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How journalists become complicit in Gaza's suffering

Reporters seize upon the list of Gaza’s most recent victims, only to parse their death certificates for proof that they, too, did not deserve to die.

“Journalism,” wrote the Swedish war correspondent Stig Dagerman, “is the art of coming too late as early as possible.” The dictum resounds in Gaza, where an eight-year Israeli siege – which has left this land all but unlivable – went woefully underreported well before Gaza was is in the throes of war. As Palestinian families again count their dead, that journalistic negligence, say human rights workers, leaves much of the reporting here dangerously devoid of context.

One glaring example of this is the notion that Palestinian civilians are only killed when Israel launches full-scale assaults – by air, land and sea – “to defend itself.” In fact, death by Israeli fiat is as routine here as the siege itself.

Consider the case of Odeh Hamad, a young man who was fatally shot by Israeli snipers on December 20, 2013. Hamad was collecting scrap metal to sell for cash – a familiar stop-gap of Gaza’s unemployed, who, even before this latest Israeli assault, represented more than 40 percent of Gaza’s population. According to his brother, who was with him and spoke a day after the killing, Hamad was a kilometer away from Israel’s unilaterally delineated “border fence” when he was shot, posing no threat to the heavily armed soldiers in their concrete turrets.

Hamad, of course, was not the first to be gunned down along Gaza’s so-called “buffer zone,” which at the time rendered off-limits “nearly 14 percent of Gaza’s total land and at least 48 percent of [its] total arable land,” according to Harvard researcher Sara Roy (the estimates are higher now). You wouldn’t know it from the Western press, though, which has largely ignored the buffer zone and its consequences.

It’s all the more galling, then, when reporters seize upon the list of Gaza’s most recent victims, only to parse their death certificates for proof that they, too, did not deserve to die. Case in point: On August 5, The New York Times ran an article by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren titled, “Civilian or Not? New Fight in Tallying the Dead From the Gaza Conflict.” The money quote, according to Mahmoud Abu Rahmeh of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, is this:

“Human rights groups acknowledge that people killed by Hamas as collaborators and people who died naturally, or perhaps through domestic violence, are most likely counted as well.”

When I asked Abu Rahmeh what he thought about Rudoren’s report, he told me his organization was disappointed by the “lack of professionalism” in the Times’ coverage. “Al Mezan is in contact with the paper and is seeking to publish a letter to the editor to explain the flaws” in Rudoren’s piece, he said.

For her part, Rudoren tweeted on August 10 that “Al Mezan never said people killed by methods other than Israeli attacks were in its final counts.” But her point – that those “perhaps” killed by domestic violence could skew the Palestinian body count – remained unchanged.

Human rights workers here say Rudoren’s reporting perpetuates the idea that Palestinian victims of Israeli attacks are just numbers to be counted. To illustrate the point, another Al Mezan employee, who asked that his name be withheld because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization, told me about his colleague, Anwar Al Zaaneen, who was killed by an Israeli drone strike in Beit Hanoun six days after Rudoren’s report was published.

Bodies are removed from Kuwaiti Hospital after Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza Strip, August 3, 2014. Since Al Najjar Hospital was closed, Kuwaiti, a nearby private hospital, opened its doors for emergency cases. With no space to store bodies, they have been stored in a nearby cooler used for vegetables and flowers. So far, Israeli attacks have killed at least 1,676 Palestinians, including 378 children (photo: Activestills)

Bodies are removed from Kuwaiti Hospital after Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza Strip, August 3, 2014. Since Al Najjar Hospital was closed, Kuwaiti, a nearby private hospital, opened its doors for emergency cases. With no space to store bodies, they have been stored in a nearby cooler used for vegetables and flowers (photo: Activestills)

That Al Zaaneen’s death hasn’t registered in Rudoren’s reporting may speak volumes about the travesty of her coverage, but his colleague says Al Zaaneen’s story is as much about the individual tragedies most observers of Gaza miss.

Al Zaaneen, he tells me, “was the type who did everything to avoid this conflict.” He sent his family to what he thought was a safer place and was careful to avoid going out at night. He spent most of his days at the office, where he would wait out the bombing. But when he needed to tend to water repairs at his house in Beit Hanoun, near Gaza’s northern border, his luck ran out. A drone missile fatally wounded him just after 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Al Zaaneen’s story is all too familiar. But the circumstances of his death also help to explain one of the main questions raised by Rudoren’s report – why the majority of those killed in the last month have been men of “combatant” age. According to the newspaper of record, Al Zaaneen’s age, 41, puts him outside the cohort of men “most likely to be militants.” But like men younger than him, he was also more likely to try to keep his family – including the women and children among them – out of harm’s way, checking on his house and running errands on his own.

