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On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with this story. All the facts presented to us were true. But they were presented without important context.
For example, the wounded men from Gaza seemed to be selected as much for their political affiliation as the gravity of their wounds. The Palestine Authority, based in the de facto capital of Ramallah, was supposed to represent all Palestinians. But it seemed to be coordinating with the Israeli authorities for the evacuation of wounded men who were affiliated with Fatah institutions only. This was the case for the young man with the green eyes, who was with the P.A.’s police force.
In fact, Palestinians regularly receive treatment in Israeli hospitals. At the height of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli army re-invaded Gaza, there were Palestinian children receiving treatment for cancer and other serious diseases at Tel Aviv hospitals. But the medical care is not offered for free; the P.A. pays for it, even as Israel regularly withholds its tax revenue and continues to confiscate private land owned by Palestinians for new and expanding Jewish settlements. One could also legitimately ask how it was that Palestinian hospitals, which are in territory under Israeli control, did not possess the equipment necessary to treat their own patients.
So the case of the wounded Palestinian man from Gaza in the Ashkelon hospital was not exactly a heartwarming tale of magnanimous Israelis offering free, lifesaving medical care to an enemy combatant. Rather, it was a politically expedient scenario that served the interests of both the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and the Israeli governments. For the father and his wounded son, of course, these political considerations were irrelevant. They were grateful, as would be most people in their position. And most journalists presented the Ashkelon hospital tableaux vivant at face value. Asking questions about payment and political affiliation would have been perceived by readers as unnecessarily cynical, even if answers were forthcoming. Anyway, it was a human interest story and not an investigative report. And it was newsworthy.
But the experience left a bad taste in my mouth, as did similar stories that I helped cover. Especially when employees of the foreign ministry promoted the articles in global emails. It is not pleasant to feel manipulated.
When I read a recent New York Times article about wounded Syrian children receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals, I posted it to my Facebook with a cynical comment: “So the Government Press Office sends an email to journalists in Israel, telling them about this ‘quiet’ story of Israeli hospitals treating Syrian wounded. Shhh…. We want to be modest about this. So don’t make too much noise and please don’t reveal the identities of the people who benefit from our generosity, because their own people might shun or hurt them. Just for seeking help for their children. Can you imagine? And the media obediently report this story, because who can resist cute Jewish and Arab kids getting treated in the same hospital…. And then the foreign ministry sends links to the articles to all the journalists they have on their global email lists. And voila. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do hasbara.”
My friend Gal Beckerman read the comment and decided to look into the matter, emailing Isabel Kershner, who wrote the article, and the New York Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren. And it turns out that I was wrong. They discovered the story on their own, and in fact the army tried to prevent them from covering it.
Gal’s conclusion — and I agree with him — is that the Israeli government’s relentless focus on hasbara efforts has tainted the way we report and consume news from that country. For partisan observers, news reports are judged not for their veracity and newsworthiness, but for how they present Israel. Far too often this is parsed according to binary clichés: Israel is presented either as the evil occupier or a light unto the nations.
But I would take Gal’s observation one step further. By reporting the Israel-Palestine story with an emotional subtext rather than some intellectual detachment, we are perpetuating a discourse that is disconnected from reality. Hasbara diverts attention from the very painful and difficult issues that must be addressed. It is much easier to smile at Arab and Jewish children sharing a hospital ward than to address the tough issues, like a military occupation that does not seem likely to end in our lifetime.
Lisa Goldman worked for more than a decade as a freelance journalist in Israel. A contributing editor to +972 Magazine, she now lives in Brooklyn.