How To Read The News

“Shajah Zorab was asleep in her home when it was hit by a missile,” writes Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent for The Independent, today from Gaza. He continues… “Shajah also did not know that she has been rescued twice while unconscious, the second time from al-Najjar Hospital, when shells started crashing in, or that the ambulance she had been in had been fired on.” Friends, the situation in Gaza is truly a modern-day tragedy, young Shajah Zorab lying wounded in hospital as a result of this conflict is a tragedy; no amount of comprehensive political background or historical context negates that. This child is lying in hospital, and people are dying. She should be in school receiving a decent education, playing with friends in the sunshine, or enjoying time with her family on the beach. Instead, she is another victim of this horrendous escalation of conflict between Hamas and Israel.

In order to further our understanding of this situation, whilst acknowledging suffering on both sides, it’s vital to learn how to read the news. By this, I don’t imply that we should educate ourselves on how to eloquently deliver a bulletin from a TV studio, but actually how to ingest the information our media delivers to us. This is especially true when receiving information from Gaza, a place so unique in the world, that we should treat the information coming from it with a unique approach.

So let’s take this one short piece by Kim Sengupta, chosen completely at random as the only newspaper available to me at this precise moment is The Independent, and decipher the information together. This is not a critique of Kim Sengupta as a journalist, nor is this any kind of personal attack on the integrity of his writing. It is simply using one piece as representative of the problems faced when reading reports from Gaza. So, Shajah Zorab is lying in hospital wounded, how does Mr. Sengupta know that the ambulance she was being transported in was fired upon? Was he with her in the ambulance? If he was present for this dangerous journey, surely as a writer he would have penned a few words about the fear he faced whilst on the road? Surely any journalist reporting from a conflict zone would mention that they were personally under fire? In all probability, our roving reporter wasn’t in the ambulance on the way, so how does he know the ambulance was under fire? He probably didn’t, the most likely scenario being that he was told by the girl’s aunt, Soha, who was with her at the hospital. No substantiation, no verification of these events, just a paragraph stating them as fact. The ambulance was fired upon, the reader naturally assuming that the ambulance was fired upon by Israel. Done.

Friends, let’s be clear, the vast majority of people in Gaza hate Israel and wish to see the Jewish State wiped off the map. Whether the people of Gaza have reasons for this hatred is not relevant to this discussion… simply put, Palestinians in Gaza are not exactly what you’d call ‘pro-Israel’.

The people of Gaza elected Hamas to govern them, an organisation whose Charter, to this very day, includes the line “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Hamas perpetuate the demonization of Israel in the eyes of the world every single day. So when a western journalist asks a question to a citizen of Gaza, any citizen, and reports the answer as fact, it invites that citizen to say absolutely anything they want in the knowledge that the more dramatic the account, the more bullets and missiles fired upon them on the way to the hospital, the more the world will de-legitimize Israel. The people of Gaza are not impartial observers of Middle Eastern conflict; they are caught up in it and have their own very strong motivating factors that affect their answers to any question. What happened? How many died? Were there children in the building? Was the man shooting at Israeli soldiers when they shot him? Did your son ever launch a missile into Israel? Was your ambulance under fire? The list goes on.

Ask yourself this question, and answer yourself honestly: If someone asked you about your very worst enemy, and you knew they would not verify your answer, would you make them out to be wonderful, or would you make them out to be as horrible as possible?

The piece discusses the terrible events of Friday… “The death toll in Rafah has risen to more than 100 in 24 hours since the Israeli military unleashed its fury on the town after announcing that one of it’s soldiers, Second Leitenant Hadar Goldin, had been kidnapped and two others killed in an ambush in which a suicide bomber was used.” It continues, “A 72-hour ceasefire was officially cancelled by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Government, although the cancellation had already been announced by the air strikes and tank rounds.” So let’s get this straight, The Independent reports on the Hamas ambush, shamefully during a humanitarian ceasefire by the way, but then writes that this ceasefire was “officially cancelled” by Israel. Not one word about Hamas breaking it, just a claim that Israel had “cancelled” it. Confused? So am I. This is not a chicken and egg situation whereby there is no clear answer. A more accurate synopsis would be: “Hamas broke the ceasefire, Israel responded.”

Incidentally, even the ambush he mentions was not a ‘horrible ambush’, a ‘murderous ambush’, a ‘deadly ambush’ or a ‘ceasefire-breaking ambush’, it was just… an ambush. A simple ‘nothing to write home about’ ambush. You see, when Israeli actions are described in the press, their action is normally preceded by an adjective to highlight the drama, the danger, or the intent of what happened. In this very piece we see the words “relentless bombardment”, “massive explosion” and “severe injuries”. Writers use adjectives to describe what’s going on, to paint a vivid picture with their words. However when Hamas launch an attack, murder two Israeli soldiers, kidnap another Israeli soldier and break a humanitarian ceasefire designed to bring aid to civilians of Gaza, it’s just “an ambush”. One must understand that for a reporter to publically criticize a much-feared terrorist organization whilst on ‘their patch’ is not the safest thing to do, and sometimes, maybe, foreign correspondents must prioritise self-preservation over journalistic integrity. Gaza is not Israel, where opinions from every position of the political spectrum are voiced, shared, and blogged. Would I criticise Hamas if I was in Gaza? No chance.