No such logic was presented by the Times, of course. Meanwhile, Al Mezan’s Abu Rahmeh tells me that the paper’s misleading report not only diminishes the human cost of Israel’s war, it “jeopardizes the rights of the victims” and their surviving family members. With so many lost and even more mourning, the real question surrounding Gaza’s “death count” isn’t how it’s tallied, but why it’s so staggeringly high – by any standard.

The answer lies not in the talking points of Israel’s defenders – chief among them that Hamas “hides” behind Gaza’s civilian population – but in the pattern of violence long visited upon that population by their occupiers. Journalists who fail to report that context are complicit in its perpetuation.

The battle over numbers: Gaza conflict is about quality not quantity
New York Times erstwhile definition of a ‘quiet night’: Five Palestinians killed
When ‘The New York Times’ embeds its reporters with the IDF

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    1. Pedro X

      Yes let us consider the case of Odeh Hammad, because the circumstances are not what Samer would have you believe. Odeh was shot next to the fence.

      Samer said he was shot one kilometer away from the fence according to his brother. However, Radad Hamad, related the incident to B’Tselem field researcher Muhammad Sabah in which he said he and his brother were located meters away from the security fence.

      “We started gathering scraps a few meters away from the fence, across from the military towers.”

      The researcher said that Radad’s brother was cutting barbed wire next to the security fence when the he was shot.

      Maan News reported on the day Odeh Hammad died that

      “Gaza government spokeswoman Isra Almodallal confirmed the shooting, adding that they had approached the fence but details were still unclear.”

      Maan also reported that

      “An Israeli forces’ statement said that “Palestinians caused damage to the northern security fence” and “fired a mortar shell” into Israel, adding that they “rioted and hurled rocks at soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip, and neared the fence in an attempt to enter Israel.”

      After “calling out to the Palestinians” without success, they used live fire.”

      There is a security fence because Hamas and other terrorist groups have sent killers into Israel and killed many Israelis. There is a buffer zone because Palestinians carry out attacks, lay improvised explosive devices next to the fence, fire mortars, cut the fence, and attempt to enter Israel.

      What Samer would like is that reporters swallow the lies made up by Palestinians after the event as in Odeh’s case where Palestinians claimed Odeh was at least a kilometer away from the fence when shot.

      Reply to Comment
      • Squidward

        I thought the Israel didn’t occupy Gaza anymore, but somehow they have a right to create a buffer zone in Gaza. This is a typical Israeli strategy in the West Bank too, closing off entire areas as military zones. Israel does not have a moral right to do any of that.

        But all these mincing of the details is more of a distraction like Eliza mentions. The point is Palestinians are dying and they become reduced to numbers. They’re a lot more than just a number, but because of Israel kills them with impunity, they become “just another victim”

        Reply to Comment
    2. Eliza

      Come on Pedro X – Just a think about what you have written.

      Let’s accept your version of events is accurate; a young Palestinian man was within metres of the fence cutting barbed wire. Lets accept that the IDF gave a verbal warning; that damage was caused to the fence; that the brothers fired a mortar shell into Israel (which caused no harm) and then staged a two man riot – the IDF still behaved with reckless indifference to life by shooting and killing Odeh Hammand.

      The killing is hardly the act of an intelligent military force. It is not alright that this young man died. Do you never think that one day the IDF may have to face a military that is armed? How do you think these IDF soldiers will behave when they are faced with an equally armed force?

      I think it improbable that Odeh strode up to the fence and in full view of the IDF lobbed a mortar shell into Israel. Just don’t buy it. The most plausible explanation is that he was trying his best to make ends meet by salvaging some wire. And the brave lads of the IDF shot and killed him.

      Samer’s point remains – it is not only the times of Israeli assaults on Gaza (and these assaults are not wars in the military sense) that there is loss of Palestinian life. It happens regularly, both in Gaza and the West Bank on a lower scale of intensity. These deaths are not irrelevant and should be remembered just as much as the nearly 2,000 who died in the last Israeli assault.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        The nature of war on the security fence bordering Gaza is such that Palestinians plant bombs at the fence or cut holes in the fence and plant bombs in Israel meant to kill or injure Israelis. Palestinians also use mortar attacks to create a diversion to attempt to breach the security fence for the purpose of carrying out an attack in Israel.

