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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While world media coverage of the fighting in Gaza is generally deemed by Israeli officials to be fair, the Foreign Ministry expressed anger on Wednesday at the media's focus on foreign journalists' demands to be allowed into the Strip to witness the fighting firsthand.
"News reports from Gaza haven't stopped flowing for a minute, both in print and in visuals, so the claim that we're trying to hide something is contradicted by the evidence on every television screen," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Foreign journalists have been blocked from entering Gaza since November. The Foreign Press Association filed a complaint last week to the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the government had to allow journalists to enter if conditions permitted. Foreign journalists understood the ruling as a court order to allow them into Gaza, while the IDF has argued that the escalation of fighting in the form of a ground offensive has created a new, more dangerous situation near the border crossings that gives the army the discretion not to open them.
"Why isn't the international media trying its luck with Egypt?" Palmor wondered. Egypt shares a border with Gaza on the Strip's southern side. "Instead they report on the Israeli cordon and not the Egyptian one. Both countries have the same interest in the same policy - Hamas is equally dangerous to Israel, to Egypt and to the Palestinian Authority."
(The IDF Spokesman's Unit released a statement on Wednesday saying that the army had permitted the entry of a limited embed press pool into the Gaza Strip and would be distributing footage from this pool.)
Foreign correspondents have taken issue with Israel's reasons for closing the Strip to them, saying the IDF was being untruthful when it claimed conditions were too dangerous to open the crossings.
"If conditions permitted opening [the crossings] for five hours last Friday to let out 300 foreign nationals, what was the problem with stamping our passports and letting us in?" asked New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner.
The reality, say many journalists, is that Israel does not trust foreign journalists to report objectively. Several journalists who spoke to The Jerusalem Post mentioned last week's statement by Government Press Office director Danny Seaman that foreign correspondents would use their time in Gaza to report Hamas propaganda unchallenged, conferring on it the respectability of a foreign news report.
According to the correspondents, Israel's behavior is self-defeating, because their reporting could balance the images now coming out of Gaza by reporting more information than Hamas is releasing.
"My last visit in Gaza was on November 2 and 3. I'm not saying the place is a Jeffersonian democracy, but it's not true that foreign journalists are not free to function, that they are somehow slaves of Hamas ideology. It's simply false," said Bronner.
Yet, regardless of the justice of the IDF's blockade on foreign media entry, it was not appropriate for the media to turn the issue into such a major part of its coverage of the crisis, said analyst and former Middle East correspondent for the British Sunday Telegraph Tom Gross.
Major international outlets such as the BBC, CNN and Sky News have started most reports on Gaza in recent days by stating that Israel has not given their correspondents access to Gaza, he noted.
According to Gross, "the media are protesting too much. One British TV correspondent even compared Israel to the Burmese junta. They might ask themselves why they are not complaining, for example, about the difficulties of reporting from Afghanistan, where there are tens of thousands of American, British, French and other troops, and a very high civilian death toll."
There is more coverage just of Israel's cordon than of entire international crises elsewhere, Gross added.
"Viewers might wonder why the media are so obsessed with everything and anything to do with Israel but don't seem interested in covering other conflicts, like the assault by the Sri Lankan military on the Tamil minority in recent days, or the massacre of 500 villagers, including aid workers, some of whom were set on fire in Congo last week," he said.
Journalists should expect "some limits imposed in wartime. This isn't a reality TV show or an episode of Big Brother. In any case, this hasn't stopped international networks showing near round-the-clock reports and footage by their local Palestinian correspondents in Gaza," said Gross.
The closure has led to real anger on the part of the foreign media.
"If Israel is the leading democracy in the region and has a system of justice to which its military and political authorities are responsible, why on earth aren't they allowing journalists to do their job?" asked Aidan White, secretary-general of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. "It's clear the political and military leadership is seeking to control the media message coming out of the conflict."
According to White, "there's strong criticism in Israel of the Arab reports coming out of Gaza, which are dismissed as propagandistic. But you only get out of that trap by ensuring as much information coming out as possible. More information will always be closer to the truth than less."
Not so, said Prof. Richard Landes, who researches media narratives. Already, he charged, the Western media are showing they are "complying with the image [coming out of Gaza], which is governed by Hamas."
As examples, Landes cited the reports of a humanitarian crisis in Gazan hospitals.
"The Egyptian border right now is packed with doctors and tons of medical supplies that Hamas is refusing to let in. This is mentioned briefly, but then the report switches to a Hamas representative saying they don't have medical supplies," he said.
According to Landes, "the framing story is that the Israeli Goliath is pummeling the poor Palestinian David. Anything that doesn't fit this story, like the medical supplies on the Egyptian border or the shooting of Fatah [activists] by Hamas [gunmen], isn't getting out. It's inexcusable for the media to repeat Palestinian claims as fact."
Nor does Israel feel the need to respond to the complaints of the foreign media. The Post has learned that Israeli officials continue to be satisfied with the current coverage of the conflict.
"It is obvious that the army is still operating according to its original plan, the international community is still giving us the space to conduct the campaign, and our hasbara efforts are doing very well," said former ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, who has been given an official spokesman role for the Gaza offensive.
Meanwhile, non-official observers of the coverage argue the international media has not done enough to stay objective in the conflict.
For example, the Israeli watchdog group NGO Monitor has noted that one of the foreign media's favorite Gaza-based interviewees, Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert, is a man with an extremist political past.
Gilbert has been quoted widely, including in a Times of London article where he told friends by SMS, "We are wading in death, blood and amputees. Many children. A pregnant woman. I have never experienced anything so terrible."
Gilbert also used a BBC interview from Gaza's Shifa Hospital to cite casualty statistics that he said proved the IDF was deliberately targeting civilians.
According to NGO Monitor, however, Gilbert's past is indicative of "ideological extremism," such as when he expressed support for the September 11 attacks on the United States in a 2001 interview in Norway's Dagbladet newspaper.
In the interview, he argued that "the oppressed also have a moral right to attack the USA with any weapon they can come up with," adding specifically that he supported the terror attack "within the context which I have mentioned."
Gilbert was also a candidate for local government in 2007 for the Norwegian Red Party, an outgrowth of the radical Norwegian Workers' Communist Party.
An Israeli government official also told the Post that "there is no way [Gilbert] could have personal access to the kind of statistics he cited. He got them from the Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas. That raises the question: To what extent is he a willing or unwilling mouthpiece for Hamas?"
The official protested that media outlets were routinely "using European aid workers as ostensibly objective witnesses. It smells like a setup when they talk about all the casualties being civilian."
Another example is the France 2 television broadcast of a false report showing dead toddlers allegedly killed in the Gaza fighting. The amateur video of the dead toddlers being laid out on a white sheet was actually shot after an accidental explosion of a Hamas ammunition truck on parade in Gaza in September 2005.
France 2, which apologized Monday for the erroneous report, was also the network that broadcast, unchecked, a September 2000 report of the IDF shooting death of 12-year-old Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Dura. That report, too, which relied entirely on Palestinian sources, has been questioned, with a French court ruling the concern over its veracity was legitimate.
Etienne Leenhardt, the joint director responsible for investigative reports at France 2, apologized to the Le Post news blogger site, which caught the false report, for "an error on our part."
"The person who prepared the topic went too fast," he said. "It reminds us that we must be very attentive on verifying sources."
JTA contributed to this report.