Back to the news, in a piece designed to give readers of The Independent an update on a very complicated situation, Kim Sengupta writes “For the people of Rafah, however, there has been no respite. Artillery strikes continued throughout the afternoon, interspersed with a few missiles.” It’s not clear from this exactly which missiles he is referring to. If he is referring to the constant barrage of missiles still being launched by Hamas from densely populated civilian areas, from hospitals and schools, towards Israel in the hope of killing as many people as humanly possible, missiles that have not ceased in years, then surely it warrants more than FIVE WORDS? “Interspersed with a few missiles.” These missiles have forced over half the population of Israel to become intimately familiar with the nearest bomb shelters to their homes, offices, parks and shops. If however, he is referring to missiles being launched by Israel into Gaza, then he neglects to mention one of the most central elements of Operation Protective Edge altogether. Seeing that there were no exaggerative adjectives prior to the word “missiles”, he was probably describing, and downplaying, a Hamas terrorist activity. “An ambush” and “a few missiles,” this really is the absolute minimum a journalist could write without being accused of sheer bias. Really, why bother describing something accurately when you can get so close to just glossing over it? To claim that this approach to journalism is intentionally playing down the terrorist activities at the epicenter of this conflict may be unwarranted, but our reporter certainly isn’t giving much attention to Hamas and their actions.

Something that our writer does afford plenty of column inches in this article is a number of direct quotes from “Hamas security official, Yasser-al-Sabah.” Friends, referring to any representative of Hamas as a “security official” is, in itself, an oxymoron of the highest order. It’s akin to calling Harold Shipman a “medical professional”. For those unaware of this name, he was a trusted British doctor who was discovered to be one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history. Hamas has stated aims of murdering Israelis and Jews worldwide; upon coming to power in Gaza, this heinous group murdered a huge number of Fatah supporters, themselves innocent Palestinian civilians. Is this the Hamas interpretation of the word ‘security’? If so, I wouldn’t necessarily trust every word of one of their “security officials”, I certainly wouldn’t include direct quotes as a method of informing your readership in Britain. Imagine instead that our writer had included direct unverified quotes not from “Hamas security official, Yasser al-Sabah” but from “Internationally recognized Hamas terrorist Yasser al-Sabah”. Would everyday readers of The Independent trust this person to mould their opinion? Possibly not.

To my friends for whom this critical appraisal of the reporting from Gaza is something new, who read the articles and believe they are being presented with as full a story as possible, I ask you to consider this…

This morning, Roi Ben-Yehuda wrote in his Times of Israel blog entitled ‘An Online Occupation’ that “Often, exposure to contradictory information leads to attitude polarization, whereby people become more rigid and extreme in their positions. This tendency to search for, and prefer, information that validates our worldview, and to ignore or undervalue information that contradicts it is called the confirmation bias.” He then sets us a little bit of homework. “Exercise: For 24 hours allow yourself to change your mind on one important issue. Seek out a perspective you disagree with and generously let it in. Invite it into your home as a visitor. Show it hospitality not hostility. Challenge yourself to contain multitudes. If you feel comfortable enough, share it with your online community.”

Friends, we know that Gaza has suffered hugely, we know that innocent civilians have lost their lives. We all want the bloodshed to stop. I would love to see a prosperous Gaza Strip, where children can play safely, where people are free to voice their opinions, and where a Palestinian State can thrive.

We send our prayers to Shajah, currently laying in a hospital bed, she is representative of many more children who have tragically been injured or killed in this conflict. As for Kim Sengupta and The Independent, this article is unfortunately representative of many more articles being published around the world every hour, pieces that far too readily print personal accounts of people who admit to hating Israel, and claim them to be facts. Friends, I am not claiming that every citizen of Gaza is dishonest, nor should every quote from a citizen of Gaza be necessarily perceived as the exact truth. Shockingly there have been so many proven incidents over the years of untruthful claims, dramatically inflated casualty figures, staged videos of Palestinians being shot and false imagery being widely shared online, that even for those of us who inherently yearn to believe that everyone on our planet is implicitly honest, we are forced to reconsider how to read the news.

About the Author
Blake Ezra is a writer on Middle Eastern Politics and the Jewish World, breaking down the complexities of difficult subjects to make them more accessible for any reader. Blake Ezra holds a BA (Hons) in Middle Eastern Politics from Manchester University and is a Graduate of the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem.
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