Jul 1 2010

Reporting Israeli Assault Through Israel’s Eyes

Attack on humanitarian flotilla to Gaza prompts little media skepticism

On May 31, the Israeli military attacked a flotilla of boats full of civilians attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. Nine of the activists on board were killed, though some details remain sketchy due to Israel’s confiscation of all photo and video records of the assault. Much of the U.S. media coverage has been remarkably unskeptical of Israel’s account of events and their context, and has paid little regard to international law.

The New York Times (6/1/10) glossed over the facts of the devastating Israeli siege of Gaza. As reporter Isabel Kershner wrote, “Despite sporadic rocket fire from the Palestinian territory against southern Israel, Israel says it allows enough basic supplies through border crossings to avoid any acute humanitarian crisis.”

Asking Israel to explain the effects of its embargo on the people of Gaza makes little sense, especially when there are plenty of other resources available documenting that Gaza is an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe on numerous levels. Israel has banned imports like cement that are necessary to rebuild Gazan infrastructure—including homes, hospitals and roads—destroyed in Israel’s 2008-09 invasion (U.N. Develop-ment Program, 5/23/10). Water and sewage systems in Gaza are in dire need of repair, and have rendered most of the drinking water unfit for consumption (Amnesty International, 10/09).

Eighty percent of Gazans rely on international food aid (Amnesty International, 8/27/08), but malnutrition and related problems have become more serious as the Israeli blockade has intensified; some 10 percent of Gaza’s residents suffer from chronic malnutrition (U.N. World Food Program, 12/09). The blockade has severely affected the Gazan economy, with skyrocketing unemployment and a dramatic decline in per-capita income (London Independent, 6/5/10).

There was remarkably little empathy expressed for this suffering in U.S. corporate media. The Washington Post’s June 1 editorial page had one of the most appalling takes: “We have no sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla—a motley collection that included European sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, Israeli Arab leaders and Turkish Islamic activists.”

Many of the analysis pieces in major papers focused on the fallout for Israel and the United States, rather than on the civilians killed or the crisis they were trying to address. A Los Angeles Times account (6/1/10) called the raid “a public relations nightmare for Israel,” while the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler (6/1/10), in an article whose Web headline read, “Condemnation of Israeli Assault Complicates Relations With U.S.,” framed the U.S. response, not the Israeli attack, as the problematic factor. “The timing of the incident is remarkably bad for Israel and the United States,” Kessler lamented. The New York Times’ Kershner (NYTimes.com, 5/31/10) likewise wrote—in language that has since disappeared from the paper’s website—that “the criticism [of Israel over the attack] offered a propaganda coup to Israel’s foes, particularly the Hamas group that holds sway in Gaza.”

Other news accounts presented misleading context about the circumstances leading to Israel’s blockade. Kershner (New York Times, 6/1/10) stressed that “Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza, where Hamas, an organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, took over by force in 2007.” The Associated Press (6/1/10) reported that “Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza’s borders after Hamas overran the territory in 2007, wresting control from Abbas-loyal forces”—the latter a reference to Fatah forces affiliated with Mahmoud Abbas.

Both accounts ignore the fact that Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, which led the United States and Israel to step up existing economic restrictions on Gaza. An attempt to stoke a civil war in Gaza by arming Fatah militants—reported extensively by David Rose in Vanity Fair (4/08)—backfired, and Hamas prevailed (Extra!, 9-10/07).

Much of the U.S. press coverage took Israeli government claims at face value, and was based largely on footage made available by Israeli authorities—while Israel kept the detained activists away from the media (not to mention from lawyers and worried family members). The Washington Post (6/1/10) reported Israeli claims as though they were uncontested facts: “Upon touching down, the Israeli commandos, who were equipped with paint guns and pistols, were assaulted with steel poles, knives and pepper spray.”

The New York TimesJune 1 report included seven paragraphs of Israel’s account of what happened on board the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, where the civilians were killed; the paper reported that “there were no immediate accounts available from the passengers of the Turkish ship” because the Israeli base they were taken to “was off limits to the news media and declared a closed military zone.”

The Times piece also showed little interest in international law, mentioning Israel’s claim regarding the legality of their actions but providing no analysis from any international law experts to support or debunk the claim: “Israeli officials said that international law allowed for the capture of naval vessels in international waters if they were about to violate a blockade.”

According to Craig Murray (5/31/10), a former British ambassador and specialist on maritime law, the legal position “is very plain”: “To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.”

As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald wrote (5/31/10): “Just ponder what we’d be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard.”


Echoing Israeli Denial on Gaza Crisis

Just before the assault on the Gaza humanitarian flotilla, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 5/29/10) declared that the aid shipment was “a provocation intended to delegitimize Israel. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, this talking point was repeated numerous times in U.S. corporate media coverage of the attack:

“But there is a larger issue here. What exactly is the humanitarian crisis that the flotilla was actually addressing? There is none. No one is starving in Gaza. The Gazans have been supplied with food and social services by the UN for 60 years in part with American tax money.”

—Charles Krauthammer, Fox News (5/31/10)

“But there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza at all!”

—Monica Crowley, Fox Business Network (6/2/10)

“But there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza; if anyone goes without food, shelter or medicine, that is by the choice of the Hamas government, which puts garnering international sympathy above taking care of its citizens.”

—Daniel Gordis, New York Times op-ed (6/3/10)

“I just had an expert on, a congressman, Mike Pence, from Indiana, who is an expert on this issue as well. He said, look it, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. People are eating in Gaza. There is medical aid. You are talking about paper, crayons and olive trees, and placing basically your volunteers in a potential situation where they could be hurt or even killed.”

CNN’s Drew Griffin, interviewing Free Gaza’s Greta Berlin (6/2/10)

“If you walk down Gaza City’s main thoroughfare—Salah al-Din Street—grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurts and hummus to Cocoa Puffs smuggled in from Egypt. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States….Gazans readily admit they are not going hungry.”

— Janine Zacharia, Washington Post news article (6/3/10)

“Even though Israel has managed to stave off a humanitarian crisis by allowing the entry of food, fuel and medical requirements, to the world it was engaging in a policy of collective punishment.”

—Martin Indyk, Time column (6/14/10)

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