Gaza’s border in a lasting ceasefire deal/ Hamas and the Media
Aug 8, 2014
August 8, 2014
Number 08/14 #02
The three day ceasefire that has been in effect in Gaza since Tuesday morning ended a few hours ago, and sadly, Hamas has chosen to resume rocket fire, firing 11 rockets in the first hour. This seems to pretty much guarantee the recent Gaza war will resume and Gazans are reportedly fleeing the border area, though as of this writing, Israel had not yet started to respond. Before the ceasefire’s expiration, Hamas refused calls to extend it despite an Israeli agreement to do so. Already, a few hours before the ceasefire ended, two rockets struck Israel from Gaza.
This Update focuses on what a long-term ceasefire deal might look like, and more specifically on what arrangements for Gaza’s borders might make possible Gaza’s demilitarisation, a key demand of Israel, backed by much of the international community, including many Arab states (Sharyn Mittelman had a great deal on the demilitarisation issue in a blog yesterday.)
First up is an interview with Washington Institute scholar Matthew Levitt, discussing a plan calling for “Reconstruction for Demilitarisation” in Gaza by Israeli security analysts Udi Dekel and Shlomo Brom. Interviewed by British scholar Alan Johnson, Levitt stresses that more than demilitarisation, preventing remilitarisation is the key issue in Gaza, and that, unlike with past failed UN efforts with respect to Hezbollah, this looks possible via a regime to guard Gaza’s borders. He argues that Hamas cannot continue to control the government, as it sought to do under the recent unity deal with Fatah, but that it is possible to force it to accept the necessary limitations given the alignment of regional forces that would be in favour of a “regional solution” which would see Gaza reconstructed but also no longer a “military base targeting Israel.” For his views in full, CLICK HERE. Alternative, more pessimistic views on the feasibility of such an arrangement come from Dr. Jonathan Spyer and former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens. Meanwhile, Levitt also published a recent piece arguing that the oft-heard claim that Hamas’ overthrow would lead to Gaza’s control by even more radical groups is incorrect.
Next up is a more systematic look at the Gaza border issue from Neri Zilber, another Washington Institute scholar. He reviews the details of where the border crossings are and their capabilities, as well as the history of the arrangements that were supposed to apply to the crossings following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. He then makes the case that the only method for controlling the border that would work is to gradually re-assert Palestinian Authority control over the whole of Gaza, but argues this could be an “outside in” process, which would start with the PA controlling the Rafah crossing with Egypt. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American academic historian Richard Landes discusses the relationship between Hamas’ political strategy and the international media. Landes argues that the Hamas war strategy is to attack Israel, provoke a response, hide behind civilians, and then wait for the international community to condemn Israel and demand it cease responding to Hamas attacks. He notes that this strategy depends on the media broadcasting the suffering of Gazans to the outside world, and explicitly or implicitly blaming Israel, and then goes on at length to demonstrate case after case where the media has played Hamas’ appointed role – including by giving in to Hamas intimidation while refusing to acknowledge this is happening. For this important look at the problems with the media role in the current conflict, CLICK HERE. More on Hamas’ psychological strategy and the media’s role in it comes from psychologist Irwin Mansdorf and Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some good scorecards on the winners and losers of the Gaza war to date – from Times of Israel editor David Horovitz and former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller.
- A poll showing Gazans overwhelmingly want a lasting ceasefire.
- Some material on the debates and divides within Hamas during the latest ceasefire talks – here and here.
- Alan Dershowitz offers more deconstruction of the problems with the oft-cited casualty figures from Gaza.
- Good discussions of international law and Israel’s tactics in Gaza from legal experts Peter Berkowitz, Pnina Sharvit-Baruch , and Eugene Kontorovich.
- Gaza’s main Christian leader says Hamas fired rockets from his church.
- Isi Leibler criticises US President Barack Obama for, in his words, “Shielding the Barbarians at our Gates”.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Gabrielle Debinski offers some badly needed facts and context on the much-condemned attacks on three Gaza UN schools sheltering refugees.
- Ahron Shapiro offers a detailed history of the numerous Gaza ceasefires – and how they have repeatedly been rejected or violated by Hamas.
- Robert Ellenhorn debunkins the oft-heard but easily disproved claim that because Gaza is so densely-populated, Hamas has no choice but to fire missiles and base its armed forces amidst civilian homes. He also has a post providing some essential background on a “doctor” who has been much-interviewed from Gaza – Norwegian activist Mads Gilbert.
