Diarmuid Breatnach


Palestinian supporters and other critics of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza have long complained about the western mass media’s reporting of the conflict in Palestine. The complaints have outlined reporting slanted in the Israeli state’s favour and/or specifically against the Palestinians and their representatives.

Palestinian flag flies over the rubble of a Gaza neighbourhood after Israeli bombardment 2014 (photo Antonio Olmos)
Palestinian flag flies over the rubble of a Gaza neighbourhood after Israeli bombardment 2014 (photo Antonio Olmos)

Umberto Ecco once defined language as a system of communication through which one could tell lies. There is no doubt but that our mass media uses language. Their editors and reporters herd us as sheep are herded by trained dogs, sometimes with barks and snaps of teeth but more usually through nudges and subtle changes of posture. They direct us to the pen where we are wanted or, at the very least, away from freedom.

In order to demonstrate the techniques used I have taken an example of reporting on the conflict and analysed it. The piece chosen is far from being one of the worst pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian pieces of journalism – it is actually quite mild and even points out the statistical imbalance in the killing of civilians by Israel’s armed forces on the one hand and by Palestinian guerrillas on the other hand. The report is by the Irish on-line newspaper The Journal and was put up by them in the middle of August 2014.

 The piece opens by saying that “Palestinian negotiators have been considering an Egyptian proposal to end the month-long Israel-Hamas war as the latest 72-hour ceasefire in the Gaza Strip is due to expire.”  

This first of all says that the conflict is a war which also implies some kind of equal balance in fighting forces and also a share in blame. But it is not a war between any two sides; if it can be called a war at all, it is a war by Israel only. Israel is the fourth-largest military power in the world, with an army, navy and air force equipped with some of the latest armament and surveillance equipment. The Palestinians have a number of guerrilla groups, operating as infantry and no air or naval force at all. Their “artillery” are low-level rockets and mortars which cause very little damage to Israeli civilians and even less to the Israeli armed forces (except at close quarters, if Israeli soldiers invade territory held by the guerrillas). Israel’s armament causes huge damage to Palestinian infrastructure, huge loss of civilian life and does cause some damage to the guerilla groups.

The phrasing also suggests that Hamas is the only opponent of Israel on the Palestinian side. However, Israel has been in conflict with the Palestinians since the very day it came into existence and long before Hamas appeared on the scene. Even today, there are a number of Palestinian political and military organisations that are opposed to Israel and its actions and all together they represent the whole of Palestinian society inside the occupied territories, inside the 1948 borders of the state of Israel and in the refugee camps and settlements. In the sense that one could say that there is a war going on, it is Israel waging war against the Palestinian people.

The very next paragraph in the Journal’s piece says that “Since the truce, which will expire at midnight, went into effect on Sunday, Israel has halted military operations in the coastal territory and Gaza militants have stopped firing rockets.”

We see presented here that on the one side we have “Israel” and on the other, “Gaza militants”. As in bourgeois media reporting “militants” usually has a negative connotation, this is already tending to turn the reader against the Palestinians in Gaza. On the other hand, we have “Israel” which we can interpret either as “a legitimate state” or as the Biblical “promised land of the Jews”. And that is being opposed by “militants” in Gaza. The phrasing legitimises the status of one side while de-legitimising the other.

We are also told that Israel has halted “military operations”, two words that hardly convey the sustained bombardment of Gaza’s civilian houses, schools, mosques, civil administration facilities, power plant, water treatment plant, factories, hospitals and emergency vehicles in recent weeks. It does not bring to mind the slaughter of over 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians and including 430 children. Not to mention the 9,567 wounded, including 2,878 children and hundreds of injured jamming the remaining ill-equipped hospital treatment centres.

Israeli "military operations" -- Shuja'iyya neighborhood of east Gaza City during a 12-hour ceasefire on July 26 2014.
Shuja’iyya neighborhood of east Gaza City during a 12-hour ceasefire on July 26 2014.

The paragraphs states that in return for the cessation of “military operations” by the Israelis, the Palestinians have “stopped firing rockets”. Actually, if this report had just gone into a little detail, how pitiful by comparison with Israeli deadly ordnance would be the Palestinian rockets! Nevertheless, it is the rockets that are recently used as propaganda excuses by Israelis (before them it was something else) to justify the unjustifiable, the terrorising and collective punishment of a largely civilian population. So it is very rare indeed that western media reports omit any mention of the rockets.

The ceasefire was meant to give the two sides time to negotiate a more sustainable truce and a roadmap for the coastal territory.”

