Media coverage fails to provide the facts

The first casualty of war is truth. I write this as a journalist who, after covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the ground, for two decades, understands that the real battle is not the one between Hamas and Israel. The real battle is the one for public opinion. Facts are spun to suit a channel or readers’ particular point-of-view.

The global loathing for Israel doesn’t reflect the facts on the ground. As a journalist I still like to believe in facts.

Fact: Recent events in the small East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that some claim sparked the latest round of violence, centre on a complicated property rights battle. In 1875, Jews bought land in the area but in 1948 they were expelled. A Palestinian population moved in. Surely this is a matter better left to the courts than world opinion to rule on?

Fact: Much of the current instability stems from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement three weeks ago that he was cancelling elections in the West Bank. No Palestinian under the age of 34 has ever taken part in national elections. Pundits agree that Abbas is worried that his Fatah faction will lose to Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Fact: When Muslim worshippers left the Al-Aqsa mosque compound two weeks ago chanting “bomb Tel Aviv” they were being spurred on by Hamas. 

The Gaza rulers’ recent actions are an attempt to position themselves as the true representatives of Palestinians. What is playing out is an intra-Palestinian conflict.

Fact: Last Monday morning worshippers on the Temple Mount clashed with Israeli police after thousands of Palestinians gathered at the holy site overnight to collect rocks and other weapons. Who provoked who?

Fact: Last Monday evening Hamas fired barrages of rockets towards Israel in a deliberate, offensive act of war. Israel responded with airstrikes.

Mark Twain said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Photos from Gaza tug at the heartstrings which is why we journalists love them. 

I am writing this from a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv where, since 3am, sirens have been screeching, followed by a brief pause and then a loud explosion every time Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system intercepts an incoming missile. Aside from the occasional rocket that gets through, images from Israel can never compare with the devastation and destruction on the Gaza side. If Israel wants to win the media war against Hamas the country has to allow more citizens to get killed.

Now let’s talk about numbers. Unlike a soccer match, in which the scores between each team are tallied up, it’s misleading to compare casualties on the Gaza side with those on the Israeli side. Every life taken is one life too many and I have many colleagues and friends in Gaza who I worry about day and night, but casualty counts ignore the context of what is going on. 

Fact: Hamas has intentionally placed all its military installations in civilian areas and fires rockets from among its population.

Fact: Israeli soldiers have a standing order that allows them to only attack military targets. They have a total prohibition on attacking civilians.

Fact: In warfare, there is no legal requirement for a proportionate response. A country is allowed to respond against military targets. This means that legally, Israel has the right to defend itself for as long as Hamas is firing at it.

Fact: There is also no legal requirement to give advance warning to enemy soldiers or terrorists. Israel invented a prior warning system to minimise collateral damage. That is why, often, before Israel strikes a building in which civilians live, it alerts them. It can, though, be a fine line because prior warning also enables the military target to escape.

There was a time when I was proud of my profession. Journalists were trusted to bring context and understanding to news events. A 10-second clip of a home being bombed in Gaza is horrific, but it’s only part of the story. 

But how do I tell the whole history of the conflict and what brought the warring parties to this point — and add to that current developments — within the confines of a one-minute-30-second television news piece? What’s worse is that with the advent of social media, everybody thinks they’re a journalist, uploading photographs, information and commentary by the second. But where are the facts? Where is the context? 

When Hamas places all its military activities inside civilian buildings it creates an intentional dilemma for the Israeli army. Either Israel doesn’t fire back or, when it does, it’s met with the tragic faces of dead children as collateral damage plastered all over the world’s media. For Hamas it’s a win-win.

And for Israel, as long as it’s not willing to sacrifice its population to give us journalists the photos we crave, it will forever lose the media war.

Stories on both sides are equally tragic. I don’t care whether it’s a Palestinian mother or an Israeli mother, the tears are the same tears when her son is killed. 

But somewhere along the line it became fashionable to blame only Israel for the conflict. 

Why are South Africans not rushing to the streets to set light to the Saudi flag in light of Riyadh’s horrific war on Yemen? 

I reported from Syria during the worst days of the civil war. Where was the condemnation and media coverage denouncing what was happening? Where is it today? 

What about gross human rights abuses in China? 

The list goes on.

But there’s an obsession with Israel. 

How else do we explain so many people’s unwillingness to place the current events in any kind of context? How else do we explain the treatment and judgment of a country that is expected to allow itself to be attacked?

The irony is that this double standard doesn’t serve the Palestinians either. Rather it encourages more conflict that just builds up hatred on both sides for the future.

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Paula Slier
Paula Slier has worked in broadcasting for over 20 years as a foreign correspondent, anchorwoman and news editor and has received numerous awards for her work. Her assignments have taken her across the globe and she can often be seen reporting from the frontlines of Israel, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Egypt and Lebanon. Since 2005, Paula has been the Middle East Bureau Chief for RT (Russia Today). She is also the founder and CEO of Newshound Media International, a global media production company. Before moving to the Middle East she worked with the SABC as a reporter and newsreader.

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