Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The truth about the Gaza war (hint: it's not what Ruth Pollard tells you)

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AIJAC staff

 

Over the past couple of months, readers of the Fairfax papers the Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times have been subjected to Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard’s coverage of the Gaza conflict.

In our opinion, her general coverage - especially her feature article in the Saturday August 30 editions of the papers - has been full of misrepresentations, omissions and lack of context. The August 30 article appears intended to portray Israel as the villain, and the party that has come out of the conflict in the worst possible light, as compared to Hamas.

Below is the article, with our comments inserted where relevant.

 

The ceasefire in Gaza is just four days old but already the clock is ticking toward the next outbreak of war.

Both sides claimed victory but it is clear neither has won – Hamas has not disarmed, it still has rockets it can fire into Israel that now reach as far as Jerusalem, while Israel has not lifted its siege on Gaza that has imprisoned the coastal enclave in an ever-deepening humanitarian crisis.

There is no “siege on Gaza”. It is a partial blockade, found to be legal by the UN’s Palmer Commission in September 2011, and it is not causing a humanitarian crisis. The blockade only keeps out goods with military uses. All other consumer goods are allowed into the Strip in the quantities requested by Palestinian authorities. In addition, Israel itself brings in water and fuel. Further, Ms Pollard only belatedly and briefly refers to Egypt’s role in the blockade. To read more about the blockade, read this AIJAC blog post: http://www.aijac.org.au/news/article/the-myth-of-the-siege-of-gaza 

It is a situation as unsustainable now as it was after the wars of 2008/2009 and 2012.

The equation has not changed – maintaining the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank and achieving lasting peace between Israel and Palestine continue to be mutually exclusive.

And in the meantime, so much blood has been spilled.

In 50 days of war more than 2100 Palestinians were killed, most of them, human rights groups say, were civilians, including about 500 children.

As has been the case with much of her coverage, Ms Pollard cites the casualty figures, this time attributed to “human rights groups”, without mentioning they originate from Gaza health authorities, controlled by Hamas, or that Israel estimates that approximately half of those killed were fighters. The BBC and New York Times have published studies concluding that the casualty figures provided by the Gaza health authorities are unreliable, noting that of those announced in the media as having been killed, a far greater proportion are men between 20 and 29 than are represented by men of that age in the general Gaza community. By contrast, far fewer of the casualties were under 15, or women, than their percentage in the Gaza community. There has also been evidence of Hamas manipulating casualty figures to include those killed by Hamas’ own rockets falling short and striking within Gaza, those dying of natural causes and even those killed by Hamas as alleged collaborators. To read more about the problems with the casualty figures, read this AIJAC blog post: http://www.aijac.org.au/news/article/problems-with-gaza-casualty-numbers-gaining-reco

At least 11,000 people were injured and preliminary UN estimates indicate up to 1000 of the injured children will have a permanent disability.

At least 1500 Palestinian children have been orphaned by the war and 373,000 kids require direct and specialised psychosocial support, the UN says.

More than 17,000 homes have been destroyed or badly damaged and more than a quarter of Gaza's population – at least 475,000 people – are displaced and living in makeshift UN shelters.

In some streets there is not a house left standing.

The cause of many of the civilian casualties and much of the damage to civilian infrastructure – that Hamas, in contravention of international law, embedded its fighters and its military infrastructure in civilian areas – is only covered very briefly, far later in the article, in a quote from the IDF. Even this quote was omitted from the Sydney Morning Herald version of the article. She also makes no mention of the many steps Israel undertook to avoid civilian casualties – warning them to evacuate by way of leaflets, text massages, phone calls and lightly armed missiles known as a “knock on the roof” and, at time, aborting an intended strike when civilians were present.

The Israel Defence Forces also sustained heavy losses – 64 soldiers died in its ground invasion of Gaza – while six civilians including a four-year-old boy were also killed.

Life for thousands in the south of Israel near the Gaza border was thrown into chaos, with families forced to relocate to safer areas during the seven weeks of war, while Israel's main airport closed several times due to rocket fire.

Tourism executives estimated their losses amounted to 2 billion shekels ($60 million) so far, with many hotels reporting a 24 per cent drop in overnight stays, Haaretz reported.

This is the sole mention in the article of the issues confronting Israel as a result of the Hamas terrorism from Gaza. She nelects to mention that most of the country’s population was frequently paralysed by alerts due to rocket attacks. She doesn’t even mention the terror tunnels, which were actually the biggest danger confronting Israel, and were intended to be used in a mass-casualty terror attack involving the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands, of Israeli civilians, and mass kidnappings. 