Again, “two sides” gives the impression of some kind of equal antagonists in balance. The “roadmap” may be a vague reference to some future deal but may also be a reference to something that was much bandied about in Clinton’s time as President of the USA. This “roadmap” was supposed to lead to a two-state solution and, apart from the fact that it completely supported the supposed right of the European settlers who created the state of Israel to steal Palestinian land, has now been rendered completely inoperable.  This is due to the continuing Israeli Zionist greed for land and building of illegal settlements throughout much of what was imagined as being part of the Palestinian state. And besides, the “roadmap” did not apply to the Palestinian refugees, who were given no right to return to their land. But it is useful for zionist-friendly propaganda purposes to pretend that this “roadmpap” ‘solution’ still exists and is viable.

A member of the Palestinian delegation to Egyptian-brokered talks in Cairo said today that his team was considering an Egyptian proposal, which was tabled yesterday. Egyptian mediators have been ferrying between the Palestinians and their Israeli counterparts in an attempt overcome the differences between the sides.”

While it is true that Egypt has been “brokering talks”, that state is hardly an innocent bystander. Egypt has kept the Rafah Crossing, the only official exit point from Gaza not entirely controlled by Israel, closed or constricted. Egypt has also worked to destroy the tunnels which the people of Gaza used to smuggle in those items of daily life and, no doubt the arms they need, which Egypt is preventing from getting through the Rafah Crossing. The Egyptian state could nullify much of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, merely by opening their crossing into Gaza for normal traffic 24 hours a day.

The Egyptian armed forces, the real power in that country, are clients of the USA – another power which is hardly innocent but which on occasion tries to present itself as impartial in the conflict, despite its massive funding of the state of Israel. But those are not facts that the western media wish to disclose about the USA, Egypt or the conflict in Palestine.  

Another thing, notice that while Egypt is “brokering”, it is “ferrying” between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.  Clearly the antagonists are not face-to-face.  If we think about that at all, as readers we are left with a feeling that maybe each side hates the other so much that they can’t bear to be in the same room.  Or we might even think that Hamas, since it doesn’t recognise the right of Israel to exist, might not deign to speak to them directly.  But actually, the reverse is true — as throughout most of its history, Israel is refusing to speak to the Palestinians directly. But no point telling the readers about that, is there? Who knows what they might come to think of such an attitude and behaviour of the Israeli state?

The Egyptian proposal calls for easing parts of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, bringing some relief to the territory, according to Palestinian officials in the talks. But it leaves the key areas of disagreement, including Hamas’ demand for a full lifting of the blockade and Israeli calls for Hamas to disarm, to later negotiations.”

This is a bald enough statement which seems neutral but notice the unchallenged call for Hamas to disarm. From a state that is granted legitimacy to an insurgent force often painted as illegitimate, such a call seems reasonable. It has been and continues to be the basis for “peace (i.e. pacification) processes” throughout the world. But is there a call for Israel to disarm? Of course not. Yet it is the most heavily-armed power in the Middle East, the only one in possession of a nuclear arsenal and the one which has most often attacked its neighbours (not to mention the Palestinians).  And the piece above leaves us to draw the conclusion that the lifting of the Israeli blockade may require Hamas disarming — a fair exchange. And a reasonable reason, if Hamas does not comply, for Israel to continue its blockade on the whole population of Gaza.

The Palestinian negotiator said he had some reservations about the proposal and would try to improve it. “We would like to see more cross-border freedom, and also to have the question of a Gaza seaport and airport discussed,” he said.

Note no reason is given for the Palestinian wishes – they seem trivial almost and no reason not to agree to a truce. “Cross-border freedom” might seem like being free to go on shopping trips or holidays abroad. “Gaza seaport and airport” likewise may facilitate daytrips and holidays, or tourist traffic or imports of luxuries. Maybe even exports of craftwork, or olives from remaining trees not destroyed by Israel. Such phrases and word do not give us a picture of over 1,816,300 people locked into a piece of land of 5,046 square kilometres (13,069 square miles), under permanent hostile control and sporadic bombardment and invasion, short of clean water and with other water polluted, destroyed infrastructure, destroyed hospitals, schools, mosques and churches, ruined industries and agriculture, infrequent power supply for lighting and heating, hardly any transport, a polluted coast and Israeli attacks on fishermen.

During the existence of the USSR and its satellite states, the western media regularly attacked them for their restrictions on most of their citizens’ travel beyond their borders. They never did then — nor do they now – inform their readers of the much stricter Israeli control on travel by Palestinians, not only beyond Israel’s 1948 borders but also beyond the borders of Palestine occupied by Israel in the years since. In fact, even travel within the occupied territories is extremely difficult for Palestinians.

The next four sentences of the Journal’s piece are unproblematic enough as far as reporting goes although it could have commented on why lifting the blockade on Gaza might have been of such concern to Hamas and to the people of Gaza:

An Israeli government spokesman had no comment on the negotiations.

