by Media Lens
On March 24, 1999, an emotional Tony Blair appealed to the House of Commons and to the people of Britain:
“We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe.”
Blair described the emergency:
“Let me give the House an indication of the scale of what is happening: a quarter of a million Kosovars, more than 10 per cent of the population, are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces... Since last summer 2000 people have died.” (Blair: 'We must act - to save thousands of innocent men, women and children,' The Guardian, March 23, 1999)
Not even Blair claimed all the killings had been on one side. George Robertson, the UK Defence Secretary at the time of the crisis, testified before the House of Commons that until mid-January 1999, “the Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA] was responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Serbian authorities had been”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.56)
The Guardian rallied to Blair’s cause:
“The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo... If we do not act at all, or if there is a limited bombing campaign which still fails to change Milosevic's mind, what is likely to be Kosovo's future?” (Leader, ‘The sad need for force, Kosovo must be saved,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999)
The following day, NATO began its 78-day blitz of Serbia.
Ten years later and almost one-half of the 2,000 death toll that so horrified Blair and the Guardian in 1999 has been reached by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in its massacre of 890 Palestinians in just over two weeks. Some 3,800 more have been wounded. The current slaughter is far more one-sided than Kosovo. There have so far been 3 Israeli civilian deaths and 10 soldiers killed: 4 of these were victims of their own ‘friendly fire’.
KLA attacks did nothing to temper media outrage at the spectacle of the Serbian state attacking tiny Kosovo. The focus was on Serbian “massacres” and “genocide”. The Observer wrote of the alleged killing of 45 Albanian civilians in Racak by Serb armed forces on January 16, 1999:
"History will judge that the defining moment for the international community took place on 16 January this year... Albanians returning after an attack by Serb security forces discovered the bodies of men they had left behind to look after the houses." (Peter Beaumont, Justin Brown, John Hooper, Helena Smith and Ed Vulliamy, 'Hi-tech war and primitive slaughter - Slobodan Milosevic is fighting on two fronts,' The Observer, March 28, 1999)
Serb forces, the Observer wrote, were “pursuing their own version of a Balkan Final Solution". (Ibid.)
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In 1999, British and American media were full of talk of “genocide” in Kosovo. A Nexis database search showed that between 1998-1999 the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time used “genocide” 220 times to describe Serb actions in Kosovo. (Email from Edward Herman to Media Lens, August 27, 2002)
We have found no examples of a British journalist describing Israeli actions as “genocidal” over the last month. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips made rare use of the word on January 5:
“Many others also share the view that Israel is in the wrong. So why is a country [Israel] under attack from genocidal fanatics pilloried for defending its citizens against slaughter?” (Phillips, ‘Yes, this war is terrible. But the alternative was worse — for us all,’ Daily Mail, January 5, 2009)
Israel’s massacre is presented as a “war”, as a “Gaza conflict” between two sides engaged in “fighting”. This is the standard fiction, as Tim Llewellyn, the BBC's former Middle East Correspondent, noted five years ago:
“In the news reporting of the domestic BBC TV bulletins, ‘balance’, the BBC's crudely applied device for avoiding trouble, means that Israel's lethal modern army is one force, the Palestinians, with their rifles and home-made bombs, the other ‘force‘: two sides equally strong and culpable in a difficult dispute, it is implied, that could easily be sorted out if extremists on both sides would see reason and the leaders do as instructed by Washington...” (Llewellyn, ‘Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story – Part 1,’ Media Lens, January 15, 2004)
Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, one of two foreign doctors working at Gaza's biggest hospital, al-Shifa, told CBS News:
“I’ve seen one military person among the hundreds that we have seen and treated. So anyone who tries to portray this as sort of a clean war against another army are lying. This is an all-out war against the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza and we can prove that with the numbers.” (CBS News, January 5, 2008)
