhawk helicopters, Merkava tanks or armed forces. Palestinians pose no “existential” threat to the fourth most powerful military regime in the world.
Indeed, nothing of Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank can be plausibly seen as security for Israel. Israeli advocates argue that the settlements and occupation are not the obstacle to a peace agreement. However, over 600,000 settlers are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The separation wall takes nearly 10 per cent of the West Bank, and Israeli control over a further 60 per cent leaves about 15 per cent of the West Bank under very limited Palestinian control.
This is 15 per cent of the 22 per cent that remained of historical Palestine after 1948 – that is, around 3 per cent of “Disappearing Palestine” shown in famous posters and billboards. Under these conditions, what possibility can there be for a just peace and a Two-State solution which Israel professes to support?
Since 1967 there have been 28,000 houses of innocent Palestinians demolished usually with short notice in the middle of the night. The West Bank is encumbered with hundreds of military check-points where, during a five-year period after 2000, 67 women had to give birth and 36 babies died. The almost complete failure of mainstream media to report on these uncontroversial facts suggest the ways that coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict is distorted.
Israel is portrayed as defending itself against implacable Palestinian terrorism. However, the lid is kept on popular Palestinian resistance through the harsh military occupation and also through repression by Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, the subcontractor to whom the US and Israel have outsourced the occupation.
Of course, there is the matter of the rockets from Gaza — perhaps the most spectacular illustration of media bias, indeed, outright deception. Following obligatory visits to Sderot, every journalist, commentator and politician, including US President Obama, echoes the official Israeli line and condemns the terror raining down.
However, the case of rockets from Gaza is undoubtedly the clearest example of official government propaganda success, with worldwide media complicity, re-writing history even as it was happening exactly five years ago this month. Contrary to the universally “known” facts, Israel did not launch its Operation Cast Lead on 27 December 2008 in response to the barrage of rockets from Gaza.
In fact, Israel’s own Ministry of Defence website at the time showed this to be a lie — their own graphs showed there were no Hamas rockets from June 2008 until Israel violated the ceasefire on 4 November.
Despite a few rockets from militant groups, Hamas observed the truce — despite the fact that Israel did not lift the crippling siege as required under the terms of the agreement. There had been no Israeli casualties from rockets, but within hours of Israel’s assault over 200 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of policemen at a graduation ceremony. By the end of the assault on a defenceless population, just before Obama’s inauguration, 1400 Palestinians were killed and vast civilian infrastructure destroyed.
Of course, the blockade is advertised as preventing Palestinians from acquiring weapons, but it was imposed in 2006 after Hamas won a free and fair election and was notoriously described by an Israeli official as placing Gazans on a “diet,” withholding food such as chocolates and coriander.
Five years after the horrors of Cast Lead, the siege continues to devastate the lives of 1.5 million Gazans in collective punishment, which is itself a war crime. But the same evening as its report on the released Palestinian prisoner, the preceding ABC World News ran a story about Gaza showing how donkeys must be used to collect garbage due to the shortage of fuel. One can easily imagine what a more balanced national media organisation might have chosen to report on this anniversary.