Editor's Notes: Moral blindness

Over time, fair-minded int'l policy-makers who understand who here is the victim and who the victimizer get pummeled into submission.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Late last Sunday night, at the height of Israel's military effort to prevent the rocketing of its civilians within Kassam and Grad range of Gaza, I watched a journalist by the name of Al Scardino review the early editions of the next day's British newspapers live in the studio at Sky News, a 24-hour, Rupert Murdoch-owned news network that is widely viewed across Europe, in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Two of the heavyweight British dailies had made the conflict their dominant front-page stories: "Israel defiant as Gaza toll rises," blared the Guardian; "Day of grief and defiance," announced the Independent. Scardino, a regular press reviewer for Sky, was elaborating for this worldwide audience on the stories they told. I know nothing to suggest that Al Scardino feels any particular personal malice for Israel. I know nothing to suggest that he would deliberately mangle the contours of the conflict to deny his vast audience the basic tools to comprehend it. But mangle he did. Al Scardino firmly and confidently informed viewers that the Israeli targets coming under rocket attack were situated beyond Israel's sovereign borders. These were areas that the international community did not consider part of Israel, he said, but that Israel claimed nonetheless. In so staggeringly misdescribing the rocketed areas, he essentially denied Israel part of its legitimacy in hitting back against the attacks. For while he did not dispute that Israeli citizens were being targeted, he depicted them as being located in, at best, contested territory. Al Scardino also confidently asserted that at least 100 Palestinians civilians had been killed in the Israeli fire, and did not give figures for how many, if any, Palestinian gunmen and rocket-firing crew members had been killed. In so doing, he denied Israel still more legitimacy for its response to the rocket attacks, since he created the misconception among his viewers that the primary victims of Israel's response, indeed quite possibly the only victims, were civilians. Israeli or Arab, Jew or Muslim, leftist or rightist, whatever our positions on the central facts and the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its many guises, we've all watched television coverage, heard radio reports and read newspaper articles that we feel subtly misrepresent it or even blatantly skew it. But Al Scardino was not offering a debatable perspective. He was spouting basic factual untruth. The territory being attacked by the Gaza rocket crews is not, of course, disputed by the international community. It is not beyond Israel's borders. Sderot, Ashkelon et al are, rather, sovereign Israeli territory - as you'd have thought even the most casually interested observer would be aware, and certainly a worldly journalistic commentator routinely invited into a TV studio to critique the coverage of his colleagues. Furthermore, even a rudimentary familiarity with the developing story upon which Scardino was supposed to be commentating would have ensured that he knew that the overall death toll was about 100 in total. The Israeli army's official insistence was that the overwhelming majority of those 100 fatalities were Hamas and other gunmen. Palestinian and other sources disputed this, and claimed substantial numbers of civilian fatalities. But nobody credible was claiming that 100 Palestinian civilians had been killed. The very Guardian article Scardino had on the desk in front of him, anything but an Israel puff piece, gave the overall 100 figure in its first paragraph, but in its second already made plain that some of them were "Hamas militants." The Independent article, which used an overall figure of 101 in its lead paragraph, specified lower down that "49 of the dead" were Palestinian civilians according to a Palestinian account. Concerned at the erroneous information being fed by their commentator to the watching world, I phoned Sky News in London, and spoke to people on both their foreign desk and their home desk. I suggested that they ought to correct the errors, perhaps in the second part of their nightly press review, again featuring Al Scardino, a little later on. This did not happen. I'VE WATCHED Sky for years, and intermittently been interviewed on its programs. I don't think Sky does a generally bad job of communicating our reality. I think Al Scardino's performance was an aberration. But it was an aberration that highlights how poorly our complex conflict is understood. And this grievous miscomprehension persists precisely when thorough understanding is so vital a precondition for grappling effectively with the bloody reality, distinguishing victimizers from victims, and enabling world opinion-leaders to formulate and support policies that thwart those victimizers and protect those victims. Israel unilaterally left Gaza in the summer of 2005. It relinquished all claims to the Strip even as it continued to ensure that vital supplies reached the populace. Gaza was free of Jews. The Palestinians had an unprecedented opportunity to start building their nation there - to establish the necessary institutions of government, to rehouse the hundreds of thousands of people in its refugee camps, to attract international investment and start to thrive economically. One happy consequence - for the Palestinians - would have been the bolstered Israeli confidence in their ability to foster a viable, peaceable state. Thus Israel would have been emboldened in considering drastic territorial compromise in Judea and Samaria, too, offsetting profound security concerns, and contemplating the sacrifice of a biblical and historical connection to land that forms the centerpiece of the Jewish narrative, in the cause of Palestinian independence and Israeli-Arab reconciliation. Instead - precisely as the critics of disengagement had warned would happen, and even the advocates had feared - the Palestinians filled the post-Israeli vacuum with a terror state. They exploited Israel's departure to smuggle weaponry into the Strip, even as they wailed to the international community about the "prison" in which they said they still lived - a malevolent reference to Israel's failing efforts to prevent that weapons flow. They continually fired rockets across what should have been a tranquil border into sovereign Israel - yes, sovereign Israel, Mr. Scardino. They diverted some of Israel's continuing power supply to build more of those rockets. They fired their rockets from their own civilian areas - deliberately using their own civilians as human shields against an Israeli response. They sought to legitimize these attacks by declaring that they were seeking the liberation of all their territory before the fighting would stop, when plainly the constructive path to "liberation" would have seen Gaza turned into a model nascent state and, plainly too, the liberation they have in mind is from any Israeli sovereign presence. They celebrated openly when their attacks drew Israeli