The northern summer of 2014 has been lost on both sides of the border.

By the end of the fighting, militants in Gaza had fired 4564 rockets and mortars at Israel, the IDF says, with more than 3600 exploding in Israeli territory, 224 in built-up areas. Israel's missile defence system, known as "Iron Dome" intercepted 735 rockets.

The Israel Air Force bombed more than 5200 targets in Gaza, the IDF says, while its ground and naval assault in some civilian areas was so ferocious it reportedly left senior US military officers "stunned".

In the attack that levelled the Gaza City neighbourhood of Shujaiyah, 11 Israeli artillery battalions bombarded the town with at least 7000 high explosive shells, Al-Jazeera reported this week, sourcing the information to senior US military sources.

"The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible," the senior US military officer told Al-Jazeera. "It's not mowing the lawn," he said, referring to an Israeli military expression that describes its incursions against Hamas in Gaza. "It's removing the topsoil."

In her efforts to make the case that Israel behaved improperly, Ms Pollard cites an unnamed US military source, as quoted in Al-Jazeera. It has been noted that some of the inflammatory reporting from Gaza is in part responsible for the spike in antisemitism worldwide. Making such a strong, unverified claim, that Israel wanted “to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible” is an example of such inflammatory reporting. 

Moreover, Al-Jazeera is owned by Qatar, which is one of Hamas’ main backers, so its reports about this conflict should be treated sceptically. Ms Pollard’s discussion of Shujaiyah excludes essential background or any effort to give Israel a right of reply to this inflammatory claim. Shujaiyah was a base for rocket launchers and tunnels. It was also an area where Hamas hoped to cause mass casualties among the Israeli troops by drawing them in and ambushing them, so many of the houses there were booby-trapped with explosives, and it was the scene of one of the most intense battles of the conflict. Much of the devastation there was caused by the battle and the booby-traps, not by any Israeli attempts to kill. Before Israeli troops entered the area, they warned the civilian population to evacuate, precisely to avoid the casualties Pollard’s article suggests they intended to inflict. To read more about what really happened in Shujaiyah, read this AIJAC blog post: http://www.aijac.org.au/news/article/what-happened-in-shujaiyeh 

The shockingly high civilian death toll in Gaza and the far-reaching devastation also widened fault lines through prominent Jewish communities outside Israel.

In an open letter published in The New York Times, 327 Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors of the Holocaust unequivocally condemned "the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonisation of historic Palestine".

Describing a "wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children", the letter stated: "Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water."

Genocide begins with the silence of the world, the letter writers warned.

"We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanisation of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch."

In turn, the signatories themselves were bombarded with hate mail by Israel's supporters in a wave of furious condemnation on social media.

It is a measure of Ms Pollard’s determination to sustain the case that Israel’s conduct of the war has cost it international support, even within the Jewish community that she resorted to citing this open letter. In fact, these signatories were largely members of groups highly critical of Israel formed before the war. They define the terms “Holocaust survivor” and “descendant” very widely, so that they would take in millions of Jewish people around the world, including, for example, at least 20,000 from Australia. Their members include some who do not identify as Jewish. You can read more about the background of the signatories in this piece by American academic Alvin Rosenfeld, published in the New York Forward. That 327 people - most of them long known for their fervent anti-Zionism - out of these millions are prepared to condemn Israel really is not terribly significant, yet Ms. Pollard gave it considerable prominence.

But the criticisms of Israel's actions didn't end there.

The former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, warns the Gaza war had "a very negative impact" on US-Israel relations, signalling a broader fall in support for Israel.

"There's a lot of strain in the relationship now. The personal relationship between the president and the prime minister has been fraught for some time and it's become more complicated by recent events," Indyk notes in an interview with Foreign Policy journal this week.

At times, he says, US President Barack Obama was "enraged" at Israel, not just over its actions in Gaza but also for its consistently hostile treatment of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been pushing a renewed effort to end the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict.

He was particularly critical of unnamed Israeli officials who described Kerry as launching "a strategic terror attack" against Israel.

"That was just outrageous and it enraged the president," Indyk says.

He warned of a shift in support for Israel, pointing to a Pew poll that showed younger people and Democrats professing less support for Israel, while Republicans maintained their long-term strong support.

"If those trends continue – and I think they are likely to have been exacerbated by the Gaza crisis, with all the ethical questions that has raised – then over time Israel may find itself in a very different situation than it's gotten used to," Indyk warns. 

