The Gaza Crisis

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  • by Anup Shah
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The 3 week offensive claimed some 1,300 Palestinian lives mostly civilian, 400 of which were children. Another 5,000 were injured including some 1,800 children and 800 women. 13 Israelis (3 civilians) were also killed.

The offensive left much of Gaza in ruins. The aftermath also saw a humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands left homeless and hundreds of thousands without water.

The conventional, mainstream, version of events is roughly this:

  • Hamas started firing rockets into Israel after ending a ceasefire with Israel.
  • Israel felt it had no choice but to defend itself. In doing so, it decided to teach Hamas a very harsh lesson and go in hard.
  • But the offensive resulted in many civilian casualties because Hamas was operating in the densely populated Gaza strip.
  • The international community (usually the West), while supporting Israel’s overall objective, was appalled by the civilian casualties and put pressure on Israel to prevent or reduce the civilian toll and humanitarian crisis.

On this page:

  1. How the Gaza conflict started
    1. A crippling economic blockade of Gaza
    2. A weak ceasefire agreement that eventually broke down
    3. Israeli offensive causes a lot a civilian casualties
  2. Media coverage
  3. US: Bush and Obama and US Media Coverage
  4. What now

How the Gaza conflict started

Why did they fire rockets? There was no siege against Gaza. Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza.

Shimon Peres, President of Israel speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish PM storms off in Gaza row, BBC, January 29, 2009

Peres’s question certainly seems reasonable, given the mainstream media rarely provided detailed answers during this offensive. And before the offensive, the coverage of what was happening in Gaza was quite minimal and therefore not in the minds of most citizens looking on as the events unfolded.

A crippling economic blockade of Gaza

Peres claimed, There was no siege against Gaza. Indeed, before the offensive started there wasn’t a military siege. There was, however, an economic version of a siege: a blockade that lasted many months, which, from the Palestinian perspective was strangling them.

A total blockade of the Gaza Strip came about in mid-2007 when Hamas had taken control of Gaza after a battle with Fatah, a few months after Hamas was elected by Palestinians in a democratic vote. Israel and much of the West sees Hamas as a militant/terrorist organization, not a political party. Israel, fearing lack of security from within Gaza, and Egypt fearing militant spill over into Egypt, imposed a blockade (that could be regarded as an act of war in itself).

As early as March 2008, international humanitarian organizations Amnesty International, CARE International UK and Oxfam said the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip was more acute than at any time since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967. They urged Israel to lift the blockade, characterizing it as collective punishment against the 1.5 million residents of the territory. The UN had repeatedly called for a lift of the blockade, too.

The BBC summarized the effects of the blockade:

[The effects of the Israeli blockade] have been severe. Little but humanitarian basics have been allowed into Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007. Before the Israeli operation began, health, water, sewage and power infrastructure were seriously ailing because of a lack of spare parts. The blockade includes limits on fuel, which have on several occasions forced the power plant that supplies Gaza City to shut down.

A total ban on exports has left the already fragile economy devastated. Unemployment has soared. The United Nations Relief and Works agency (UNRWA) provides basic food aid to about 750,000 people in Gaza, but in the weeks preceding the Israeli operation these were suspended because the UN ran out of food because Israel closed the crossings into Gaza citing security reasons.

Goods ranging from food to missiles have, however, been brought in through smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

Q&A: Gaza conflict, BBC, January 18, 2009

A weak ceasefire agreement that eventually broke down

A ceasefire was negotiated in mid-2008 but the terms were never written down. This would predictably cause problems.

The Palestinians believed this would mean commerce in Gaza would be restored back to 2005 levels, when Israel withdrew from Gaza. Israel wanted to ease the blockade based on Palestinians reducing rocket fire into Israel.

Supply lines gradually re-opened as rocket fire by Palestinian militants into Israel had generally reduced during the cease-fire:

The cease-fire agreement from June through mid-December was credited by many for ratcheting down the violence—rocket fire into Israel dropped significantly and claimed no Israeli lives during the truce. (Prior to that, rocket and mortar attacks since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in late 2005 had killed 10 Israelis— After the cease-fire expired, rocket attacks increased, though no Israelis were killed until after the Israeli attacks were launched; four have been killed since then.