Even the death toll cited above does little to communicate the true one-sidedness of the wider violence, injustice and cruelty. One hardly knows where to begin. For example, largely unmentioned by the media, prior to the latest invasion, 14 Israelis had been killed by mostly homemade rockets fired from Gaza over the last seven years as against 5,000 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks. (Seumas Milne, ‘Israel's onslaught on Gaza is a crime that cannot succeed,’ The Guardian, December 30, 2008)
Consider the response of Blair and the Guardian to Israel’s mass killing. From Blair there is no longer talk of the need to send bombs and tanks to save a stricken population (Blair led calls for a ground war against Serbia). Instead:
"I think the position is that there are circumstances in which we could get an immediate ceasefire and that's what people want to see. I think the circumstances focus very much around clear action to cut off the supply of arms and money from the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza. I think if there were strong, clear, definitive action on that, that would give us the best context to get an immediate ceasefire and to start to change the situation." (Andrew Sparrow, 'Immediate Gaza ceasefire is possible, says Tony Blair,' The Guardian, January 6, 2009)
No Guardian editorials have proposed a massive military assault on Israel as the only “honorable course for Europe and America”. The question has not been asked: “If we do not act at all... what is likely to be Gaza’s future?” Instead, the country’s “leading liberal newspaper” is sensitive to the perspective of the Israeli killing machine:
“The ghost of Israel's humiliation at the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 hangs over this enterprise and Israel will want to exorcise it... Israel will judge the success of its operation on the extent to which it will have depleted Hamas's command structure, as well as its ability to launch rockets.” (Leader, ‘Gaza ground assault: When victory is a hollow word,’ The Guardian, January 5, 2008)
As we will see, the claim that Israel is working merely to smash “Hamas’s command structure” is a classic liberal herring.
The Guardian’s solution: “There is only one way out of the political trap which Israeli forces are now entering, and that is an immediate ceasefire.” (Ibid.)
To be fair, a second leader did contemplate a slap on the wrist:
“If Israel presses on regardless, it should face an immediate suspension of all arms from the EU, as Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, proposes.” (Leader, ‘Gaza: No shelter,’ The Guardian, January 7, 2008)
As ever, Israeli politicians claim to have been heroically restraining themselves and their capacity for violence (a manifest source of pride) in the face of endless provocation. And yet, as recently as February-March last year 110 Palestinian civilians were killed during 'Operation Winter Heat'. (See our earlier Media Alerts: 'Israel's Illegal Assault On The Gaza "Prison",' March 3, 2008, and 'Israeli Deaths Matter More,' March 11, 2008.).
This military violence is piled on the staggering economic violence of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Prior to the latest offensive, John Ging who runs the Gaza operations of Unrwa, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, told the BBC last month:
“There's one million on food aid, including 750,000 refugees. 80% are below the poverty line, meaning they live on less than $2 a day. Almost 100,000 jobs have gone in the last 18 months, since the total Israeli embargo came in. [Because that included most building materials] $93m of Unrwa construction projects, medical centres, houses for refugees, all are stopped. 3,200 out of 3,500 Gaza businesses have gone down in the siege."
"There's no ray of sunlight. It's all going in the wrong direction. It's all well documented and predictable."
"The Quartet [of the US, UN, Russia and the EU] said a new approach was needed for Gaza. In fact there are even stricter sanctions." (BBC online, 'Bowen diary: The days before war,' January 10, 2009)
During the ceasefire, Israel placed severe restrictions on the number of trucks allowed to bring food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. Israeli historian, Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, wrote in the Guardian:
“It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.” (Shlaim, 'How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe,' The Guardian, January 7, 2009)
“The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash.”
It is the sheer cruelty of Israeli oppression that captures the world’s imagination. Or, more accurately, defies it.
The corporate media has been happy to echo the claim that Israel is “targeting Hamas” rather than the Palestinian people. In reality, the Palestinian people elected Hamas as its democratic government in 2006. And it is the Palestinian people who are paying the price now. The state of the art, US-supplied missiles, bombs and artillery shells are not being aimed at the regular army targets for which they were designed: tanks, command posts, trenches and bunkers. They are being fired into residential areas in one of the world’s most densely-populated strips of land.