In recorded remarks broadcast on Hamas radio, Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas leader in the region, said that “achieving a permanent truce can come only through lifting the blockade on Gaza”.

Amid the ceasefire, an Associated Press video journalist and a freelance Palestinian translator working with him were killed today when ordnance left over from the war exploded as they covered a story about the conflict’s aftermath.

Italian national Simone Camilli, 35, and Ali Shehda Abu Afash, 36, died when an unexploded missile believed to have been dropped in an Israeli airstrike blew up as Gazan police engineers worked to neutralise it in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

However, the report could have gone on to tell us that the explosion also killed the four Gaza police engineers trying to neutralise the explosives and that another four people, including AP photographer Hatem Moussa, were badly injured.  Unimportant details?  News that might make us think worse of the Israeli armed forces?  Or sympathise with courageous Palestinian police and at-risk civilians? 

But it is not long before the more suspect reporting reemerges:

The war began on July 8 with Israel’s air campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whom Israel blamed for the kidnapping and murder in June of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Nine days later, Israel sent in ground troops to destroy Hamas’ underground cross-border tunnels constructed for attacks inside Israel.

Here Hamas are presented as “rulers”, as distinct and opposed to – once again – the state of Israel, conferring legitimacy on one party to the conflict, the aggressor, while subtly suggesting that the other antagonist is anything but legitimate and perhaps even despotic.

But the paragraph goes beyond that and suggests that Israel has a legitimate claim that Hamas kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. The three were in fact kidnapped and murdered and, although Israel wrongly accused Hamas of responsibility, its intelligence organisation Shin Bet later admitted that it no longer believed that. It may have been some other smaller Palestinian group or even individual members that carried it out but it was not the Hamas organisation nor its leadership. But this paragraph leaves us with the impression that Hamas’ culpability was a reasonable supposition by Israel and a reasonable cause of it going to war against Gaza.

The paragraph goes on to accept Israel’s public rationale for the bombardment and invasion, viz. “to destroy Hamas cross-border tunnels for attacks inside Israel”. Israel first quoted the deaths of the three teenagers as their reason for attack and now it is the “Hamas tunnels”. So if the stated reasons change, doesn’t that suggest that they are suspect, not to be relied on, with maybe the real reason unspoken? No comment from the media.  Where are the tunnels?  Which “border” are they crossing (putting aside for the moment the fact that Israel has never defined its borders)?  Where are they attacking “inside Israel”?  When was the most recent Hamas attack “inside Israel”?  If this is a reference to the paltry rockets Hamas has fired, Israel has never claimed that these were fired at it from “inside Israel”.  If it is not a reference to the rockets, then to what?  We are not told but instead left with a feeling that Israel’s concerns could somehow be legitimate.

The fighting has so far killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, Palestinian and UN officials say. On the Israeli side, 67 people have died, all but three of them soldiers.

This is an unadorned statement of the shocking facts and we could not fault this paragraph.

But how about the very next sentence?

The latest outbreak of fighting is the third between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since Hamas took over control of the densely-populated territory in 2007.”

Here we have a repeat of that formulation which we saw earlier: the conflict, we are being asked to see, is between the ‘legitimate’ state of Israel on the one hand and “Palestinian militants” on the other.  And it is “fighting” between the two sides, rather than the truth: the attack of Israel’s military force upon the population of Gaza and the Palestinian guerrilla forces’ attempts to reply with their meagre resources.

Also, we are told that “Hamas took over control” of Gaza in 2007. In an invasion, perhaps? A coup d’etat? The fact, uncomfortable for the western media, is that it was in a democratic general election while Israel and western agents poured out anti-Hamas propaganda. And Hamas won not just in Gaza, incidentally – but in the West Bank too, although others are currently in power there. Are we told that Israeli political parties in government “took over control” of Israel? Of course not.

Continuing, the report states thatHamas has been consistently pushing for an end of an Israeli Gaza blockade, which Israel says is necessary to prevent the group from gaining access to weapons and munitions it deploys against Israelis.”

In this sentence, we learn that Hamas wants an end to Israel’s blockade but not why. We are not told that it is so that they can have sufficient fuel for heating and transport, food, medicine, clean water, industrial and building materials, teaching and learning materials, spare parts, etc, etc. Nor are we told that Gaza could then actually export products and gain some self-sufficiency. Nor are we told that Israel is illegally holding monies, such as tax revenues, that belong to Gaza. But we ARE told why Israel wants the blockade — “to prevent the group from gaining access to weapons and munitions it deploys against Israelis.” Well, there you are – that’s only reasonable, surely? !!



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