Media and Gaza, a fight against the truth

To be a journalist covering the events in the Middle East is a hugely controversial identity knot. Sometimes, as T. S. Eliot wrote, you are subjected to an “overwhelming question”: are you a journalist worthy of this name if you cover that news without putting yourself at the service of the “Palestinian cause”? The answer of the journalists’ guild, and of a large part of the readers, is “no”.

They would want to nail your credibility, and your professional honor, to a codified trivialization that for decades has been creating circles and inferences, while bonding and strengthening the pack. Otherwise, the pack itself will brand you as a half journalist.

Even if you know that the Israeli-Arab issue is covered in lies, that Israel is an island placed on the 0.2 per cent of a territory plagued by incomparably ferocious conflicts, that the large part of the Palestinian conflict is at the same time nationalist, religious, fanatic and also terrorist, that the majority of the Palestinians does not aspire to the “two states for two people” solution, and that the facts have extensively demonstrated it.

There is something else that counts for journalists. Namely, a cultural and political convention that has to do with fundamental clan’s choices about to be and not to be, and also with the spirit of our time, which is globalist, against war, against the nation, and against religion. Personally, I have been living this situation for decades.

Do not get me wrong, but I received a great deal of gratification from it, both on a moral level and by the public. Although I never accepted the lectio vulgaris about the conflict, I have received many awards, my books went pretty well, I have a public following me, I have my own weekly program on Radio Radicale, “my” newspaper Il Giornale keeps listening to me and publishing my articles, and I have conducted two TV shows and countless debates.

Moreover, thanks only to my role of expert on international politics, I had the honor of serving for five years as the Vice-President of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Italian Parliament.

Could things have worked better? Yes, they could have. I constantly have a subtle thread of disapproval following me, and I am chased by discredit even when it is unable to reach me, so they say I am a Mossad agent, a fanatical Jew, or a settler; I am anything, except a journalist who will say what everyone already knows she will say; actually, she already said it. In the various newspapers where I have worked, there has always been someone at war against me who, at times, managed to get rid of me. I had the good fortune to personally hear (or to be informed of it) people saying that my sources are not good, that my readings are vitiated, that, in other words, my work is not the one of a true journalist.

The justification, for those who accept freedom of expression (because there are many others that just offend, threaten me, and call me every name under the sun), is generally about the monotony of my point of view. That is to say: I root for Israel, I report news and issues about it in a particularly favorable way. I can understand that my natural inclination to find the reasons of a small country under siege of so strong a hatred may appear somewhat unbalanced to some people, but, on the other hand, it is odd that they do not try to delegitimize in the same way all the other journalists who, for sure, are not more well-informed than me, having spent all my life in the field, perusing documents or speaking with direct sources.

Those journalists have a totally opposite attitude: an utmost boring, repetitive, obsessive compulsion to repeat when it comes to the reasons of the poor Palestinians, even when they are terrorists, even when they reject any peace agreement, even when the clear evidence of their bad faith comes to light in every peace process, and even when you hear stories of such a brutality that is only comparable to those you hear about ISIS.

Because another interesting element of this de-legitimization is that it happens even when the facts are patent: during the Intifada, I exposed a series of documents proving how Arafat had directly funded suicide terrorism, in particular Marwan Barghouti’s Tanzim. The newspaper I was working for at that time, La Stampa, showed a liberal spirit and let me write my article. However, I cannot say that it produced a general awareness about terrorists being managed and coordinated by the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary, people kept considering them to be loose cannons.

Even nowadays, the lectio brevis about Abu Mazen still identifies him as a moderate who is full of promises for an actual peace process. It is impossible not to notice his hate-filled mass media’s journalistic irrelevance, which is shared by his blatant public support for terrorists through a number of public initiatives such as welcoming home the released terrorists as they were national heroes, naming squares after them, providing summer courses, throwing parties, offering special financial support to those still in prison, and so on.

