Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Part 2: Crossing Erez - Another Gazan smear of Israel from ABC’s McNeill

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Preface

The research that went into this analysis was extensive. Due to the unusual length of the material, this blog is split into two parts published separately.

The first part - which can be found here - includes an introduction, the apparent impetus for McNeill's story, McNeill's omissions, and failings in her probable source material, and a contextual reminder of the security threat risk Israel has faced from Gazan patients and/or their companions and, finally, an exploration into the reasons why Israel might have refused an interview with McNeill on the matter.

The second part - the blog you are currently reading - is a comprehensive deconstruction of McNeill's story itself and a concluding section to sum up and tie together the two parts of the blog.

Deconstructing Sophie McNeill's Lateline story from September 21: "The unintended victims of the decade-long blockade on Gaza"

Website introduction:

Israel and Egypt's 10 year-long blockade on Gaza is taking a toll on the most vulnerable victims, children with cancer, as often they have to travel without their parents who are left stuck at Israeli checkpoints.

Analysis: The story has nothing to do with Israel's "blockade" on Gaza which excludes the import of very specific goods that can be used for military purposes. Regarding the movement of people, Israel has a border with Gaza - a territory ruled by Hamas, a terror organisation which is at a state of war with Israel and committed to its destruction. Israel, like every country, has a right to regulate its border with Gaza and decide who is entitled to enter its territory from that border.
Likewise, Egypt has a border with Gaza. Egypt, like every country, has a right to regulate its border with Gaza and decide who is entitled to enter its territory from that border.
Erez is a border crossing and regulated by Israeli border control. It is not a checkpoint.

The script continues:

Sophie McNeill: Almost 10 years after Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza, medical facilities in the Hamas militant-ruled strip have significantly deteriorated.

Analysis: The sentence suggests that the "blockade" prevents the hospitals in Gaza from being properly maintained and kept up to date. If this is true, this is not because of the blockade - which does not affect medical supplies or hospital maintenance material at all - but because of funding priorities of the Hamas government in Gaza, which has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into arms and tunnels against Israel.

McNeill continues:

Now, an increasing number of Palestinian patients are forced to travel to Israel or to the Palestinian West Bank to receive their treatment. But to exit Gaza, you need permission from the Israeli authorities.

Analysis: First of all, McNeill just established that Egypt also regulates its own border with Gaza. So why does McNeill refer only to the West Bank or Israel as options for medical treatment outside of Gaza? Cairo is also an option, and many Palestinians do avail themselves of treatment in Cairo when Egypt opens their border to them. But McNeill's narrative erases the Cairo option and says that you need permission from the Israeli authorities to exit Gaza. This is simply untrue - Palestinians can and do come and go from Gaza via Egypt without requiring any permission from Israel. As stated above, Israel treats its border with Gaza as a border and not an internal checkpoint and Israel simply exercises control over who can cross through its territory.

Furthermore, it's not clear how many people choose to get treated in West Bank or Israeli hospitals not because they can't get treated in Gaza but because they believe the hospitals in Israel or the West Bank are better, and they're not wrong. Israel, at least, invests substantial funds into their medical care system. But the patient in this case went to a Palestinian hospital in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. If the Gaza blockade doesn't affect medical supplies, what is the difference between a Palestinian hospital in Gaza and a Palestinian hospital in the West Bank? The answer comes down to who funds the hospital - the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. And clearly, Hamas isn't allocating a high priority to improving the quality of health care in Gaza.

McNeill's story continues:

Sarah's mother: I've been trying for 42 days to get a permit and my daughter hospitalised. At this time nothing, no permit. She used to call us from the hospital asking "mummy, mummy, why did you leave me?"
They girl was crying all the time "mummy, mummy". Day and night asking for mummy. I've called Dr Mohammad from Biet Jala Hospital to ask him to send another request so I can go see her.
He told me it's in the hands of Israeli intelligence. I can't help.

This is a sleight of hand on McNeill's part. She just shifted the story from the issue of health care of Gazans to the issue of which companions Israel allows to accompany the patients to the hospital. At best, this is poor editing.

The Palestinian mother's claim of a delayed permit sounds confusing. She says she has been trying "for 42 days to get a permit and my daughter hospitalised", which makes it sound like Israel was preventing the child from getting hospitalised. But later in the mother's remarks we see the child is in the hospital. It seems likely that the only delay is in the mother getting her own permit to accompany her daughter. This may be simply an issue of poor English but it is the responsibility of the ABC to make sure what is reported is correct even if it is due to an error in the mother's English.

What is delaying the mother's permit? We don't know, because, McNeill either didn't ask - or, if she did ask - McNeill or ABC didn't believe the Israeli response to the inquiry was worth letting the viewers know about.

This is a dramatic flourish that is typical of McNeill's production style - give a emotionally distraught Palestinian the chance to make an emotive claim against Israel, and simply move the narrative forward without giving Israel a chance to respond.