- Or Avi-Guy on what really happened in one of the most talked about battles in the Gaza war – the intense fighting in the Gaza neighbourhood of Shujaiyeh .
- Glen Falkenstein details the often-overlooked reality that hundreds of rockets fired by Palestinian terror groups have landed inside Gaza and caused considerable damage, deaths and injuries there.
- Glen also had published a good piece in the Newcastle Herald about the realities of Gaza’s plight and Hamas rocket fire. He also had an article on ABC “Unleashed” on the surge in global antisemitism during the current conflict.
- AIJAC Executive Director Colin Rubenstein has pieces in both the Australian Financial Review and Adelaide Advertiser about how to end the current conflict so it does not recur in a few months or years.
Alan Johnson interviews Matthew Levitt
Alan Johnson: There have been three military operations in Gaza since 2008. To avoid a fourth,of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) have proposed a new policy: ‘reconstruction for demilitarisation’. What is your assessment of the approach taken in the Dekel and Brom paper?
Matthew Levitt: First and foremost, it is good that someone is thinking strategically. Most people are so caught up in the day to day battles in this conflict, but we need to start thinking about the day after.
Israeli security experts sometimes talk about ‘mowing the lawn’, whereby occasionally they need to ‘go in’ and deal with the terrorist entities, undermine their capabilities, and do it again after some time. In the case of the Gaza Strip, that’s not a tenable plan anymore.
Therefore, the question is, how do you go about changing the situation on the ground in a positive way for all parties concerned? There is a real opportunity here; I’m glad that the authors grab onto it. For years now the Gaza Strip has been misgoverned – polls taken just before the conflict began indicate that as many as 80 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza wanted Hamas out. They see that their fellow Palestinians are living better lives in Israel and the West Bank and they feel left behind. That, plus the legitimate and obvious desire to demilitarise the Gaza Strip, leads to this type of a plan.
However, I think it was Yaakov Amidror, until recently National Security Advisor in Israel, who said that demilitarisation is going to be very hard to implement.
It is difficult to say who would go in and do the disarming – would an international peace force truly disarm Hamas? I just don’t see that happening. The UN has already talked about the conceivable idea of Kosovo or East Timor type of deployment, but only after a full ceasefire and a Hamas pledge to fire no more rockets.
The key issue here is not demilitarisation but preventing rearmament. It makes sense to focus on capabilities which really matter and not on the small arms. If militants in Gaza end up holding onto their AKs, that is not a huge problem. However, they cannot have strategic infrastructure and terror tunnels, rockets and rocket launchers. If Hamas was able to build around 30 or 40 tunnels, at a cost of between $1,000,000 and $3,000,000 per tunnel – under ‘siege’ – imagine what they could do if the siege was lifted and there were not adequate checks in place to be sure of what goes into the Gaza Strip.
And this has to be done in a way that Palestinians are comfortable with. The authors correctly note how this would be in Israel’s interest, but the Palestinians are going to have to be convinced to do it, too, and not just for the sake of improving their daily lives. The Palestinians will be fearful that an interim step – a ‘Marshall Plan’ in return for demilitarisation – would be a guise under which Israelis would simply try and replace Palestinian ambitions for political self-rule with economic opportunity.
Finally, Hamas cannot remain in government. While the authors are correct in saying that Israel will have to withdraw its opposition to any reconciliation deal, it is important to understand what Hamas’s gambit is. They agreed to the establishment of a national unity government and gave into the Palestinian Authority (PA) demands, including on security cooperation with Israel, not only because of their political disenfranchisement from Iran and Egypt, or the fact that people in the region are much more focused on Syria and Iraq than on them, or because of their financial troubles, but because they felt it was a good deal.
You see, according to that deal, Hamas would not have ministers in the cabinet, but also wouldn’t be responsible for governing Gaza. They wanted to go back to the model where as an opposition party they got bonus points for any social welfare or charity provision they gave, but weren’t held accountable for anything they didn’t give (because they would not be the governing entity). Someone else would be responsible for paying salaries, but it would still be the salaries of their people. While they wouldn’t have ministers in the government, all of the middle managers and civilian employees they hired after 2007 to replace the Fatah people would be kept in office. Now that obviously can’t be allowed to happen because Hamas would then be in de facto control of the ministries – if not the minister himself – and so would essentially be controlling the Gaza Strip.