The Blame Game in Gaza: Erasing Israeli actions to fault only Hamas, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, January 6, 2009

A New York Times article noted that while Hamas had reduced rocket attacks during the cease-fire, Israel and Hamas both continued attacks, and Hamas did not see Israel fulfill their part of the agreement:

Hamas imposed its will and even imprisoned some of those who were firing rockets. Israeli and United Nations figures show that while more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel in May, 10 to 20 were fired in July.… In August, 10 to 30 were fired, and in September, 5 to 10.

But the goods shipments, while up some 25 to 30 percent and including a mix of more items, never began to approach what Hamas thought it was going to get: a return to the 500 to 600 truckloads delivered daily before the closing, including appliances, construction materials and other goods essential for life beyond mere survival. Instead, the number of trucks increased to around 90 from around 70.

Israeli officials acknowledged that transferring previously banned goods had been the plan, but said that there was no specific date for the increase and that it was to happen in steps. But the rockets never fully stopped.

In addition, Israeli forces continued to attack Hamas and other militants in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire rockets. The Israeli military also found several dozen improvised explosive devices used against its vehicles on the Gaza border and about a dozen cases of sniper fire from Gaza directed at its forces.

While this back-and-forth did not topple the agreement, Israel’s decision in early November to destroy a tunnel Hamas had been digging near the border drove the cycle of violence to a much higher level.

Ethan Bronner, A Gaza Truce Undone by Flaws May Be Revived by Necessity, New York Times, December 18, 2008

Israel claimed Hamas had also been digging tunnels to Egypt to smuggle in weapons, while Hamas claimed it was to get food in. In likelihood it was probably a mixture of both.

Shortly after the Israeli offensive started, some news commentators wondered if there were also additional political motives for Israel launching such a ferocious attack: with Israeli elections coming soon the current party needs to look tough on such issues. Others added that after the humiliation of the Lebanon crisis in 2006, the defeated Israeli military needed to look tough and invincible again. Its hard to accept that politicians could be so calculating as to not care about the lives of others, but realism often involves such ghastly calculations.

Israeli offensive causes a lot a civilian casualties

Israel bombed numerous targets with the stated aim of taking out Hamas.

Given Gaza is a densely populated area, their choice of offensive method (air strikes) was invariably going to result in a lot of civilian casualties.

Amnesty International mission delegates saw the wrecks of several destroyed ambulances at the Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City. Doctors told how panicked patients had to be evacuated from the hospital under fire.Amnesty International)

Numerous schools and UN compounds were also hit as well as other civilian infrastructure, killing many children, women and others. The UN had repeatedly told Israel the location of all its facilities, and was quite angered by these events.

Having only praised Israel as a responsible member of the UN a week earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he was appalled by some of the destruction he then witnessed.

With media banned from entering Gaza, the Israeli was able to repeatedly claim that not only were civilian casualties regrettable, but that Hamas was often to blame for using them as human shields. None of this could be verified, of course.

At one point, Israel had shown a secondary explosion at a school they had bombed, suggesting Hamas was killing its own people to blame Israel. Yet, that secondary explosion was footage from two years ago which Israel itself admitted.

Furthermore, Israel claimed the Associated Press (AP), and New York Times both independently verified that shooting had come from the school. Both news organizations denied this, saying they have been misrepresented; Israel was citing one report where the witness had said the firing was away from the school, not from it, and in the other case the report cited a witness saying Hamas was guiding people to build defenses around the school, not firing from it.

Propaganda was everywhere in this conflict, which is nothing new in war.

Image: white phosphorous use captured by Al Jazeera. (Source: Israeli military confirms the use of white phosphorus bombs in the Gaza Strip, WikiNews, January 23, 2009.) Image © Al Jazeera

Numerous video footage aired by various media outlets also shows what appears to be white phosphorous weapons being used, which is illegal to use in civilian areas. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International claim the use of such lethal weapons may be a war crime.

As such, calls for war crimes investigations for Israel’s actions are increasing due to the types of weapons used and the apparent collective punishment on all civilians of Gaza.

Israel generally denies such accusations strongly and points to Hamas’ firing of rockets into Israel as a war crime. It is indeed true that Hamas’ indiscriminate firing into Israel, specifically targeting civilians amounts to war crimes. But that does not exonerate Israel from war crimes allegations, automatically, either.