The white phosphorus (WP) shells being used are incendiary airburst weapons designed to incinerate a wide target area. The weapon has been used by US forces in their infamous “shake ’n’ bake” attacks on Iraqi insurgents in cities such as Fallujah. On the BBC’s World News, correspondent Ben Brown said WP shells were being used merely to illuminate targets in Gaza. (Brown, BBC World News, January 9)
Israel consistently claims that 80 per cent of those killed were Hamas “militants”. Al Haq, a Palestinian legal rights group, reports that in fact 80 per cent of Palestinian fatalities have been civilians. According to figures cited by the World Health Organisation, at least 40 per cent have been children. (Jonathan Cook, ‘Civilian death toll spurs legal action,’ The National, January 9, 2009)
Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) characterised the death toll as reaching "alarming proportions" and indicative of "extreme violence indiscriminately affecting civilians.".
Claims of careful targeting are hardly credible given that Israeli artillery shells hit three United Nations-run schools being used as refugee centres, killing more than 50 people. The UN had informed the Israeli military that the schools were refugee centres - GPS coordinates were provided. Israeli forces knew what they were attacking and they knew the centres were packed with the same families they had previously told to leave their homes to avoid attack.
Israel explained that Hamas fighters had been firing from within one of the schools. When the claim became indefensible, it was quietly withdrawn in “private” briefings to Westerners - a retraction barely reported anywhere.
The latest claim (Ben Brown, BBC World News, January 11) is that the UN-run school was hit by a stray mortar round. But just prior to the launch of the ground offensive, Israel shelled Palestine Square, Gaza City's main shopping area, killing five Palestinians. They destroyed the American International School. They also destroyed a mosque in Beit Hanoun during evening prayers killing a dozen people. At least thirty civilians were killed in Zeitoun when a house was shelled the day after Israeli forces ordered 100 Palestinians to shelter there (Mel Frykberg, ‘Israel Fighting Also The UN,’ January 10, 2009). Were these all accidents?
Haaretz reported that, in approving the ground invasion, the Israeli government had taken into account the likely high number of Palestinian civilian casualties. On January 9, the paper reported that Lt. Colonel Amir, commander of a combat engineers unit, had told Israeli TV:
“We are very violent. We are not shying away from any method of preventing casualties among our troops.” (Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 'Israel's three alternatives for the future of the Gaza war,' Haaretz, January 9, 2009)
Israeli media have reported that their commanders are unsurprised by the heavy civilian toll - the priority was indeed the protection of IDF soldiers:
“For us, being cautious means being aggressive,” one told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. “From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage on the ground. I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City in which we are operating will describe the shock. Maybe someone there will sober up before it continues." (Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 'Using aggressive tactics in Gaza to save soldiers' lives,' Haaretz, January 7, 2009)
These are comments which define the methods and aims indicated by the term ‘terrorism’.
On January 6, Israeli internal security minister Meir Shitreet responded to the massive civilian casualties on BBC’s Newsnight:
“The French say, ‘La guerre comme la guerre’.” (January 6, 2009)
War is indeed war, but the civilian population of Gaza is not at war - the Geneva Conventions protecting civilian life apply.
Last year, Shitreet suggested that residential Gaza neighbourhoods from which Hassam rockets were fired should be obliterated: “any other country would have already gone in and level [sic] the area, which is exactly what I think the IDF should do – decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it." (Attila Somfalvi, ‘Sheetrit: We should level Gaza neighbourhoods,’ Ynet, February 10, 2008)
"We should let them know 'you have to leave, this area will be taken down tomorrow' and just take it down – that will show them we mean business.”