Yes, the PA can’t come back to the Gaza Strip on the back of an Israeli tank. On the other hand, there has got to be a way – and I imagine there are many diplomatic, creative solutions in the context of a ceasefire – for the PA to come back into Gaza, especially now that there is a national unity government. The idea which Dekel and Brom propose provides a framework for the only wise way out of this dilemma.
In return for making sure that the Gaza Strip is no longer a military zone controlled by a non-state actor – a designated terrorist group that is pledged to the destruction of Israel – the international community, including Israel, needs to find ways to fix Gaza. There are several things this would need to involve. First, finding ways to open the crossings; Israel can’t be at those crossings, that would not be agreeable to the Palestinians – whether it’s the PA or Hamas – but someone has to be there. Second, there needs to be some type of international force patrolling parts of Gaza so that Israel doesn’t have to claim a need for a security strip. Finally, something should be done in regards to the sea coast; the Palestinians are going to want greater fishing rights and the Israelis are legitimately going to be very concerned about more smuggling and terrorist operations via the sea.
AJ: Should the goal be demilitarisation?
ML: However much demilitarisation there is, the key is making sure that there is complete, serious and verifiable efforts to prevent remilitarisation. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – regarding Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon after the 2006 war – was a complete failure because there was no-one to patrol those borders. Iran could fly weapons into Syria, which could be driven openly across the border into Lebanon – and there was nothing anybody could do about it. However, that’s not the case with Hamas. A ‘1701 solution’ would be very effective because the weapons won’t be able to be smuggled through Israel. The Egyptians should be given assistance to do even more to prevent smuggling (and they’re already doing a lot). This is a contained area where the borders are controlled; as long as the people situated at those border crossings are from agencies trusted by both sides, then there is every reason to believe that – if we were able to convince the parties to reach such an agreement – it could be very effective.
AJ: Let me ask you about regional actors. The Dekel and Brom paper talks about a US-led project with regional actors heavily involved. What is your assessment of which regional actors would be supportive, which would try and be disruptive and what is the balance of forces between the two?
ML: It would be very difficult for entities that want to spoil this type of agreement. It is going to have tremendous ‘buy-in’ from the vast majority of people on the ground. Everybody wants this conflict to end – except for people who are committed to militancy with no end. Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian leadership are going to be very upset. Hezbollah is going to yell platitudes, but not much more than that, because it’s extremely distracted by its investment in Syria, not to mention the fact that Hezbollah has been quite significantly deterred by Israel since the July 2006 war.
Hamas may not like it, but they’re not going to have any other choice. Countries like Qatar – which are very sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Hamas – are going to have a very hard time (because of their relations with Europe and the US) if they don’t get behind something which ends a bloody conflict and rebuilds the Gaza Strip.
I think the Europeans would be very excited by this, as well as the Saudis and the Gulf states. This is something that Egypt would benefit from politically, diplomatically and possibly economically, because of what will be asked of them.
This could be presented as a regional solution. One that benefits Israel, benefits the Palestinians no less than Israel, and all the countries in the region; because nobody has the stomach for this conflict right now. Yes, people are paying attention to this conflict – and it’s a terrible conflict – but there are other, more pressing issues in the world, especially what is happening in Syria right now. Whilst most Arab states are angry at what’s happening in Gaza right now, they are also pretty annoyed that Hamas instigated this.
It’s going to be very difficult to be against a ceasefire that ends this conflict and commits to serious reconstruction in Gaza, if the only caveat is that Gaza can no longer be a military base targeting Israel, and Hamas can no longer hide and build bunkers in and under hospitals, mosques and homes.
Dr. Matthew Levitt directs the Stein program on counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Hurst/Georgetown University Press, 2013).
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August 7, 2014
The international community should focus on systematically rolling back Hamas political and security control while opening Gaza to the outside world — beginning with a reestablished PA foothold at the Rafah crossing.
With the month-long conflict in the Gaza Strip perhaps nearing its denouement, the first and most important detail to be negotiated in any ceasefire agreement will be the fate of the border crossings connecting the territory with Israel and Egypt. Any lifting of the blockade surrounding Gaza must be contingent on the end of effective Hamas rule over the territory. The crossings therefore hold the key to securing the international community’s longer-term objectives: (1) facilitating the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza, particularly the redeployment of the PA security forces (PASF); (2) undertaking a massive reconstruction and development program while ensuring that materials for this program are not siphoned off by Hamas and other militant groups; and (3) beginning a demilitarization process, which in practical terms would initially mean preventing Hamas from rearming.