        The day in question that this incident happened there were multiple disturbances in Gaza. In this particular incident Odeh Hammad was in the dump abutting the fence. A mortar was fired into Israel while Odeh was cutting barb wire next to the fence. Others were throwing rocks. This was all happening next to the security fence in a restricted area in which live fire is used to prevent incursions into Israel or from mortars being fired or bombs planted.

        The United States also protects its borders. Since 1998 an average of greater than 300 Mexicans a year die on the border. If they did not try to illegally enter the US, they would not die. If the Palestinians did not use violence against Israel, Palestinians would not die.

        One has to remember that Gazans and West Bankers had full mobility rights to enter Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. This all ended with the violence which the Palestinians committed in the last two decades.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Jan

      Israel might not consider Gaza occupied but the fact that their troops have not been on the ground except when they go through their exercises in destruction does not mean Gaza is not occupied. Ever since the illegal settlers and troops were pulled out Israel controlled the entrances, the air space and the water. Births and deaths are not registered with Gaza officials but with Israel. Israel determined who could leave Gaza and who could not. Most people could not leave.If family members of Gazans lived in the West Bank Israel would not allow them to see each other. Gaza students who wanted to attend West Bank universities were forbidden by Israel to go to the West Bank. The cruelty and sadism of the occupation got even worse once Hamas won a free and fair election.

      Israel never wanted the people of Gaza to forget who was their master. From the first night of the pullout screaming jets flew across the strip causing frightening sonic booms. When Israel wanted to get rid of someone they used targeted assassinations which often took the lives of innocents in the vicinity. Gaza has not been unoccupied since Israel took it over in 1967 some 47 years ago.

      How much longer will the Palestinian people both in Gaza and in the West Bank have to live under the longest occupation in modern history? Enough is enough!

      Reply to Comment
    4. phil

      When quoting btselem, pedrox conveniently omits the following:
      “B’Tselem’s inquiries indicate that ‘Odeh Hamad did, indeed, cut some of the barbed wire close to the military perimeter fence, apparently in order to sell the metal. However, B’Tselem’s inquiries have found that, contrary to the Military Spokesperson’s claim, a ‘suspect arrest procedure’ was not carried out. The fact that Hamad was hit in the head rather than in his legs indicates that the shooting did not follow this procedure, which prohibits shooting at the head at any stage. Moreover, according to Radad Hamad’s testimony, no attempt was made prior to the shooting to warn the brothers or to get them to move away from the fence.

      ‘Odeh Hamad was shot in the head despite posing no danger to anyone. While he was lying wounded, close to the soldiers on the other side of the fence, Red Crescent paramedics wasted precious time trying to find him. The soldiers offered Hamad no medical assistance, nor did they help the paramedics locate him. B’Tselem has written to the MAG Corps demanding that a criminal investigation be launched to examine the circumstances of the shooting”

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        pedrox also ads this gem of disingenuity: “The United States also protects its borders. Since 1998 an average of greater than 300 Mexicans a year die on the border. If they did not try to illegally enter the US, they would not die.”

        In those stats, the number of migrants (very often, they are not Mexican) who were killed by US authorities is about 1 per year. The bulk of the stats comes from the risk of crossing the desert on foot and has nothing to do with “defending the border”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Piotr, you are wrong on all counts.

          Use of force on the border by US border police and Custom Protection officers is endemic. Between 2010 and 2012 there were 1600 use of force incidents recorded by the Arizona Republic report of 2013. Between 2005 and 2013 there were 43 official killings and 4 documented from other sources from use of deadly force.

          Throwing of rocks is considered justification for live fire. In February of this year border police killed a rock thrower. They also shot a youth walking on the side of the Mexican border.

          The willingness of the border and custom protection police forces to use deadly force drive migrants to seek higher risk areas to infiltrate the United states resulting in a high number of deaths. University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute’s report explains,

          “segmented border militarization has resulted in the funnel effect, or the redistribution of migratory flows into remote and dangerous areas such as southern Arizona.”

          Deadly use of force results directly in other deaths of those seeking to avoid those confrontations.

          Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        BTselem’s report is based on what Palestinians said. The Israeli take on the incident is much different. The shooting occurred during a series of disturbances which included the firing of a mortar, rock throwing, an attempt to breach the security fence and the attempted cutting of the fence.

        These type of actions are considered justification for live fire.

        My point was that the version Samer was putting forward did not match that of the reporting of Maan News and the Gaza authorities on the day of the incident, Btselem or the Israeli version.

        According to Samer, the event took place a kilometer from the border when the brother told Btselem that they were meters from the border.

        Reply to Comment
    5. bar

      Journalists become complicit in Gazan suffering by ignoring, falsifying, non reporting and covering up Hamas actions.

      Reply to Comment