The Israeli government invests considerable effort in promoting its image in the foreign media. It’s called “hasbara,” which comes from the Hebrew root “to explain.” Israelis tend to be patriotic, with many believing their country is unfairly vilified in the foreign media. And so they embrace hasbara as a legitimate corrective measure. But for critics of Israel, even those who do not speak Hebrew, hasbara means official lies and spin designed to divert attention away from the military occupation of the West Bank and the settlers.
The Government Press Office, which provides journalists with press cards and keeps them informed of media events, contributes to the hasbara effort by sending out emails with carefully crafted pitches about human interest stories. Usually, these stories are meant to be both heartwarming and counter-intuitive — the kind that people post on Facebook with a comment about restoring one’s faith in human nature.
I helped report quite a few of these stories, mostly as a translator and news producer for foreign correspondents in Israel.
I remember one in particular from 2007, when Hamas was in the process of kicking Fatah out of Gaza. Armed Palestinian men engaged in gun battles on the streets of Gaza City, sometimes throwing one another off the roofs of tall buildings. Meanwhile, the Israeli border town of Sderot was frequently bombarded by Qassam rockets launched from Gaza, even as Israeli soldiers engaged in nocturnal shootouts with Palestinian militants along the security barrier. According to an email from the GPO, one hospital in Asheklon was simultaneously providing care for Sderot residents wounded by Qassam rockets, Israeli soldiers wounded by Palestinians, and Palestinians wounded in the ongoing Gaza gun battles.
A European journalist decided to cover that story and hired me to accompany him to Ashkelon as his translator.
At the hospital a middle-aged woman from Sderot, who spoke fractured Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent, recounted from her hospital bed that a rocket had pierced the roof of her house while she was standing in the kitchen. At the nurse’s station in the corridor, two soldiers inquired about a fellow combatant who had just been taken in for surgery. With their dusty assault rifles, red-rimmed eyes and stained green uniforms, they looked as though they had come straight from a night in the field.
In another room, a 21 year-old Palestinian man with eyes the color of kiwi fruit lay in bed, flat on his back. His father lifted the sheet, which was draped over a bulky frame that looked like an oversized shoebox, to show us his son’s legs. He pointed at the red bullet holes weeping puss and deep gashes that were held together by black stitches and metal screws and said his son would probably not walk again. In fluent Hebrew, which he said he had learned while working for an Israeli catering company in the 1980s and 1990s, the father said that his son was a police officer, newly graduated from the academy, who had been attacked by Hamas gunmen while protecting the home of a Fatah official.
A hospital administrator explained that men wounded in Gaza came to the hospital via Erez Checkpoint, following coordination between the Palestine Authority’s Ministry of Health in Ramallah and the Israeli army. She did not have the details of who paid for the medical care – this was information that the Ministry of Health could give us.