OVERVIEW OF THE CROSSINGS
Currently, there are five border crossings between Gaza and Israel, and one between Gaza and Egypt. According to the Israel-based NGO Gisha, all but two of these crossings were effectively closed even prior to the latest conflict:
- Nahal Oz: Closed in 2010, this crossing facilitated the entry of gas, benzene, and industrial diesel fuel into Gaza via underground pipes.
- Karni: Formerly the main transit point (via truck) for goods between Israel and Gaza, this crossing was partially closed in 2007 save for the movement of grain and animal feed via conveyer belt. The conveyer belt was shut down in 2011.
- Sufa: Closed in 2008, it was formerly a key transit point for construction materials.
- Kerem Shalom: The sole operational transit point into Gaza for goods and humanitarian aid (via truck). It has less capacity than Karni did at its peak.
- Erez: The sole crossing point for individual travel between Gaza and Israel. It is still operational, though Palestinians require entry permits into Israel that are usually issued for humanitarian, medical, or business purposes only. Erez also provides access to Gaza for foreign aid workers, journalists, and Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank.
- Rafah: The sole crossing not directly controlled by Israel, Rafah connects Gaza with Egypt. Cairo’s policy toward the crossing has fluctuated widely in recent years, with the military-backed government effectively closing it as of last summer. Rafah is used primarily for the movement of people but could serve as an export point for Gazan goods as well. In the past, the Egyptian government has also permitted small-scale deliveries of goods and humanitarian aid there.
ACCESS, MOVEMENT, AND SECURITY
Two months after its September 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Israel joined the PA in signing the Agreement on Access and Movement (AMA). The document’s main provisions dealt with the Gaza crossings: the PA was to assume control over Rafah while the crossings with Israel would be upgraded to allow for continuous operation and increased exports.
The PA security forces took control of Rafah in late November 2005, marking the first and only time the PA was given authority over an international border crossing. A European-sponsored training and inspection team, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Rafah (EUBAM), was created to provide a third-party supervision mechanism and build border management capacity among Palestinian forces. In addition to EU border and customs officers stationed at Rafah, an added supervisory role was also undertaken remotely via a liaison office in Kerem Shalom, where EUBAM, Israeli, and Palestinian representatives monitored Rafah through a realtime video and data feed.
According to a UN report issued one year after the AMA signing, the agreement started promisingly enough, especially with respect to the two major crossings at Rafah and Karni. Between November 2005 and June 2006, Rafah was open every day save one, for over nine hours a day, with an average of 650 people crossing daily — nearly double the rate for the six months prior to the AMA. At Karni, December 2005 proved to be the high-water mark, with the crossing open for all scheduled hours and the number of trucks moving exports doubling to sixty-six per day.
Yet security concerns would prove to be the undoing of the AMA and the overall border crossings framework. At Karni alone, for example, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reported at least nine security incidents in late 2005. The UN documented further incidents in 2006: the PA discovered a tunnel underneath Karni in January of that year, an explosion occurred near the crossing in February, and Palestinian militants attacked the terminal in April. The most serious incident took place on June 25, 2006, when militants launched an attack via a tunnel near Kerem Shalom, kidnapping IDF corporal Gilad Shalit.
Israel responded by curtailing operations at many of the crossings, including Rafah, where Israeli authorities effectively wielded a veto by denying access to EUBAM monitors (the monitors were based in Israel and typically entered Gaza via Kerem Shalom). The crossings regime received a fatal blow one year later, when Hamas launched a violent coup against the PA in June 2007. EUBAM immediately suspended all operations at Rafah, never to return, while Israel established an economic blockade against the new Hamas regime in Gaza that has lasted to the present day.
Even after the Hamas takeover, most of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel were still operating, albeit on a limited basis. Yet militants continued to target them, including an April 2008 attack at Nahal Oz that killed two Israeli workers, a May 2008 truck bomb at Erez, an April 2009 car bomb at Kerem Shalom that injured 11 IDF soldiers, a June 2009 assault involving mortars and explosive-laden horses at Karni, and a January 2010 mortar attack on Kerem Shalom. In response to these problems and the diminished need for multiple crossings, Israel shuttered all save Erez and Kerem Shalom. Authorities believed the latter crossing was easier to defend than others given its location entirely on the Israeli side of the border.
