Eyeless in Israel

Opinion

By Lisa Goldman

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.
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Since the start of the current Gaza campaign, the Israeli government and army have repeatedly said that they learned many lessons from the Second Lebanon War. Ostensibly, they are referring to the tactical and political breakdown outlined in the devastating postwar report issued by the Winograd Commission. But it seems that the government also learned a powerful lesson from Hezbollah — i.e., whoever controls the media wins the war.

During its current campaign, the Israeli army has kept the Erez crossing closed to the international media, barring foreign journalists from entering Gaza to cover the story. The Foreign Press Association was forced to petition the Supreme Court, which ruled in its favor and ordered the army to allow a limited group of foreign press into Gaza. Not only did the army refuse to carry out the court’s order, but it played a ludicrous game of telling the reporters to appear at the crossing at an appointed hour, and then refusing to process their passage.

This happened three times in one week. On one occasion, the army claimed it was too busy processing 300 dual-nationality Gazans, whose exit from the besieged territory was facilitated by foreign embassies. On another occasion, the army cited undefined security reasons — even as it continued to process the passage of international NGO workers. Asked by The New York Times for an explanation, Daniel Seaman, director of the Government Press Office, responded, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”

Israeli journalists, for their part, have been banned from entering Gaza by their own government for more than two years, so Israeli media outlets have largely contented themselves with hiring local Palestinian stringers to file the occasional news report or human-interest story from Gaza. Since the beginning of the military campaign, Israeli television stations have been making do with the occasional 30-second clip from Al Jazeera, which is the only international television news crew in Gaza right now. For the most part, Gaza as a place inhabited by human beings has been ignored.

Israeli media outlets instead have focused on the home front. From dawn until midnight, reporters spread out over Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba to give an update every few minutes — even when there is very little to report beyond the fact that there was an alert and a rocket fell harmlessly in an open area.

For these reasons, and because domestic news broadcasts traditionally avoid showing dead bodies, Israelis do not get a full sense of the bloodshed and destruction that is taking place in Gaza. While Al Jazeera has been broadcasting horrendous images of destroyed homes and infrastructure, dead children and overflowing hospitals to an outraged Arab audience of tens of millions, Israelis see only the occasional sanitized snippet of that coverage.

Two days after the military campaign began, the Israeli financial newspaper Globes published a highly critical summary of the domestic news coverage. It described in stark terms the dead civilians, destroyed infrastructure and harsh living conditions in Gaza, pointing out that none of these images are shown on Israeli television. Instead, Israelis see “military correspondents standing against a background of smoke pillars on a distant horizon, and reporters standing on deserted streets in the southern cities.” The article’s conclusion was withering: “The Israeli media is acting as a de facto army spokesman.” As the Gaza campaign nears the two-week mark, this pattern has held true.

Israelis pride themselves on being the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet they have willingly suspended democratic principles, such as the rule of law — in the case of the Supreme Court ruling on admitting foreign reporters to Gaza — and freedom of the press. Given the limited, controlled coverage of the army’s operation in Gaza, Israelis simply do not have sufficient first-hand information, in their own language, about what is really happening there. How, then, can they judge the moral stakes of this war?

Lisa Goldman is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv. She blogs at lisagoldman.net.


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