Hearts, minds and war crimes

The UK's appetite for probing alleged Israeli war crimes can be contrasted starkly with the concern for losing "hearts and minds."

US troops Afghanistan 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
US troops Afghanistan 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Late one night last September at a crossing of the Kunduz River in northern Afghanistan, local villagers were siphoning fuel out of two NATO tankers that the Taliban had hijacked the day before. A local NATO commander had ordered an air strike at the scene by two American F-15s. Witnesses later described a “big fire coming from the planes and a big explosion with fire everywhere.” At least 30 civilians were reportedly killed, several children included.
The next day, somber news reports reaching UK audiences bemoaned not the loss of innocent life but the damage done to the popularity of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan. “The issue of civilian casualties caused by international military action is extremely sensitive here,” as Chris Morris, a BBC correspondent, related from local military commanders. “If they win territory and not the people, then they are not doing their job.”
AN APPETITE for investigating war crimes allegations in relation to Israel’s conduct in Gaza during last winter’s war can be contrasted starkly with the concern for losing “hearts and minds” in the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In March 2009, The Guardian, in publishing the findings of a month-long investigation, cited the Geneva Conventions in reference to testimony on civilian deaths in Gaza caused by missiles from IAF drones. However, that same month the newspaper raised no legal questions in its news report mentioning the “rain of armaments from US drones and Pakistani ground forces, which have caused extensive civilian casualties.”
This discrepancy was characteristic of the UK media’s responses to the two conflicts.
So what accounts for this difference? There are three common explanations.
The first has to do with media accessibility. It is easier to unearth stories in a densely packed urban area like Gaza than it is to do so in the expansive rocky hinterlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Operation Cast Lead was covered by news agencies and a host of local stringers already in the Gaza Strip before Israel’s media ban was implemented. Floods of images of wounded or dead Gazans reached UK audiences, inciting international furor and demands to investigate possible war crimes.
Broadcasts from the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, by contrast, have seldom featured images of civilians caught up in the offensives there, even while news reports continue to emerge suggesting a growing number of innocent deaths. A recent study conducted by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, has found that one in three people killed by NATO’s unmanned Predator drones in Pakistan since 2004 was a civilian.
Another explanation for the discrepancy in coverage, tied in with the first, involves the role played by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The research conducted by noted NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have long helped determine which war crimes allegations are taken up or ignored by the media. Some indicators suggest these NGOs are disproportionately focused on Israel. Human Rights Watch’s Web site features three times as many 2009 news releases on Israel and the occupied territories as it does on Afghanistan, and twice as many from 2008.
If HRW is regarded as the go-to resource for “focusing international attention where human rights are violated,” as it claims, then allegations of Israeli violations in Gaza may be better substantiated for the media to report than those against NATO. Furthermore, the preponderance of work an NGO has committed to one field can eclipse the comparatively smaller work it has committed to another. Few in the UK heard about HRW’s call for NATO to publish their findings of how an eight-year-old Afghan girl was burned by white phosphorus munitions last May.
FINALLY, THERE is the possibility that Israel is held to a military standard higher than those of other Western nations, an accusation that was made most forcefully last month by Col. Richard Kemp, a former British Army commander in Afghanistan. On the same day as a NATO air strike in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan left 27 civilians dead, Kemp gave a speech in which he said: “When we go into battle, we do not get the same knee-jerk, almost Pavlovian response from many, many elements of the international media and international groups, humanitarian groups and other international groups such as the United Nations which should know better... of utter automatic condemnation.”
Should British journalists be any less concerned with the legal facets of a war fought by the British than one fought by the Israelis?
There is some indication that this tendency is being corrected in theUK media. Civilian losses since the beginning of NATO’s OperationMoshtarak in Helmand have prompted some outlets – including The Guardian –to explore legality in news reports in the context of this conflict.But recent articles and television broadcasts only underscore theirscarcity in previous news cycles.
We are just over a year past Operation Cast Lead, but more than eightsince the invasion of Afghanistan and in terms of alleged atrocitiesand violations of international law, one needn’t delve very far intothe archives of the British media to see which conflict has been heldto greater scrutiny.
The writer works for Just Journalism,an independent research organization focused on how Israel and MiddleEast issues are reported in the UK media. The organization producesanalysis of print, broadcast and online media and regularly publishesresearch on trends in the media’s coverage.