Lots of journalists land in Israel and are being cuddled, made members of exclusive clubs, fed in the best restaurants with huge discounts. The more those journalists are adverse, the more attention is being lavished on them. The only correspondents invited by the army to visit the famous tunnels during the war were, with just a few exceptions, those from the New York Times, a particularly adverse newspaper. Nevertheless, this did not save Israel from a concentric media attack during the war in Gaza.

It must be said that people, no matter what they read, are ultimately more clever than thousands of written pages: when I came back to Italy after the war, instead of finding myself under attack as I was expecting, I have often been asked: “How do you manage to live down there, surrounded by all those terrorists?”.

This question was asked by regular folks, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, neighbors. The “shower” of truth about the Islamic religious terrorism of our times that hit the public through the beheadings performed by ISIS, shed its light on Hamas, while matching with the pictures of those alleged “collaborationists” (as it seems, they were not so) being executed while kneeling in the middle of the road with hoods on their heads.

Nonetheless, this reality (and definitely not the suffering of the whole southern-Israeli population hit by daily bombings) managed to revive some good sense in the ocean of the anti-Israeli extremism that has been thriving throughout Europe.

It is important to understand that almost nothing came out of Gaza during the war, except for the photos depicting dead or wounded Palestinians. You did not have anything to write about, because everything was forbidden. And if you did not tell about the miserable fate of the Palestinians, they would kick you out, or you could even see your own life threatened.

Very few journalists, and generally only after they had left the Strip, dared to reveal the factual truth. Namely, that Hamas set up and led an outright asymmetric war, aiming at the civilian population, and using its own civilians as human shields, using their homes, their schools and their hospitals to stock weapons and as meeting points for its armed men. Hamas sent those men among the civilians, and shot from the windows of civilian buildings.

Most likely, we will never know the truth about how many people died or were wounded on both sides. With the exceptions of the exploits by some journalists (one Italian, one Indian, one Finnish and one French), who by the way could talk only after they were out of it, just four stories came out of the tens of thousands we should have been told, and which we will never know.

Intimidation has always been a fundamental element in the media coverage of the Palestinian issue. Just think about the infamous case of Riccardo Cristiano, the Italian journalist correspondent for RAI who, in 2000, when Mediaset broadcasted the footage of the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah wrote a letter to a leading Palestinian newspaper stating he was not involved in the filming of that heinous act. He did so for fear of retaliation.

Or I may just have to think about myself, and how I had to spend thirteen years of my life under security escort. But there is not only the immediate fear, which I think has also its effect, there is the disrepute and disdain of the journalists’ guild as well, and, as a consequence, of the public opinion.

More than others, the journalists are overwhelmed by something more than conformism, by an unwritten law that is called sense of identity, which defines what a journalist must be and what he must do. In this story, the “main issue” of a journalist’s job is in fact to describe the sufferings of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians are a matter of interest for no other perspective. Who does actually know more than that about them? Who does ever write about the condition of women, about their prisons, about the corruption, about the aspirations of some business companies there? What we know about their politics, which is the same one of a totalitarian state, is only that Abu Mazen is mad at Netanyahu, and perhaps a little more than that.

During the Second Intifada, and before the operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which put the Palestinians back on the defensive, the most tragically evident suffering was that of the Israelis. But, still, I had my work cut out for me when I had to describe, day by day, what it really means to see buses, cafes, supermarkets, everything, being blown up by suicide terrorists.

Dead or wounded people were everywhere, but the atrocious suffering of the Israeli people never made it to become a crucial communicational issue, while the leitmotiv of the Palestinian misery stayed that way anyhow.

So much so that I remember the description – mine as well – of the house of Yahya Ayyash after he was killed, the pathetic image of his wife and son (pictured while holding his dad’s rifle), the elimination of Sheikh Yassin, who was described as a poor paralytic, and those girls all dressed in white waving goodbye to their mother and father before going to commit justified mass murders escorted by their brother. They were poor and pure girls. For a long time, the social suffering of the Palestinians has wrongly been the background for purely ideological and religious killings.