Back home, Israelis reverted to their "Fortress Israel" mentality, says Tel Aviv-based public opinion analyst and academic Dahlia Scheindlin.

"They think 'everybody is against us, Hamas wants to kill us and annihilate us, we might have al-Qaeda on our northern border … we are completely isolated and under attack in the global political environment'."

People know, she says, that Prime Minister Netanyahu is "really out of sorts with the Western world".

"Israelis are highly aware that they have basically lost Europe in terms of public opinion," Scheindlin says. "The US is the last bulwark against major condemnation and sanctions and that support is slipping."

Just over half of all respondents in a poll published in the left-leaning Haaretz on Thursday said there was no winner in the Gaza war, 26 per cent said Israel won, 16 per cent said Hamas won and 4 per cent said they did not know.

"There is a general feeling of hopelessness that the world will never understand our side of the story," Scheindlin says, combined with a "tacit agreement between the government and the public that the status quo is sustainable."

But, she warns, Israelis are also despairing about not reaching a final status agreement with Palestine – polls consistently show the majority still want an agreement, they just have no hope of one ever being finalised.

"There is an expectation that there will be more rocket fire, that there will be a war every two years, along with the increasing pressure of the boycott movement and deepening problems with the US," she says.

"This could lead some to change their minds about whether there is some urgency of reaching a final status agreement with Palestinians … but just think of how much destruction and death had to happen for a rise of a few percentage points regarding urgency."

Dahlia Scheindlin is hardly representative of Israel, being of the hard-left in Israel, to the extent that she is ambivalent about Israel continuing to exist as a state in its own right, as opposed to there being one bi-national state comprising all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. This is a “solution” that is often advanced by those who don’t believe Israel has the right to exist. Ms Pollard, as is often the case, gleans her information from Ha’aretz, which she describes as “left-leaning”. The paper is, in fact, more than just “left-leaning”. It describes itself as “the voice of the left”. 

It is notable that Ms Pollard neglected to make any mention at all of the cost to Hamas’ standing caused by its conduct in this war. It has been strongly condemned not only by Western countries, but also by the rulers and press in many Arab countries and by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for example. This should be a major story in itself, yet Ms Pollard is only interested in quoting those critical of Israel.

In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first statement following Tuesday's ceasefire he declared it a major military and diplomatic victory and reiterated his goal to "demilitarise" Hamas and Gaza.

"Hamas was hit hard and it did not receive even a single one of the conditions that it set for a ceasefire, not even one," the prime minister said.

"I think that we also instilled in the international community the fact that Hamas, ISIS and al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic terrorist organisations are members of the same family."

The IDF has repeatedly said it did not target civilians in this war, instead it claims Hamas turned Palestinian civilians into human shields by intentionally operating "in and adjacent to civilian areas, including in kindergartens, hospitals and mosques".

These four short paragraphs are the only part in an article of over 2,000 words where Israel’s case is put, and they are heavily outweighed by the negative material about Israel. In fact, less space is given here to Israel’s case than to each of Martin Indyk, Dahlia Sheindlin and the open letter in the New York Times. The Sydney Morning Herald version was even worse. The IDF quote is completely missing, while the part of the quote from Mr Netanyahu which mentioned that the international community now understood that Hamas, ISIS and al-Qaeda are of the same family was also removed.

Hamas, in turn, was equally triumphant. The leader of its political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, said Palestinian unity had been strengthened by the war and that Hamas and other armed factions would not disarm.

"When Israel failed in its siege of Gaza they chose to destroy it, but it is the duty of the unity government and the world to rebuild it," he said referring to the united Palestinian government – the first in seven years – that was formed in June and was strongly condemned by Israel.

But as in Israel, the mood on the ground in Gaza was more circumspect. So much bloodshed and yet the blockade is still not lifted beyond a token expansion of fishing zones off its polluted coastline.

Economist Omar Shaban is bleak about Gaza's prospects if the blockade – which severely restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of the strip – is not lifted.

"Any lasting ceasefire must include the removal of the siege and allowing construction material to enter Gaza via the Palestinian Authority and the international community," Shaban says.

"We must create economic activity so that people who have lost everything in this war can work on the reconstruction and earn money – this will allow them to think about the future so they do not sit there in the rubble of their houses and think about revenge."

The majority of Palestinians want to live and work in peace, he says.

"Palestinians in Gaza voted for Hamas in 2006, we did not vote for this war," Shaban says.

