Apr 1 2009

International Law Seldom Newsworthy in Gaza War

Israeli justifications often cited uncritically

U.S. corporate media coverage of the Israeli military attacks launched December 27 that, as of January 13, had reportedly killed over 900 and injured thousands more—many of them civilians—has overwhelmingly failed to mention that indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets are illegal under international humanitarian law.

Israel’s aerial attacks on Gazan infrastructure, including a TV station, police stations, a mosque, a university and even a U.N. school have been widely reported. Yet despite the fact that attacks on civilian infrastructure, including police stations, are illegal (Human Rights Watch, 12/31/08), questions of legality are almost entirely off the table in the U.S. media.

As of January 13, only two network evening news stories (NBC Nightly News, 1/8/09, 1/11/09) had even mentioned international law—a mere 3 percent of the total stories that NBC, ABC and CBS’s newscasts had broadcast on the Israeli military offensive since it began.

The largest circulation daily newspaper, USA Today, had made only one reference to international law, according to a search of the terms “international law,” “humanitarian law,” “war crime” or “wars of law” in the Lexis Nexis database of U.S. newspaper stories mentioning Israel and Gaza since December 27: That single reference was an op-ed (1/7/08) by a spokesperson from the Israeli embassy in Washington who criticized Hamas violations.

Much of the media coverage has echoed Israel’s terminology. Early reports on the fighting spoke of Israel destroying “Hamas targets,” bolstering the Israeli position that anything connected to Gaza’s government was a legitimate target. “Israel’s attacks on Hamas, its leaders and its institutions in Gaza intensified today,” ABC’s David Muir reported (12/29/08). NBC Nightly News (12/28/08) explained: “Warplanes pounded strategic locations in Gaza for the second day: a prison, a mosque used to store weapons, a Hamas TV station and dozens of other targets. The Israelis attacked the Islamic University, which is a strategic, a moral and a cultural key point for Gaza.”

While places of worship are singled out as a kind of civilian object protected under the Geneva Protocols, a mosque used to store weapons could be a military target—though it is unclear what independent confirmation NBC had that allowed the network to state this claim as fact. A prison not directly used in the military effort would be a civilian object, and TV stations are normally considered civilian objects as well (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/27/03). While it is unclear what NBC means in calling the university a “strategic” key point, targeting an object on the basis of its “cultural” value is specifically forbidden under the Geneva Protocols.

A New York Times report (12/31/08) punted on the issue of legality, claiming that “In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target.”

If Israel is attacking civilian institutions without showing evidence that they are in fact military targets, it’s unclear why news reports would suggest that that meant that no one knows what a military target is.

A version of this article appeared on FAIR’s listserv on January 13.