With ceasefire talks ongoing in Cairo, the exact contours of a more hopeful arrangement for Gaza are still unknown. The international community and Israel are aware of the need to reopen Gaza to the outside world — for humanitarian, economic, and social reasons above all else. But from Israel and Egypt’s perspective, lifting the blockade would have to be contingent on ending effective Hamas rule over the territory. In that scenario, the parties would be most likely to accept an arrangement in which the PA returns to Gaza, effectively reasserting political and security control while gradually rolling back the 2007 coup.
According to Palestinian officials and media reports, such a scenario was discussed after the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement was signed in April, with talk of the PASF redeploying to the Rafah crossing. And even after the violence and instability of the past two months, neither Hamas nor Fatah leaders have publicly disavowed the reconciliation, so a PASF return would have a high degree of internal Palestinian legitimacy. Moreover, the Egyptian government has stated that any reopening of Rafah would be contingent on the PASF resuming authority there.
The Palestinian press has spoken of 3,000 elite PA Presidential Guard troops deploying from the West Bank to Gaza, though this figure is assuredly inflated — not least because there are only an estimated 2,650 Presidential Guards in total. The more likely scenario is that a small detachment of Presidential Guards would take direct control of the Rafah terminal as they have in the past, with a larger contingent of National Security Forces, the more generic PASF paramilitary arm, providing wider border and installation security.
The shortfall in PASF personnel available from the West Bank will have to be met over time by vetting and retraining a portion of the estimated 34,000 Fatah-affiliated security personnel still living in Gaza. These personnel hail from the various branches of the PASF (civil police, coastal police, National Security Forces, etc.) and are among the numerous Fatah public-sector employees who continued receiving salaries from the PA after the Hamas coup. With assistance from the U.S.-led Security Coordinator mission in Jerusalem, the PASF — particularly Military Intelligence personnel — have become adept at vetting applicants for ties to militant groups. Eventually, such a process would have to be undertaken for the estimated 40,000 Hamas-affiliated public-sector workers in Gaza, approximately half of whom are believed to be security forces.
Finally, it should be noted that Rafah has a history of internal Palestinian security incidents that have forced its closure, including Hamas-Fatah clashes (e.g., over the former’s attempts to move cash into Gaza) and intra-Fatah disputes. A significant PASF presence is therefore essential to ameliorate Egyptian security concerns and ensure smooth functioning.
THE INTERNATIONAL ROLE
Many of the potential advantages of taking a “Rafah first” approach hinge on the international community’s postwar role. The U.S.-led Security Coordinator mission will be crucial, as will other existing international mechanisms for Gaza. Despite suspending operations at Rafah seven years ago, EUBAM’s mandate has been extended yearly, with a skeleton crew working from headquarters just north of Tel Aviv. Resuming the EUBAM mission in full would be necessary for the same reasons it was originally created — training Palestinian border/customs officers and building confidence between Israelis and Palestinians.
An expanded monitoring and security program would also be needed for construction materials and other dual-use goods flowing into Gaza. Almost all of the construction projects taking place in Gaza over the past year were UN-sponsored jobs approved and verified by the IDF. The UN implemented a rigorous monitoring program on materials imported for these projects, including international inspectors, trusted local guards, and closed-circuit cameras. According to IDF and UN officials, the program was successful in ensuring chain of custody and end use, so that Hamas and other militant groups could not siphon off materials for their own purposes (Hamas is believed to have built its extensive tunnel network using cement smuggled from Egypt or, to a lesser degree, from Qatari housing construction in Gaza — not from UN projects carried out after the inspection system was in place). If international plans for the reconstruction of Gaza are to move forward on the scale now being discussed, then an expansive monitoring and security program is essential.
The international community’s objectives for Gaza should center on systematically rolling back Hamas political and security control while opening the territory to the outside world so that humanitarian relief and reconstruction are possible. The only mechanism for meeting both objectives is the PA’s return to Gaza as the sole legitimate authority — beginning with a foothold at the Rafah crossing. Focusing on Rafah and the border crossings with Israel would also increase the flow of goods and construction materials into Gaza while stymieing Hamas attempts to reconstitute its military arsenal and tunnel networks. If the Cairo talks are to produce — as Secretary of State John Kerry and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon put it — “a durable ceasefire,” then addressing the crossings is imperative. The one positive that may yet come from a month of war is if it signals the beginning of the end of Hamas’s disastrous reign over Gaza, starting from the outside and working in.
Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at The Washington Institute, is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture.