While people will debate if there is a case or not, in reality, as history has shown, the US and Israel will be able to ignore or thwart any such investigations.

Independently, Israel and Hamas announced ceasefires in mid-January. But almost soon after, bombings and killings continued, killing mostly civilians.

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Media coverage

The media reporting was beset with problems: from Israel banning journalists from entering into Gaza, to being fed information by Israel, to natural media bias one way or the other, to lobbying by interest groups.

By preventing journalists entering Gaza, Israeli management of media initially was very sophisticated. One of the goals was to hopefully create favorable international coverage. With no ability to verify claims made by Israel, journalists often ended up reporting what they mentioned, often with insufficient context.

However, the Israeli policy eventually backfired as pictures leaked out from within Gaza by resident journalists who were caught up in the conflict themselves, living the very story they were reporting (for example, journalists reporting on the destruction of their own homes, families and loss of loved ones). As the effects of the heavy use of force started to become apparent, the human tragedy story came out and combined with Hamas’s mostly ineffective rocketing, a lot of public sympathy turned towards Palestinian civilians.

News presenter for UK’s Channel 4 News, John Snow narrated a documentary called Dispatches: Unseen Gaza on January 22, 2009. He looked at the Israeli media management in more detail and how it backfired.

John Snow noted that Israeli military and police ensured international journalists were restricted to just a few areas outside Gaza, and that journalists were aware they were pawns in a propaganda attempt by Israel. He also noted how some journalists on the scene knew less than their newsrooms back home.

Israel’s propaganda machine was slick and sophisticated, always providing spokespersons when needed, ready to provide information as necessary. But journalists were unable to verify any Israeli claims or counter it with versions from Hamas or others.

The goal from banning journalists Snow believed, was an attempt to generate sympathy and minimize debate, while trying to get more coverage of the effects of Hamas’ rockets on Israel.

While initially successful, this process backfired because resident journalists were able to get news out to various international journalists with whom they had contact. It wasn’t the lack of imagery and pictures, but the lack of context that resulted; the backfiring also allowed opposite propaganda.

Some imagery nonetheless appeared to be censored due to the horrific nature of the images. For example, a baby Palestinian girl arrived in an ambulance at a hospital. She was completely burned black with limbs blown off. The video was so horrific that it they could not be shown on some TV broadcasts due to long standing rules on decency. For example, in UK, especially before 9pm there are strong rules on how dead bodies, bleeding people, swearing and so on are aired due to concerns of impact on viewers.

So, while not censorship as such, it raised issues of how to show such imagery or how to get across the horrors of this conflict; on the one hand, airing such distressing pictures would also lead to accusations of being a mouthpiece of Hamas, while not airing them would lead to accusations of being a mouthpiece for Israel. In the end, outlets such as the BBC decided not to show any parts of the burned girl in this particular example. In the UK, only Channel 4 showed anything of the girl, an almost fully covered body.

Ethan Bronner, quoted earlier, was cited by Inter Press Service and commented on the challenge of reporting on Israel/Palestine:

Ethan Bronner, in a piece for the New York Times, writes, Every time I write an article about the conflict that does not mirror [the story line of Israel as the victim] — if, for example, I focus on Palestinian suffering or alleged Israeli misdeeds or quote a human rights group like Amnesty International — I have proven myself to be a secret sharer with the views of the enemy.

Every time I fail to allude to [the other side of] that story — when, for example, I examine Israel’s goals in its Gaza war without implicitly condemning it as a massacre, or write about Israel in ways that do not call into question its legitimacy — I have revealed my affiliation and can no longer be trusted as a reporter.

quoted from Marina Litvinsky, Media-US: Gaza Coverage Echoed Govt Support of Israel, Inter Press Service, January 31, 2009

Another aspect of the backfiring was how some governments feared the imagery that did come out would now radicalize some Muslims.

John Snow also noted the immense lobbying from Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian organizations getting their followers to speak out against any questionable news coverage (from the perspective of each, almost any reporting could be seen as having bias). As the BBC also noted, the propaganda war spread onto the Web as supporters of each side attempted to use social web sites as best they could to raise their views and silence others.

In the end, once journalists were able to get into Gaza, they found destruction on a scale far worse than they imagined. John Snow wondered whether the destruction could have been less if journalists had been allowed in there in the first place.