The Gaza-based economist, who has long been deeply involved in the debate about a two-state solution, says that conversation no longer happens in Israel.

"When they built the wall they stopped seeing us and now we are not a priority for them."

There has already been three wars in just under seven years, he warns.

In 2006 the rockets reached 20 kilometres, in 2007-8 they reached 40 kilometres, in 2012 they reached 80 kilometres and in 2014 they reached 110 kilometres.

"If we do not solve this problem now by 2016 the rockets will go even further – Israel must realise, this is not just about Hamas, it is about jobs, health, education for Palestinians who want to be able to work and move freely in and out of their own state."

The flaw in this ceasefire deal, one that mirrors the other truces that have been made and eventually broken after each of the three Gaza wars, is its vagueness and lack of any implementation mechanism, says Noura Erekat, an adjunct professor at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at the Washington-based Georgetown University.

"What the parties agreed upon right now reflects what they agreed on in 2012," she says. "The tragedy of it all is that all of this suffering, the destruction of Gaza and the loss of more than 2000 Palestinian lives was unnecessary if it was all for the same deal that was done two years ago."

"This is just a holding position, it is not the resolution to the conflict, and given how deliberately de-developed Gaza already is this level of destruction makes survival even more difficult."

Indeed the United Nations agency that has overseen much of the rebuilding work from the last two Gaza wars describes Gaza's situation as "devastating".

Only a fraction of the pledges to rebuild from the last war in November 2012 have been delivered, says the United Nations Development Program special representative of the Administrator in the occupied Palestinian Territory, Frode Mauring, of the $US5 billion ($5.3b) that was pledged, just $US1b has been delivered.

"One of the problems has been bringing materials into Gaza – we hope that the conference that is likely to come in the aftermath of this conflict will bring adequate numbers ... and that the pledges are both honoured and possible to implement," Mauring says.

A bridge crossing Wadi Gaza that was badly damaged in Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 is still yet to be repaired, Mauring says, due to a lack of funding.

"It is the third time that bridge was destroyed so I guess that has made it somewhat less attractive to donors."

Mauring says it is vital the siege of Gaza is lifted by Israel and Egypt to "restore the dignity of the Palestinian people, who want to be able to have jobs and to not be the recipient of humanitarian aid".

This is the only mention in the article of Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza, and it was only mentioned in passing in a quote, not by Ms Pollard herself.

"This has to be addressed in a way that allows Israel to feel secure about opening the borders and satisfies the needs in Gaza."

In the meantime, the destruction is so widespread that development experts say it could take up to 10 years to rebuild some of Gaza's key infrastructure, including power plants, sewage systems, water pumping stations, as well as schools, hospitals and factories.

Thousands of hectares of farmland, along with thousands of head of cattle, sheep and goats, have also been lost.

Electricity shortages stretch to 16-18 hours a day in most areas and there is a critical shortage of clean drinking water.

"The entire population of Gaza has been affected by the conflict," the UN warns,  "and almost all need food and other assistance to recover."

Overall, this piece was simply a continuation of Ms Pollard’s unbalanced coverage of the violence. She has generally buried Hamas’ role in the fighting in her stories, almost entirely dismissed the Israeli perspective and seems to be reporting through the prism of her own preconceived notions - which seem to include the belief that the Israel Defence Forces intentionally targets innocent people.

Another example was her piece on Saturday August 16, http://www.smh.com.au/world/as-the-dust-settles-in-gaza-devastated-families-mourn-their-dead-20140815-104cgm.html focusing on individual examples of Gazans killed or injured in the conflict. In common with the August 30 article was the absurd and glaring omission that the overwhelming reason for most civilian casualties is because Hamas - by its own admission - uses civilians as human shields and civilian buildings as cover for their military assets and activities, and her misplaced trust in "UN figures" that are in fact based almost solely on what was provided to them by the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry. And even those were misrepresented. The UN figures at the time stated that, of 1965 Gazans killed, 1417 were civilians. This is 72 per cent, yet Ms Pollard wrote, “Initial estimates indicate up to 80 per cent of the victims have been civilians in a war Israel says was aimed only at militants.”

We are not suggesting that the effects of the war on Gaza’s civilians should not be covered, but surely the Fairfax papers owe it to their readers to provide at least a modicum of balance. The article and the general coverage by Ms Pollard have been overwhelmingly negative about Israel, and seemingly uninterested in the Israeli side of the story, or providing anything more than a token right of reply for mainstream Israeli views. They have not reflected the levels of balance and professionalism one expects from a quality newspaper.

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