The script continues:

Sophie McNeill: In 2012, 83 per cent of permit applications for patients' companions were approved. In July 2016, only 57.5 per cent were approved.

This is an extremely misleading statistical ploy by McNeill, and here's why: First of all, as mentioned in Part 1 of this blog regarding the OCHA report, this statistic appears to conflate companion requests for children and all patient companion requests for patients of all ages. If this is the case, it is understandable why Israel might refuse a companion request for some adults who are perfectly capable of going for treatment on their own.

But it's also misleading even if this statistic referred only to companion requests for children. If one parent's permit was refused - let's assume on security grounds - but that refusal was then followed by the other parent's request that was accepted, you would be left with a 50% approval statistic - but in either case the patient was permitted to be accompanied by a parent in the end.

The most relevant statistic, then, is the one that McNeill does not share with us - what percentage of children are accompanied by their parents or other close relatives for their hospital stay? It's obviously higher than 57.5 percent, but how much higher we don't know and McNeill doesn't say.

The next part of McNeill's story features Israel as the straw man.

Sophie McNeill: Emtissa has just arrived from Gaza with her grandson who is suspected of having a cancerous tumour.
Elias is only 13 weeks old and is normally still breast-fed but his mum isn't here because his mum is under 45, she needed a security clearance to get out of Gaza.
And that's something she just couldn't organise in the short timeframe before he needed to be urgently transferred.
Emtissa: We called the coordination office because it was a very urgent referral. They got back to us by the evening and told us yes, my request was approved and this was because of my age, I'm older.
If it was for his mother or aunty it would have been impossible.
How do you think a mum feels?
She was staying up all night to breastfeed him.
She hasn't called me since yesterday. She just sleeping, she's so depressed.

Analysis: Ok - first of all, the good news. Israel's Coordination office (COGAT) responded to an urgent call to transfer a baby to a hospital in Israel. In a situation like Gaza which is at war with Israel, this is really something to be lauded, not criticised.

What we learn is that Israel has a blanket policy that anyone under 45 entering from Gaza needs a special security clearance to cross into Israel. Israel has explained this policy in the past - that terror attacks tend to be perpetrated by younger people.
McNeill herself admits that Israel can and does often make a special dispensation for people under 45 to accompany patients to Israeli and West Bank hospitals, but in an urgent transfer situation, there isn't time to get that clearance and the most expedient work-around is to send a grandparent, or other older relative, if one is available.

The Palestinian grandmother McNeill interviews claims that it would have been "impossible" for the mother to accompany her child.
Yet hers is a straw man argument.
One of two things happened here. Either McNeill didn't ask COGAT whether they had been asked for special permission for the mother to accompany her baby or the COGAT response wasn't included in the story. Either way, all we get is the Palestinian grandmother's claim that it would have been "impossible".
The only thing that is apparently impossible is to get a waiver without asking. Border policies can be bypassed with permission of the relevant authorities. That is true everywhere in the world and there is nothing unique about this.

McNeill continued:

Three-year-old leukaemia patient, Ritag, has arrived for her next chemotherapy session. Both her parents are under 45 and they did not receive permission to travel out of Gaza so an elderly neighbour of the family has come with her instead.

Analysis: Why wasn't the security clearance issued to either of the parents in this particular case? We don't know and McNeill apparently didn't ask. Also - in this case, the parent sent a neighbour. This was the family's decision. They could have sent a closer relative aged over 45 if one was available but they chose to send a neighbour. But what is implied here, unless you listen very carefully, is that it was Israel who wouldn't allow a closer family member to go. There is no evidence to suggest this.

The script continues:

Friend of Ritag's family: She's asking for her mum a lot. On the first day when I brought her here, she gave me a very hard time. she was asking for her mum all the time and she was crying.
Her eyes were full of tears. She refused to eat or drink because her mum wasn't there.
It's hard to describe how her mother felt. At the border crossing, she held the baby's hand so tight, she wouldn't let go.
The mother was crying and the baby was crying too.
A daughter being separated from her mum, to be away from mummy's lap, what kind of feeling is this?

Analysis: This is a gratuitous play to the emotions. While one cannot help but feel for the family, the viewer is entitled to hear Israel's side of the story explaining why both of the parents were refused entry. But McNeill deprives us of that chance.

McNeill continues with short commentary from two sources: A doctor from a Palestinian hospital and a representative of a left-wing NGO:

Dr Mohammad Najareh, Beit Jala Hospital: To accept the treatment, not easy with a child with his neighbour or somebody that is not known for him, so it is very important to be with one of the parents.
Most of them is not speaking. They are small children so you need a translator. You need the mother.
Mahmoud Abu-Raiesh, Physicians for Human Rights, Israel: Of course every parent has the right to accompany their child for medical treatment especially if they have an emergency. This is a basic right.

