Gaza op's misguided media ban

Israel failed itself by not producing a more credible account of its own.

journalists media 248.88.ap (photo credit: AP)
journalists media 248.88.ap
(photo credit: AP)
This newspaper has been at the forefront of efforts to extract from official Israeli sources credible information about the nature of the warfare that raged in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Conflicting narratives about central aspects of that Israeli resort to force were a feature of the conflict as it developed, and are naturally coloring the way it is still being judged. The overwhelming level of Israeli public support for the assault on Hamas underlined the consensual conception here that Israel's civilians had been left exposed to rocket fire on the front line for far too long, and that military intervention was long overdue. The Israeli public, furthermore, widely accepted the IDF's general assertions that it was doing its best to both keep the Israeli death toll down and minimize Palestinian non-combatant casualties, even as it tackled a Hamas terrorist government in Gaza that was using its local civilians as human shields. This Hamas achieved by placing its offensive capabilities - its rocket launchers, its weapons factories, its arms bunkers and its command centers - in and close to apartment buildings and schools and mosques and even hospitals. However, the Israeli consensus, it quickly became clear, was mirrored by an international near-consensus that had the story the other way around. In this narrative, Israel responded heavy-handedly to the marginal threat of rudimentary rockets, bringing unconscionable death and destruction raining down upon Gaza. Israel can have many legitimate complaints about the way in which the conflict was reported. Hamas fully controlled Gaza, had displayed indifference to the loss of Palestinian lives when violently taking power there in 2007, was plainly intent on depicting Operation Cast Lead as both a military failure by Israel and an instance of disproportionate aggression, and was patently issuing false reports about IDF soldiers being kidnapped and killed as the fighting raged. Yet much of the world media took Hamas's often duplicitous real-time account of the conflict at face value, for example regarding the number of its fighters killed - just 48, according to the Islamists' risible assertions. The same regarding "turning point" incidents such as the alleged Israeli attack on a UN school with 40-plus fatalities, which turned out to be a case of IDF return fire that landed outside the school compound and caused, according to belatedly released IDF figures, 12 fatalities, including nine combatants. BUT WHILE Israel may complain about the dissemination of false narratives, it badly failed itself by not producing a more credible account of its own. It did not distribute figures for the death toll as the conflict proceeded; only recently did it publicize the dossier it has been compiling that contradicts long-since globally accepted Hamas assertions that the majority of the Gaza dead were civilians. And it insisted on keeping all Israel-based foreign journalists out of the conflict arena, thereby ensuring that the fighting would instead be reported by Palestinian stringers. Whatever concerns Israel may have had about the balances and biases of foreign reporters, it is impossible to imagine that they would be more hostile than their Palestinian counterparts. Israel should have learned from the bitter precedent of Jenin in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield - when a false narrative of Israeli massacres and mass killings was allowed to fester - that a ban on the foreign press has a boomerang effect. To paraphrase a familiar quotation, the worst lies speed rapidly around the world to stand uncontested, and it's far too late by the time truth is allowed to get its boots on. This is not to say that Israel should provide access to the most sensitive theaters of conflict for every Israel-based foreign journalist. Apart from anything else, the risk to journalists' lives would be unthinkable. Rather, Israel must, first, allocate adequate resources to the priority of disseminating its own narrative in real time. And, second, it should grant controlled access, under careful protective escort, for a limited number of credible journalists. Operation Cast Lead saw the world's media protest against a purported ban on coverage, when in fact Gazan stringers were freely reporting from their perspective, and Israel was preventing even the most independent-minded of reporters from establishing an accurate and credible narrative. There was no benefit in that. Indeed, Israel is still suffering the repercussions of the skewed picture that emerged.