Using violence to show a civilian population “we mean business” is, again, terrorism. Needless to say, Shitreet was advocating major war crimes.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared that Gazan civilians should not be allowed “to live normal lives“; and internal security minister Avi Dichter has previously demanded that Israel take action “irrespective of the cost to the Palestinians”. (Jonathan Cook, ‘Disappearing Palestine,’ Zed Books, London, 2008, p.132)
Preparing The Propaganda For War
Well in advance of the invasion, Israel developed plans to counter the inevitable images of bloodied children and tiny, dismembered bodies. Avi Pazner, Israel’s former ambassador to Italy and France, drafted in to support the propaganda component of the offensive, commented:
“Whenever Israel is bombing, it is hard to explain our position to the world. But at least this time everything was ready and in place.” (Anshel Pfeffer, ‘Israel claims success in the PR war,’ Jewish Chronicle, December 31, 2008)
Eight months ago, the perfectly named National Information Directorate was formed within the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. This is now coordinating media operations across the various government departments. The Directorate began preparing for a Gaza offensive some six months ago. Yarden Vatikay, director of the National Information Directorate, told reporters:
“One of our lessons from the Lebanon War  was that there were too many uniforms in the coverage, and that doesn’t come over very positively.”
As a result, there are now: “Fewer military officers; more women; tightly controlled messages; and ministers kept on a short leash.” (Ibid.)
A press centre was set up in the Israeli town of Sderot, near the border with Gaza, so that foreign reporters would spend as much time as possible in the main civilian area affected by Hamas rockets.
Israeli ministers have also been ordered not to give unauthorised interviews to avoid a repeat of last year’s PR disaster when Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai threatened the Palestinians with a “holocaust”.
"The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.” ('Israeli minister warns of Palestinian "holocaust",' The Guardian, February 29, 2008)
'Shoah' is the Hebrew word normally used to refer to the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.
A key deception promoted by the National Information Directorate involves the claim that the latest cycle of violence began when Hamas broke a four-month ceasefire agreed last June. In fact, Israel broke the ceasefire when it launched a raid into Gaza on November 4, killing six people. On November 5, the Guardian reported:
“A four-month ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was in jeopardy today after Israeli troops killed six Hamas gunmen in a raid into the territory. Hamas responded by firing a wave of rockets into southern Israel, although no one was injured. The violence represented the most serious break in a ceasefire agreed in mid-June, yet both sides suggested they wanted to return to atmosphere of calm.” (Rory McCarthy, ‘Gaza truce broken as Israeli raid kills six Hamas gunmen,’ The Guardian, November 5, 2008)
The Guardian added:
“Until now it had appeared both Israel and Hamas, which seized full control of Gaza last summer, had an interest in maintaining the ceasefire. For Israel it has meant an end to the daily barrage of rockets landing in southern towns, particularly Sderot.”
On December 27, at the start of the latest attacks, Reuters reported that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had “blamed Hamas for breaking a cease-fire with Israel, which launched air strikes on Gaza killing more than 200 people.” Rice commented:
"The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza.” (Tabassum Zakaria, 'Rice: Hamas broke cease-fire,' News24, December 27, 2009)
Alan Dershowitz wrote in the Telegraph on January 10:
“Hamas deliberately broke the ceasefire by firing rockets into southern Israel from densely populated cities, using the areas around schools and mosques as launching points.” (Dershowitz, ‘Don't play into the hands of Hamas,’ Daily Telegraph, January 10, 2008)
The BBC’s version of events from January 9 was more subtly deceptive:
“The ceasefire, brokered by the Egyptians, was often broken in practice... Events began to come to a climax after the Israelis raided southern Gaza on 4 November 2008 to destroy smuggling tunnels.” (BBC online, January 9, 2009)
No mention was made of the six human lives also destroyed in the attack. The same BBC article, “Q&A: Gaza conflict,” asked:
“What casualties have the Hamas rockets caused?
“Since 2001, when the rockets were first fired, more than 8,600 have hit southern Israel, nearly 6,000 of them since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. The rockets have killed 28 people and injured hundreds more. In the Israeli town of Sderot near Gaza, 90% of residents have had a missile exploding in their street or an adjacent one.” (Ibid.)
The article noted that “Palestinian medical sources say that about 700 people have been killed in Gaza during Israel's current campaign there.” Again, curiously, despite mentioning that Hamas rockets have killed 28 Israelis since 2001, the BBC made no mention of the fact that 5,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli strikes over the same period prior to the current Israeli offensive - a figure fast approaching 6,000.
Part 2 will follow shortly...
The Media Lens book 'Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media' by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London) was published in 2006. For details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here.
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