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The Media’s Role in Hamas’ War Strategy
Hamas’ PR strategy can only work if international news media follows the script, whether willingly or under coercion.
In this most recent exchange of hostilities between Hamas and Israel, a number of commentators have noted Hamas’ unusual war tactics. Jeffrey Goldberg asks, “Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed?” Even Mahmoud Abbas queried, “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” As Bob Schieffer put it with a touch of euphemism:
In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause—a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.
It appears to some, like Michael Oren, that Hamas deliberately maximizes its own people’s suffering for PR. To others, such a strategy would be so base and unthinkable, that they consider the very suggestion of it “racist and reprehensible.” Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal officially denies that Hamas engages in such a heinous policy, even as other Palestinian Jihadis brag about media-assured benefits derived from their own civilians’ deaths. And now, the IDF has possession of a Hamas training manual that advises its combatants to use civilian shields.
- Episodically attack Israel’s civilians in such as way as to provoke a counter-attack.
- Hide behind Palestinian civilians (preferably in crowded neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals), while encouraging them, even forcing them, to stay, guaranteeing that the return fire wounds or kills civilians and damages civilian structures.
- Encourage the Western news media to play up the civilian suffering, play down Hamas’ role in it, and accuse Israel.
- Conjure a firestorm of outrage around the world that eventually pressures Israel into desisting from counteroffensive measures.
- Survive to reap the propaganda victory and prepare the next round of hostilities.
- Repeat, with each exchange hurting Israel more, and each round of international news coverage further savaging the Jewish State’s international reputation.
No matter what the Israeli response, the Hamas strategy is win-win. If the Israelis abort a strike to avoid civilian casualties (as they often do), then Hamas is spared the blow; if an Israeli strike causes civilian casualties, Hamas has dead babies to parade before the cameras. And eventually, the bloodletting will get so bad, the pictures so damning, that Israel will stop. Hamas’ endgame goals, at least at this stage of its asymmetrical war, are actually threefold: tie Israel down with constraints on its use of power, delegitimize and demonize it in the eyes of the world, and stir an aggressive “Muslim Street” in the West, where genocidal chants can lead to pogroms against the Jews worldwide.
This time, however, this “dead baby” strategy, despite a pedigree of decades, has become increasingly apparent to the observant, perhaps because Hamas has resorted to ever-more obvious tactics to victimize their own people: storing its weapons and firing them from residential areas, hospitals, schools and mosques and even, hiding its leaders under Shiffa hospital. Asked about this, UN official John Ging readily admits: “Yes the armed groups are firing their armed rockets into Israel from the vicinity of UN facilities and residential areas, absolutely.” Indeed, in some cases, while journalists speak to the camera, often following Hamas’ script, Jihadis fire rockets right nearby—live, as it were.
The pattern consistently demonstrates what one Gazan from Tal Awad described to an Italian journalist in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead: “They wanted the [Israelis] to shoot at the [the civilians’] houses so they could accuse them of more war crimes.” The importance of these rockets is not where they’re aimed, but whence they’re fired. They’re a reverse target, designed to create the carnage that will rouse Western indignation.
Israel, operating in these terrible conditions expends considerable resources on an elaborate and multi-staged system of warnings encouraging civilians to leave, right down to calling the residents of houses on their cell phones. Hamas in response calls on people to make themselves human shields, and when they demur, Hamas orders and coerces them to stay. When refugees do flee to UN Schools and other shelters, Hamas follows them there, firing at Israel repeatedly from their midst, drawing Israeli fire toward the shelter. Almost every Israeli strike on or near a hospital or school was a direct result of fire emanating from the facility.
At the same time as Hamas draws Israeli return fire down on Palestinian civilians, Palestinian Jihadis fire their own rockets so wildly that 10-25 percent of their own rockets land in Gaza.
This happens so often that Hamas has cleaners who clear out their own munitions debris before the Western media are allowed on the scene. During Operation Pillar of Cloud (2012), a Hamas rocket misfired and exploded among civilians. AP reporter Karen Laub noted at the time: “Neighbors said local security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.” The same crews get a mention in a tweet by an Italian journalist, offered as “proof” of Hamas’ responsibility for the shelling: “militants rushed and cleared debris.” With all these own-goal rockets, casualties pile up: people not just trapped into getting killed by their purported enemy but getting killed by their supposed “defenders.”
