Israel’s effort to stem the barrage of rockets from Gaza has not gone unnoticed by Americans recently. Israel has earned a greater position on front pages of newspapers and online publications than usually occurs. And in some cases, the reporting has been a bit more balanced than usual, it seems … notwithstanding BBC’s admission last week that it had unintentionally circulated a string of fabricated photos of Gaza atrocities.
Still, every once in the while a story or a photo pops up to remind one just how broad the gulf can be between comprehension and balanced reporting in the U.S., especially when it comes of Israel’s difficult status in the Middle East. That reminder arrived on my computer this morning in the form of an article on the Washington Post.
The story by one of the paper’s journalists about the IDF’s use of “roof knocking” could have been taken verbatim from the press conference I attended the day before – except it wasn’t. What is obvious about the carefully written piece is that it lacks much of the substantive material that former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren offered in his phone briefing in regard to the significant measures that Israel goes to in order to reduce casualties in conflicts such as is occurring now.
The story does a great job of painting the drama of the warning sequence that is used to encourage inhabitants to leave the house owned by a Hamas operative, but it carefully omits any mention of words or descriptors that make it clear that the IDF is using, as another source referred to it, “a dummy” to alert the inhabitants that they must leave. The reader is left to think that “small warning rockets” are just that: activated missiles. The reporter also left out Oren’s explanation of the fact that a woman and a child were killed recently precisely because they ran back into the building. Instead, the casualties became the key issue, not the effort to avoid them.
“In theory, ‘roof knocking’ gives civilians … a chance to escape the buildings being targeted. At worst, Israel can say justifiably say that it tried. But it’s also a remarkable display of power,” the article states.
It takes virtually no effort to imagine what the U.S. would do if militants in Mexico’s populous border towns were lobbing rockets into Texas or California cities, or aiming them at nuclear reactors. There likely wouldn’t advance warnings offered in the form of phone calls or roof knocks. Nor would U.S. residents show the patience and restraint that Israeli citizens have had to muster during the past several decades of rocket and terrorist attacks.
Still, stories like this leave a troubling dilemma: How does Israel tell its story properly? And how does it get its story retold correctly? How does it connect with the hearts and the minds of North American journalists and populations at large who have never had rockets launched at them and have never had to debate how to protect the lives of their citizenry while doing everything they can to shelter the lives of innocents being used as fodder by militants?
That question is at the heart of how Israel addresses Hamas’ threats. Winning a war with terrorists never succeeds unless you can win the public relations debate with uninitiated critics, first. And that, it seems, is much harder than trying to save civilians’ lives.