An Israeli missile hits an area in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 9, 2014.
This week, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a massive offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the military to “take off the gloves” and declared: "Hamas chose escalation and it will pay a heavy price for it.”
Since then, hundreds of air strikes have hit the Gaza strip, killing at least 41 people, including civilians. Hamas and other militant organizations have fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The air defense system Iron Dome has intercepted most of the missiles. So far, no Israeli casualties have been reported.
Only 18 months ago, I was in Israel, covering "Pillar Of Defense," the previous big operation in Gaza aimed to stop Hamas. Now, thousands of miles away, sitting safely in Washington, D.C., I follow the news that just keeps coming. I learned that, even at this distance, I can feel the action. All I need to do is download the Zeva Adom app, intended to convey “the grim experience of being a southern resident of Israel” by notifying me of every incoming missile alert.
On Israeli TV and radio, journalists operate in an emergency mode with endless babbling. But even after hours in front of the computer screen, I realize that despite the endless stream of stories, many facts are still missing.
An Israeli news addict will have a hard time finding out from Hebrew sources about the deaths in Gaza or the names of civilian victims there.An Israeli news addict will have a hard time finding out from Hebrew sources about the deaths in Gaza or the names of civilian victims there. The motto of Yisrael Hayom, Israel's most widely circulated daily newspaper, is “Remember we are Israelis.” And I guess that's why its Wednesday’s morning edition didn't contain a word on the civilian casualties.
As the sole democracy in the Middle East, as it likes to define itself, the state of Israel has an interesting way of practicing journalism. All Israeli news stories about military activities are subject to military censorship. That means authorities have pre-approved every item the public receives.
Furthermore, most correspondents have a cozy relationship with the military. In order to get access to information, they must go through a security clearance and accreditation process controlled by the very same organization they cover.
But the Israeli public is hardly eager to hear uncomfortable information anyway. A survey conducted last year by Tel Aviv University found that 52% of Israelis think the media should not publish immoral conduct by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The price of this blindness is high, as the recent round of violence illustrates.
When three Israeli teenagers went missing recently, journalists joined forces with politicians — not for the first time in Israel. Journalists, who had no real news to report, filled the almost three weeks between the teens' disappearance and the discovery of their bodies with endless emotional coverage, promoting the false hope that the teens might be found alive. In doing so, they ensured a far more bitter disappointment when reality finally struck.
Though one of the teenagers had called from the car that picked him up and whispered, "I've been kidnapped," and there had been no call for ransom since the teenagers' disappearance, Defense Minister Moshe Yellon told the public that “our working assumption is that the teens are alive.” These facts were also known to the media — but court gagging orders and military censorship prevented them from telling the public.
Israeli journalists became religious pamphleteers, calling on people to come together in prayer.Israeli journalists became religious pamphleteers, calling on people to come together in prayer. The Israeli Defense Force Radio, for example, interviewed the Chief Rabbi, David Lau, asking him which chapter of psalms people should be reading. On TV, secular presenters covered their heads with yarmulkes and called on viewers to shed their cynicism and join them in prayer. Big red headlines on the front pages referred to “the kids of us all.” Alternative opinions were hard to find and when a columnist for Haaretz dared to voice a different perspective, he was asked by a colleague to censor himself.
The highly emotional terminology didn’t change after the bodies were found. Instead a dangerous dimension of vengeance was added, led by Netanyahu himself. After the bodies were found, the prime minister quoted from “In the City of Slaughter,” a poem by Israel’s national poet, H.N. Bialik, written after a pogrom against Jews in Russia in 1903. “Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden hath yet to be wrought by Satan,” he said, in what became the headlines for the papers the morning after.
Facebook pages soon popped up, like “The people of Israel call for vengeance,” with more than 30,000 supporters, including pictures of soldiers holding weapons and calling for revenge. That specific page has since been taken down. But others still thrive.
Last Wednesday, the burned and mutilated body of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen who had disappeared from Shuafat refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was found. The autopsy determined he had been burnt alive in what turned out to have been a revenge killing, reportedly carried out by young Jewish right-wing extremists.
All this should have come as no surprise. Signs of eroding principles have been evident in Israel for a long time. A few years ago, for example,
Netanyahu’s own son posted this on Facebook: “The Arab sons-of-bitches desecrated our holiest day...Netanyahu’s own son posted this on Facebook: “The Arab sons-of-bitches desecrated our holiest day... it is our duty to do the minimum to save our honour and boycott every Arab business or product. Besides, I boycotted those shits even before.”
His father, in his response, didn’t condemn him. When the prime minister ignores the knocks at his own door, it is easy for everyone else to do the same. Then, when the vendettas and lynching hit the streets, everyone pretends to be surprised.
For a moment it seemed that the horrible lynching of the Palestinian teenager finally raised a much-needed debate about hate speech and racism in Israel.
"When something like this influences soldiers to take their photo with their weapons, or teens stand with texts calling for the death of Arabs, then this is terrible, and they need to pay a price for it," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said in an interview with Israeli military radio. But Livni has become a marginalized figure within Israel and her comments sparked no wider debate in the media. And the momentary hope that a real conversation might arise from the tragedy quickly disappeared.
As rockets were launched from Gaza, and the military responded with a massive bombing campaign, the media once more joined forces with the military and the hawkish politicians to speak as if with one voice. “Taking off the gloves” was the message.
Tags: BOMBING, CENSORSHIP, GAZA, ISRAELI MEDIA, US & World, WORLD