In Beit Hanoun and Shati Refugee camps, own-goal strikes kill dozens of Palestinian men women and children. The news media run images of their suffering on the presumption of Israeli guilt. But when the dust settles and analysts do an honest reckoning of the casualty figures, sifting out the impact of propaganda on the statistics, even the most pro-Palestinian figures will show that Hamas killed many more Palestinian civilians with their rockets than they have killed Israelis. Where Palestinian casualties caused by Israelis will likely approximate a low urban warfare 1:1 civilian/combatant ratio, those caused by Hamas will have a much higher ratio.
The Western News Media’s Scripted Role
Of course, Hamas’ strategy, what Elie Wiesel characterizes as child sacrifice, can only work if it has the sustained cooperation of the international news media, which must fulfill two key tasks in the strategy: 1) broadcast to the outside world the suffering the conflict causes; and 2) implicitly or explicitly blame Israel for that suffering. Without the first, there is no sense of outrage and urgency. Without the second, the world might not intervene on the Jihadi side.
Hamas shows full cognizance of the media’s importance. It has even issued detailed directions to Gazan “social media activists.” And although Hamas addressed them to Palestinian social media activists, the guidelines clearly apply to their media “fixers,” who direct all the foreign journalists working in Gaza. One might call these directives the “Hamas media protocols.”
- not to show Hamas fighters, certainly not firing from hospitals and schools;
- to attribute all the casualties to Israeli attacks;
- to call all dead “civilians”;
- to give the statistics Hamas supplies as facts, emphasizing how the “vast majority” of casualties are civilian;
- to show the face of Palestinian suffering 24-7;
- to give voice—their own and those of invited guests—to indignation and outrage over the appalling carnage.
So consistently has the media played these scripted roles that it has become a mere pawn in a predictable game. Jeremy Bowen explains: every conflict plays out between the time the Israelis go in to stop the rocketing until the time that Western outrage at civilian casualties gets them to stop. The more victims, the greater the pressure. Anticipating the ground invasion, Christiane Amanpour asks Tony Blair during Operation Cast Lead: “The civilian casualties in Gaza are obviously going to put huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?” It is a main goal of the activist media to emphasize Palestinian suffering to such a degree that Israel will stop.
And that emphasis indeed pervades the coverage: all the news Hamas sees fit to print. The overwhelming majority of the images on the television screens feature injured and dead Palestinians. As Michael Oren explained Hamas’ media strategy to CNN, for example, the viewer saw wall-to-wall Palestinian suffering, especially children. No one, apparently not even the State Department, can watch this coverage, no matter how inaccurate, without succumbing to its subliminal message.
Take, for example, the shelling of Shaati refugee camp in Gaza City and adjacent Shiffa Hospital on July 28. Newsrooms featured the ten innocent refugees, including eight children killed. The IDF denied responsibility for this carnage. But it didn’t matter what Israel said, nor did it matter that its evidence involved the tracking technology of Iron Dome. UN’s Ban Ki Moon called it “shameful, outrageous and unjustified,” while UNRWA’s General Commissioner lamented “the world stands disgraced” (presumably by Israel’s wanton slaughter of innocents). The belated tweet of an Italian reporter (to which we shall return below), confirming that Hamas rockets had hit the school, excited the Zionist blogosphere, but had no effect on the mainstream discussion.
One gets the distinct sense that these journalists don’t think they’re assisting Hamas in maximizing the human casualties. Some seem to think that their aggressive rush to judgment, invariably against Israel, is a form of “peace journalism,” designed to end the carnage as quickly as possible. They take for granted that their job is to nail the Israelis for their disproportionate brutality. Journalists publicly exult in their victory: “Gripping Gaza images upend balance of PR power in Middle East.” And in so doing—whatever their reasons—they not only thoroughly misinform their audiences, but do so precisely as Hamas would want.
Intimidation and Advocacy Motivate Media’s Cooperation
The single most compelling reason for the near-unanimity of the media’s cooperation with Hamas is not advocacy, which alone could not create such a consensus, but rather intimidation. Like all systems of omertà this one covers its tracks. Some observers have pointedly asked, for example, why the mainstream news media has conveyed so few images of Hamas “militants.” The New York Times responded that out of the hundreds of photos from weeks of warfare, their award-winning photographer and his crew had provided only two blurry ones. Is this sheer incompetence? Or is it because, as one journalist, just out of Gaza told an Israeli off-the-record: “If we ever dared point our camera at them, they would shoot at us and kill us.” Asked to say that on camera, the journalist “refused and almost ran away.”