The banning of journalists also resulted in different outlets showing different coverage of the same issue:

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies here at Syracuse University, commented on how different the media coverage of the Gaza conflict was between CNN and Al-Jazeera English. He said that just five minutes of watching convinced him that the media are setting the agenda and creating different wars through their distinct coverage. CNN was much more pro-Israeli and pro-official sources while Al-Jazeera English gave voice to the people on the ground.

Dr Nancy Snow, Q&A: A Lot of the Gaza Story Is Being Left Out, Inter Press Service, January 22, 2009

Another stated aim of Israel was to get Palestinian citizens to turn on Hamas. However, that did not seem to happen. Many Gazans did not blame Hamas as Inter Press Service also reported. Snow’s documentary showed an Israeli spokesperson claim that this was because Hamas controlled everything in Gaza and threatened anyone saying anything out of line, also implying journalists fell for this. Yet, Snow countered that with the credibility of a number of journalists who had gone into Gaza independently without Hamas following and had even recorded some Gazans actually angry at both Hamas and Israel.

Israel usually has vibrant debate between liberals and hawks when conflicts flare up. This time, however, media management had worked domestically with a large majority supporting the military efforts, including more moderate groups. It had got to the extent that there were efforts to suppress dissent on the streets of Israel. In once case, firemen drenched an Israeli woman protester relentlessly during an anti-war vigil in Tel Aviv. Fear-mongering in Israel has also been on the increase, perhaps in line with the up-coming elections.

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US: Bush and Obama and US Media Coverage

Historically, the US has sided with Israel on most occasions. When the UN Security Council votes on a resolution criticizing Israel, the US is the only one standing up for Israel and vetoing the resolution. At the same time, the US has tried to present itself as an even-handed peace broker, but any attempts the US (or anyone else) has tried to put forth has not worked. Furthermore, the US is clearly not regarded by anyone in the international community as an even handed peace broker.

Bush’s stance on the latest conflict was in general support of Israel’s offensive against Gaza.

There has often been an old conspiracy theory that Israel tells US how to go about its Middle East policy. An incident during this crisis helped strengthen that view: Israel Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, claimed he demanded and received an immediate conversation with President Bush, and convinced him to abstain from a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, overruling the wishes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who had helped author the resolution in the first place.

The US of course denied this vehemently, but Ehud Olmert’s office confirmed that he personally intervened to ensure that the US abstained on the UN resolution vote.

It is still unlikely that Israel has general influence over US policy, even if this incident suggests otherwise, and as the presidency switches to Barack Obama, policy is likely to be different. With Obama becoming president, there was a lot of interest in his view of the conflict. Obama refrained from commenting saying that there was only one US President at a time. However, this was slightly convenient as this moral view had not prevented him from commenting on other policies such as how to deal with the global financial crisis. In the end, Obama and his senior staff appeared to generally side with Israel.

These views and stances are generally not surprising and as a recent study also showed, US mainstream media also generally echoed US government support for Israel.

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What now

The United Nations launched a humanitarian appeal for $613 million to help Gaza recover after the offensive.

This money is for the UN and other aid agencies for the next six to nine months and cover critical areas such as food, water, sanitation, health care and shelter, as well as support basic services, such as education. The funds will also help to remove the debris of war, including unexploded ordnance, finance emergency repairs for basic infrastructure, and provide psychological help for civilians.

Curiously, the BBC and Sky in UK refused to air the appeal on the grounds of journalistic impartiality (though they did report about the appeal). There was widespread condemnation of this decision. The BBC for example, has not been afraid of being partial in its reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, and has not been afraid of airing other controversial subjects in the past. This appeal, being a humanitarian appeal, is far less partial than many of those other subjects.

Rebuilding Gaza will cost billions, the UN has warned. In addition, it could take three to five years to rebuild even under normal conditions (given the current blockade that lets very few things through).

Gaza now also faces a severe food crisis as large amounts of agricultural farmland was destroyed during the Israeli offensive. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization had been providing food aid in the past for some 750,000 people, but this was to supplement what local agriculture had produced. With much destroyed, the crisis has now become a lot more severe.

Humanitarian aid and rebuilding of infrastructure, albeit extremely important, will not be lasting without a political solution.

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