Journalists are an active part in the conflict, not a neutral one: they do take part in the war because they are inflicting a very acute moral suffering on Israel, which adds to the continuous aggression by the words of fire that Arab countries (Turkey and Iran included) dedicate to Israel.

In fact, that strenuous research of the Palestinians’ reasons, even when there are none, ends up creating a Third-World social background which is totally at odds with the facts. Of course, for example, a rational mind, but not a foreign journalist, finds hard to understand why Hamas is bombing Israeli civilians if not in an Islamist logic. Then, once in a while, a newspaper publishes some pictures of Gaza’s markets, which are full of goods, and of people buying them.

But what is the point of such an article? Stories of that kind remains just an oddity, like the humanitarian convoys entering Gaza every day, or like Palestinian people being cured in Israeli hospitals. What really counts for the news is the cruel soldier who had beaten a child, or any witness that may corroborate the thesis about Israeli people being racists, predators, persecutors. The endless availability of subjects who are willing to act this way is directly proportional to your good reputation as a journalist.

That is to say, if you find a reserve soldier (and this is a current news story) who uncovers the useless intrusions in the daily life of the Palestinians to find weak spots to be used in order to secure some collaboration, your newspaper will appreciate and everyone will cite your article.

If you interview a group of Christians stating the undeniable truth (another current news story) that Israel is defending Christians from the Islamist aggression, or if you tell how Israel is curing the Syrian rebels who escape in its borders… well, anything like that is just an oddity, not a consistent truth.

Sometimes lies actually reach their acme, as when, for example, many journalists passed off the idea that Gaza had just responded with its rockets to the search for the assassins of three students who were abducted and killed.

An outright insanity, because that search was conducted in the West Bank and, moreover, it had not the traits of an aggression to the civilian population. It was a very accurate, tragic and resolute research, then Hamas attacked with its rockets. Furthermore, it was Hamas that had perpetrated the kidnapping, and it did it after having signed for a coalition government with Abu Mazen!

The coalition government, indeed: who, among the journalists, did remember that Abu Mazen had just stipulated a pact with Hamas before that terrorist war? Who did pose questions on this issue to the “moderate”, the extremely moderate, Abbas? The fact is that this whole story has been told the wrong way around. None closely observed how the war was unfolding.

A war in which most of the Palestinians who had died were victims of Hamas, of an aggression with no reasons (Gaza has long been cleared out), victims of the shameless siege not of Gaza, but of the innocent Jewish families living in the border kibbutzim.

Except for some references in the news, we could not read the story about the loss of those sixty-four young man who sacrificed their own lives, drop by drop, with no fear, no rhetoric, no hate, no warmongering feelings, walking at night, one by one, amid Hamas’ terrorists in order to save their people’s life.

It is odd how the media can misinform and how, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, everything that was not functional to the conformist picture that had to be honored has been ignored.

Over the course of years, you just had to look around, to ask Arafat if it was him who was promoting terrorism (actually, he was proud of it), to read his speeches, interview his men, go visit the families of the terrorists who had just died in the explosions.

You could just go to Jenin, in 2002, to see that it was not a carnage of innocent Palestinians, but a battle with victims on both sides; you could carefully follow the story of the incident of Mohammed Al Durrah, in 2000, and understand that the boy was perhaps (but it is still not sure) killed because he was caught in a crossfire, but none knew whose bullet was the one that actually killed him.

The same old situation that had caused so much disinformation has been replicated in Gaza now. First and foremost, the journalists were allowed to see only what Hamas wanted them to see, they only could take pictures of the victims, not of the terrorists. There were not warriors in Gaza, only children. But, above all, the journalists wanted to keep on taking part in what we may call the “picnic of the hidden truth”, and have dinner at the American Colony in Jerusalem.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in (October, 2014)


About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.