But in the Twitter age, evidence of cover-up abounds for those who care to look. Several journalists have reported receiving a wave of SMS threats when they even tweet about Hamas using human shields. Accused of being informants or fifth columnists who are lying and fabricating for Israel, these journalists rapidly learn how seriously Hamas considers their trade a weapon of war and their non-compliance a form of treason. The subsequent disappearance of many of those tweets indicates just how far Hamas’ threats reach.
Occasionally, a really telling piece of evidence appears. Two days after the shelling of Shaati and Shifa, that had “disgraced the world,” an Italian journalist tweeted:
Out of #Gaza far from #Hamas retaliation: misfired rocket killed children y[ester]day in Shati. Witness [proof]: militants rushed and cleared debris.
So, just as Israel had claimed, jihadis had killed their own women and children, cleaned the site, and then brought in journalists to blame Israel. It was indeed disgraceful on many counts, none of which concerned Israel. And yet we only know about this, if we do at all, because this one journalist felt himself beyond Hamas’ reach.
In a dramatic episode, Palestinian-born French journalist Radjaa Abou Dagga found himself summoned to Hamas offices (inside Shifa hospital), alternately accused of working for Abbas or the Israelis, and expelled from Gaza with instructions to work no more. Libération published his account, which makes it clear that such intimidation is common. Indeed, a colleague refused him shelter for the night because he, too, had received these threats: “You don’t mess with these people during a war.” Three days later, Libé took down Dagga’s article at his request. With family in Gaza, he clearly did not feel beyond Hamas’ reach.
If true, why does this terrible tale of civilian victimization and journalistic intimidation go untold? Some answer, because it’s not true: “Hamas does not use human shields,” BBC’s Jeremy Bowen assures us. Nor, insists CNN’s Karl Penhaul, do “any of the militant movements and factions here in Gaza,” give journalists “any form of instruction.” For one CNN analyst, it’s “complicated”, but, insists James Fallows, we owe our reporters respect. After all, would they all misinform us? Or is their intimidation and cowardice a public secret they won’t admit?
Missing Corrective: Media Self-criticism
Reporters thrown into the Gazan PR furnace must go through a great deal of mental anguish. On the one hand, as journalists who want to be taken seriously, they cannot avow the threat for violating Hamas Protocols (including forbidding the mention of these rules). Imagine Western audiences viewing a segment from Gaza while below a streamer informed: Report produced under severe conditions of Hamas censorship? On the other hand, they have to live with the knowledge that they daily violate their vocation’s fundamental principles, and that, in so doing, they turn a blind eye to terrible deeds, betraying both their audience at home and the Palestinian people (not to mention Israel).
It is should be one of the great agenda items of professional journalists to develop a special branch of research and ethical discussion on the problems of covering 21st-century asymmetrical wars in which the weak side systematically intimidates journalists and the strong side has democratic commitments to a free press. We can’t ask journalists to seek out martyrdom in the cause of Truth (even if their code does call for courage), but we ought to be able to hope that they would let us know, subtly if necessary, just how deep the intimidation goes.
Most of the time, it seems like the media reacts to criticism of its forced collaboration with Hamas’ war strategy with indignation and a rapid call to change the subject. Instead, they depict Israel as trying to censor, intimidate, and kill journalists, and themselves as bravely resisting this intimidation. CNN’s Karl Penhaul rejected as “obscene,” the mere suggestion that “we [journalists] would show dead, wounded, and dying to make headlines,” then denied any Hamas “instructions” on what to and not to report. On the contrary, tweeted one beleaguered journalist, Western journalists in Gaza feel bullied not by Hamas, but their Zionist critics in cyberspace who accuse them of doing Hamas’ bidding.
In a recent op-ed Michael Oren warned:
Just as Israel must relentlessly scrutinize its military actions in Gaza and their consequences, so, too, must journalists take a hard look at the way they cover this conflict. They must not allow themselves to act as accessories to Hamas’s murderous strategy that delegitimizes Israel and prolongs the Palestinians’ suffering.
When Bill Clinton told an Indian journalist that Hamas “knows it cannot lose politically with this strategy” of forcing Israel to kill its own people, he assumed (as does Hamas) that the media will always cooperate. Were our journalists to recover even a fraction of the courage and honesty that we assume they, as professionals, exercise on a daily basis, things would look very different on this troubled planet of ours. They might start the sobering task by answering the following questionnaire from Harry’s Place.