Analysis: Of course a parent should ideally be able to accompany their child to a hospital. The relevant question is whether this "right" supersedes a country's right to secure its borders from potential security threats from a territory that is at war with it.
Also, how long, really, does it take Israel to grant security clearance to "under 45's" from Gaza in an urgent situation? We don't know and McNeill doesn't ask.

The last segment of McNeill's piece, dealing with two-year-old Tark and his mother Hanadi, is actually the only part that seems to actually begin to raise a reasonable question about Israel's security policies regarding family companions for child patients.

This is because she found an example where the mother says she had been initially knocked back for an entry permit but a subsequent request for another hospital visit was accepted.

The decision to at one point reject and then, on another occasion, accept Hanadi's application is curious and it would have been worthwhile if McNeill had asked COGAT directly the reason for the flip-flop. But it was a question she apparently didn't ask and so, ABC viewers don't know why this happened.

McNeill's story ends with a general statement on the topic by COGAT:

We should all remember that a hostile terrorist regime rules over Gaza. Erez Crossing is constantly open for hundreds of people to receive medical treatment in Israel despite the fact that the Gaza Strip is
controlled by the Hamas terrorist organisation who clearly and openly acts on the destruction of Israel. Our efforts to separate terrorism and the population is of great importance.

This is followed by McNeill's final swipe at Israel by returning to the case of a child from the beginning of the story whose mother claimed to have been waiting 42 days for a permit.

McNeill says "the approval did not come through". Was it rejected? What exactly happened? You guessed it - We don't get to know because McNeill doesn't even say whether she sent the question to COGAT.

Conclusion

Is Israel's policy about how they handle parental requests to accompany Gazan children to Israeli and West Bank hospitals fair?

It's certainly not perfect, and nobody would claim that. Israeli policies - like every country's policies on any matter - are always open to critical assessment by the media. However, from a story such as this constructed purely from anecdotal evidence, it's impossible to draw any firm conclusions. This is a shame, because the topic of the story - had it been handled in a fairer, more contextual and thoughtful way - is newsworthy and raises some legitimate questions.

Unfortunately, for all of its emotive qualities, McNeill's story doesn't provide substantive answers to anything. Competent, impartial journalism doesn't just provide a platform to air allegations and raise questions, it actively seeks out the answers. But McNeill's story just invites more questions than we started with before watching her story.

The following are just three questions that leap to mind. There are, of course, many others:

  • What is the percentage of parents (either mother or father) who are refused requests to accompany their children to the hospital when they make the request via proper channels? 
  • How long does it take for special security clearance for parents "under 45" in urgent medical cases?
  • Exploring the security issue further - If parents of sick children are Hamas members and active known terrorists, is Israel obligated to let them in to accompany their children, especially considering the fact that Israel's humanitarian policy of accepting patients from Gaza has been exploited by terrorists in the past? What about Hamas' open strategy of encouraging and glorifying suicide attacks and martyrdom for Palestinians regardless of their age or family situation?

But McNeill's reporting isn't about answering questions or getting to the bottom of the story. Any way you look at it, it's a shameless play to the viewer's emotions to elicit sympathy for Gazans.

Yet how can one reconcile McNeill's undoubtedly sincere compassion for Gazans with her apparent reticence to hold Hamas responsible for what happens to people in Gaza and accountable for the misery they have wrought on their own people?

Even if the unhappy Palestinians she is interviewing aren't telling her they blame Hamas, isn't it her journalistic responsibility to probe deeper into the story and incorporate a broader perspective?

McNeill, who has spent as much time in Gaza as any Israel-based reporter, is clearly not oblivious to the evils of Hamas.

A tweet McNeill made in May linking to a story critical of Hamas' tunnelling activities by New York Times reporters Diaa Hadid and Majd Al Waheidi was revealing as she called them "brave", apparently impressed by the extent that the NYT reporters were willing to criticise Hamas, knowing they would still have to work in Gaza.

By repeatedly taking cheap shots against Israel while avoiding discussing Hamas - the root cause for the treatment problems of sick Gazan children and their families - it would sadly appear that McNeill herself finds it difficult to be as "brave" as some other reporters when it comes to her own stories from Gaza.

Ironically, this sort of journalistic reticence ultimately hurts the innocent Gazans McNeill undoubtedly wants to help by focusing ABC viewer's attention (and therefore manipulating Australian public opinion) on Israel's "blockade" as the sole source of Gaza's problems and not Hamas and its terror campaign that prioritises its own hegemony on power and war against Israel over every humanitarian need of the population of Gaza.

The biggest losers here? The ABC's audience, who are entitled to balanced coverage that lives up to the ABC's statutory obligations, but are instead being fed a steady stream of politicised stories skewed to the Palestinian narrative.

Ahron Shapiro

 

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