Media framing of wars and military operations can significantly influence world public opinion, leaders, and policymaking. Coverage may determine the results of an operation as much the objective situation on the battlefield. Since the 1982 Lebanon War, the Western media has focused on collateral damage in all violent exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians. In the present crisis, world leaders have widely agreed that Israel has the right to defend itself, but they have also warned against disproportional responses and high levels of civilian casualties.
The media is the main source of information about damage to infrastructure and casualties, especially civilian. Western media coverage of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza has been marred by an anti-Israeli bias and professional and ethical failures.
Fear and Censorship in Gaza
Hamas has terrorised foreign journalists in Gaza and imposed harsh censorship on them. Hamas only permitted the broadcasting of photos and videos depicting destroyed buildings and killed civilians, primarily of women and children. The Western media did not broadcast videos of rockets fired from heavily populated areas, UNRWA schools, mosques and hospitals. Hamas allowed media coverage of destroyed mosques, but not the rockets that were hidden inside and fired from nearby. They allowed coverage of the funerals of women and children, but not of combatants. All of this was done in order to create the impression that Israel is deliberately targeting civilians.
In several cases, foreign journalists working in Gaza are reported to have been harassed, threatened or questioned over information they have reported through their news media. Only after leaving Gaza, a few journalists dared to reveal the truth about the war crimes committed by Hamas. Harry Fear, a freelancer for the Russian-owned RT TV revealed that Hamas security officers asked him to leave Gaza within 24 hours after he tweeted about a rocket launch near his location. He also revealed that the Gaza Interior Ministry posted media guidelines that warned against publishing information about rocket launches or other military activities. The Western media has failed to disclose the conditions under which it has been allowed to cover events in Gaza. This has made accurate reporting impossible.
A few more journalists provided information about Hamas’ practices, usually ignored by most of the Western media. Aishi Zidan, a Finnish journalist for Helsingin Sanomat, wrote about the launching of rocket attacks from the Shifa hospital; and Gallagher Fenwick of France 24 exposed the extensive use of civilians as human shields.
These revelations confirm Israeli claims about Hamas committing war crimes, and demonstrate the ethical failure of the Western media to present a fair and balanced account of the events in Gaza.
The Daily Casualty Competition
The Western media has compared the number of civilian casualties and the level of destruction in Gaza and Israel, to determine whether the Israeli response to the Hamas aggression is just and proportionate. Newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Guardian and the Independent, published daily the large disparity in casualty numbers. Moreover, the newspapers also cited claims made by Hamas, the UN and human rights organisations that 75% to 80% of those killed in Gaza were civilians. To buttress the case against Israel, the New York Times and most newspapers and television stations in Europe continuously published and aired photos and videos of civilians suffering from the war. This framing created the impression that Israel was ignoring international humanitarian laws and was guilty of war crimes.
The media obsession with the “casualty competition” represents an invalid principle for determining blame. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens observed: “Does this mean the Palestinians are the chief victims and Israel the main victimiser, in the conflict? By this dull logic we might want to rethink the moral equities of World War II, in which over one million German civilians perished at Allied hands compared with just 67,000 British and 12,000 American civilians.” The comparison of casualty numbers promoted by the Western media is logically and morally wrong. It constitutes an ethical failure.
Reporting Civilian Casualties in Earlier Palestinian-Israeli Warfare
The Western media should have known that the casualty figures provided in previous instances of Palestinian-Israeli violence by the Palestinians, UN agencies, human rights organisations and even the International Red Cross, were highly exaggerated.
For example, during most of the 1982 Lebanon War, most media outlets reported the grossly exaggerated figures provided by the Red Cross, which relied on Palestinian sources: 10,000 Palestinians and Lebanese dead, 40,000 wounded, and 600,000 – 700,000 left homeless. Those were absurd figures in light of the fact that the population of southern Lebanon, where Israel’s military operated, numbered only 500,000 inhabitants.
Similarly, in April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, Palestinian and UN sources accused Israel of “massacring” between 500 (Saeb Erekat, April 7, 2002) and 900 civilians (Yasser Abd Rabbo, April 13, 2002) in Jenin. Despite Israel’s denials, Western media reported the “massacre” without checking the facts. Later the UN and human rights organisations conducted official investigations and found only about 52 dead Palestinians; more than half of them terrorists.
In previous military operations in Gaza, Palestinian and UN sources continued to provide false information about civilian casualties. For example, during Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009), Hamas said that most of the 1,330 fatalities were civilians. After the operation, Hamas gave several, increasing figures (1,414 and 1,452) and continued to claim that the majority were civilians. In November 2010, however, Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad admitted that the number of killed Hamas fighters was approximately 700, a figure very close to the IDF estimate and over half of the actual total number of fatalities, which was around 1,150.
Civilian Casualties in Operation Protective Edge
Despite the record of misleading statistics by the Palestinians, the UN, and the Red Cross, compared with the accuracy in the IDF reports, the Western media did not learn its lesson and continued to disseminate unreliable data on civilian casualties received from highly suspect Palestinian and UN sources.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights claimed that as of August 6, 1,843 Palestinians had been killed, 1,345 of whom were civilians and only 498 were fighters. The UN evaluation was based on the Gaza Health Ministry, a Hamas-run organisation. In contrast, the IDF claimed that 1,068 of the casualties were combatants. The Western media ignored IDF evidence about combatants who were brought to hospitals in civilian clothing – later verified by several foreign reporters in Gaza.
Only about a month after Hamas’ latest aggression against Israel began, the New York Times and the BBC, which had systematically and prominently displayed the number and identity of Palestinian casualties received from Hamas and UN sources without question, began to raise reservations about the data. The BBC found that among civilians, more than three times as many men were killed as women, disproving the thesis of indiscriminate Israeli fire. The New York Times examined the names of 1,431 casualties and found that “the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll. They are 9% of Gaza’s …residents, but 34% of those killed.” These statistics clearly negate the vicious claim made by Hamas and human rights organisations that Israel deliberately targets civilians. It may also prove that the ratio between civilian and combatant casualties is closer to the IDF estimate. Unfortunately, such late discoveries do not erase initial perceptions of Israel as a villain.
The continuous dissemination of inaccurate data on civilian casualties by the Western media represents a major professional failure. The distorted and misleading coverage of the Gaza conflict contributed to the hasty calls made by political leaders, UN officials and NGOs to prosecute Israel for war crimes. It also contributed to the mass hate demonstrations in Europe and to the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and a senior research associate at the BESA Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. © BESA Centre, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.