civilian blood - a maimed child here, a dead father there. And they protested to the international community when Israel's despairing military responses caused the very Palestinian civilian fatalities they had so cynically orchestrated. Two years ago, in parliamentary elections, the Palestinian public's disgust at Fatah corruption helped generate enough support for Hamas as to give the terror group, openly committed to Israel's destruction, a parliamentary majority. Relishing its rise, Hamas confirmed its hold over Gaza last June by militarily overthrowing Fatah there, ruthlessly killing many of its own Palestinian people in the process. None of this happened in secret, far from the cameras, tape-recorders and notebooks of the international media. Yet little of it has been appreciated, and much has been ignored and misrepresented. THE VERY nature of the asymmetrical warfare Israel has been made to fight against the Gaza terrorists - as against Hizbullah at the northern border less than two years ago - is that it requires informed and sophisticated reporting in order for the watching world to understand. It requires historical context. It requires knowledge of the processes that gradually unfolded to produce the rocket fire, the Israeli response, the bloodshed. It is, indeed, terrible, that escalated Kassam and Grad rocket fire on Israel in the last few days has produced large numbers of Palestinian civilian fatalities. But that is the accurate equation: Cross-border Palestinian attacks launched from civilian areas, aimed at Israeli civilians living inside their own sovereign territory, produced an Israeli military effort to thwart those rockets in which Palestinian human shields were killed. Last week was not a case of Israel mercilessly and deliberately killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians. Yet that is how it was widely depicted. That is how it has been widely perceived. And as a direct consequence, more and more people in this region and around the world are more hostile to Israel today than they were a week ago, more disgusted by us, more convinced of our guilt and more, in some cases one fears, determined to act violently against us. More and more people are urging Israel to negotiate with the extremists organizing the rocket-fire - to legitimize Hamas, and thus strengthen its hold on Gaza and embolden it in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the people of Sderot are sinking into hopelessness and Ashkelon has become the new front line. What an extraordinary success for Hamas. What an extraordinary incentive to keep on firing. IT IS not easy to effectively articulate the wider narrative over film and pictures of bloodied Palestinian children, wailing Palestinian parents, ground-churning Israeli tanks and ear-splitting Israeli firepower. But Israel maintains its criminal strategic insistence on barely trying - refusing year after year to invest the necessary resources and effort in competent public diplomacy. There is, of course, no commercial Israeli satellite TV station, broadcasting in English and Arabic. The state's foreign language overseas radio broadcasts are dying for lack of funds. The prime minister sails blithely on with his single English spokesperson. Some Israeli politicians who should know better - that is, speak English better - still insist on giving interviews in which they sound aggressive and incoherent, the more so when compared to their polished Palestinian counterparts. (Ehud Barak was a case in point this week.) Other politicians insist on operating their mouths before their brains have kicked in, their ill-considered utterances easing our delegitimization. (Stand up Matan Vilna'i, with his talk of the Palestinians bringing a "shoah" upon themselves.) Meanwhile, too much of the international media insistently allows its footage to tell its story, rather than placing that footage in context. Too many correspondents employ reportage that amplifies but does not explain. Too little effort is dedicated to getting the pictures that would help tell the fuller story, the root story - the footage from the Hamas training camps where the rocket-crews are "inspired" to hatred, and from the schools where tomorrow's Kassam cells are indoctrinated with the perverse "imperative" for personal jihad, to kill and be killed in the name of God. AND WHAT happens over time is that those fair-minded international policy-makers and opinion-shapers who do understand exactly who here is the victim and who here the victimizer get pummeled into submission by the sheer weight of awful, bloody, unexplained footage. And they become defensive and apologetic and ultimately fall silent. And with time, the more moderate leaders in this region can no longer safely attempt to foster warm or even chilly relations with the Jewish state, because their hostility-filled populace won't allow them to, and they risk destabilizing their own rule. So they too fall silent, or worse. It was dismal to hear Mahmoud Abbas this week accuse Israel of perpetrating "more than a holocaust" in Gaza. Dismal, but unsurprising. Israeli officials reduced their cooperation with Al-Jazeera's Arabic network, hugely watched in the territories, because they said it was failing to tell both sides of the story - failing, that is, to give its viewers any means to understand why Israel would be hitting Gaza at all. It would take a strong Palestinian leader indeed to stand up to all that gruesome one-side-of-the-story footage channeled to his people, to witness all that bloodshed, all those funerals, and speak with moral clarity. What Abbas could have said to the people of Gaza was that "Hamas, which overthrew me in Gaza last summer, which killed some of you in the process, brought this upon you. Hamas deprived you of the opportunity to build a model state. It deprives you of the opportunity for freedom. It peddles intolerance. It peddles violence. It lusts for your death." What Abbas could have said is "Don't be fooled by the Islamists and their distortion of divine will. Whatever the world-to-come may hold, this life, here on Earth, is a gift, a divine gift. No God would have created the wonder that is the human body and the human spirit in the service of murder and bloodshed." But fear and weakness trumped moral clarity and true leadership. So Abbas, too, became complicit, alienated a few more Israelis, and became derided by a few more Palestinians who wonder why, if Israel is so evil, he would meet with its leaders and try to reach accommodations with them. THE GAZA crisis is not over, just as the crisis with Hizbullah, Hamas's Iranian-backed, residential-based, rocket-firing counterpart to the North, now better equipped than ever, is not over. There will be more rounds of conflict, more lulls and cease-fires exploited to rearm, more rounds of asymmetrical warfare. These will feature more adept manipulation by the Islamists, more superficial reporting, more abiding Israeli failure to explain, more international disinclination to strive for moral clarity. And with time, the Islamists will require less and less effort to win over new recruits, for theirs will gradually have become an unchallenged narrative.