—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
1 February 2009

Time magazine: Sympathy for the Pulverisers

Right now in Gaza, the guns, like the corpses, are silent. Unfortunately, only the former can emerge from their silence. So before the quiet is again shattered, perhaps now is the time for a reckoning.

Time magazine has recently furnished this author with one of those 'can hold my tongue no longer' moments. Before we deal with its coverage of the Israeli attack, however, consider the following information, all of which may be gleaned from a single mainstream British newspaper:

The view from The Guardian:

The scoresheet to date for the Israeli assault on the Gaza strip, one of the most densely populated and impoverished tracts of land in the world, is as follows:

  • Number of Palestinians killed: 1,234, of which 410 were children.
  • Estimated number of Palestinians who have fled their homes: 100,000.[1]
  • Proportion of Palestinian ambulances destroyed: half.[2]
  • Number of Israelis killed: 13, of which 3 were civilians, and 4 were soldiers killed in friendly fire.[3]
  • Number of Israelis killed by rocket fire from Gaza before December 2008 attack: 18 in the previous eight years; 1 in the previous six months.[4]
The figures, though they may be grotesquely revealing, in fact conceal the appalling reality on the ground in Gaza, which may be unmasked as follows:

In Zeitoun, up to 30 Palestinians in one house were killed by Israeli shelling, an event highlighted in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' demand for an investigation into violations of humanitarian law by Israel.[5]

Quote: 'Four exhausted children, so weak that they could not stand, were discovered cowering in a house next to their mothers' bodies, by staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which accused the Israeli military of 'unacceptable' delays in allowing medics safe access to injured Gazans'.[6] Such stories have perhaps prompted the crocodile tears now flowing from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: 'We feel the pain of any Palestinian child,' he explained. 'Any shout of pain.'[7] (It may be observed that his 'feeling' such pain apparently did not render him squeamish about continuing to inflict it.)

Jamela Habash, 15 years of age, lost both her legs in an Israeli missile attack.[8]

50-year old Zakia Dabor, who lives in Salatin, is reported as giving her testimony to The Guardian 'while watching her daughters cleaning the mess where Israeli soldiers urinated and defecated in two rooms of her shelled house'[9]

There was also the assault on the UN. Two UN schools in Gaza were shelled (46 Palestinians killed; 100 injured); as was a clearly marked UN convoy (2 drivers killed).[10] The UN stated that it had given the Israeli military the GPS coordinates of the school with a view to protecting the civilians sheltering there.[11]

Quote: 'Amira Qirm lay on a hospital bed with her right leg in plaster and a line of steel pins dug into her skin. For several days after he operation, Amira, 15, was unable to speak and even now talks only in a whisper. In her past are bitter memories: watching her father die outside their home, then watching another shell land and kill her brother Ala'a, 14, and her sister Ismat, 16, and then the three days she spent alone, injured and semi-conscious, trying to stay alive in a neighbour's abandoned house before she could be rescued.'

Since much of the discussion on the aftermath of Israel's Gazan assault has centred around speculation that it will breed of a new generation of Palestinian militants, it seems apposite to give the last word to Amira Qirm: 'I want to be a lawyer, and to stand in court facing the Israelis for what they have done.'[12]

The view from Time:

Consider all of the above, and then consider the cover story which Time magazine decided to run on January 19, 2009. While the nuclear-armed, never-beaten regional superpower was continuing its savagely disproportionate bombardment, scattering and immiserating thousands of civilians, Time deemed this the appropriate moment to explain (on the cover, no less) 'why [Israel] is in peril like never before.' The notion that the Palestinians might have been in peril, or that their very survival (as a conquered and occupied people since 1967) might be at stake, had no place in an article remarkably entitled 'Can Israel Survive?'

The grotesqueries continued within, where Israel's pain was keenly felt. Thus we learn that Israel faces 'excruciating dilemmas'. To wit: 'how do you make peace with those who don't seem to want it?' We are to presume, I suppose, that the Palestinians could not fairly ask themselves the same question about their antagonists. Having had their homeland destroyed in 1948, and having undertaken the remarkable step (long before Hamas were ever heard of) of deciding to give up the remaining 78% of historical Palestine to the Israelis, the Palestinians have since had to watch as Israel tightened its stranglehold on the remaining 22%, expanded its Jewish settlements in brazen violation of international law, and studiously hairsplit and delayed every peace proposal that came before it. This was the reward that 'moderates' got: a lesson that was doubtless not lost on the populace at large.

Of course, a supposedly reputable mainstream news publication must at some point go about the tiresome business of avoiding accusations of bias. Thus, perfunctory mentions of the plight of the Palestinians provide an exculpatory veneer. But it can hardly have escaped the attention of discerning readers that each time the issue of Palestinian suffering is raised, it's always within the larger context of the plight of the Israelis. Here, for example, is how 'Palestinian civilians' are mentioned in Tim McGirk's article:

'With each passing day, Israel's war against Hamas grows riskier and more punishing, with the gains appearing to diminish against the spiraling [sic] costs ' to Israel's moral stature, to the lives of Palestinian civilians and to the world's hopes that an ancient conflict can ever be resolved.'[13]

Note the intellectual structure of the sentence. 'Palestinian civilians' are a small problem set against the backdrop of larger Israeli concerns, or just a nebulously global hope for peace. In his pamphlet England and Ireland, the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill also considered the relationship between conqueror and conquered, but was prepared to point out that the 'Irish Question' was not so much England's Irish problem as Ireland's English problem. McGirk's fallacy of emphasis, which considers Palestine only in terms of its nuisance value to Israel, sweepingly inverts this item of common sense. He continues:

'By Jan. 7, more than 700 Palestinians, many of them non-combatants, had been killed. But there's something tragic, too, in Israel's predicament: in any confrontation with its enemies, it is damned if it does and doomed if it doesn't.'[14]

Consider the two things McGirk has placed in his moral weighing scales: on one side, we have over 700 dead bodies. On the other side we have an abstract strategic issue, which McGirk does not take the trouble to elaborate on. Yet somehow the alarm bell ('doom') is only permitted to sound on the side that has created the mound of corpses. Here's McGirk again:

'The threat posed by Hamas is only the most immediate of the interlocking challenges facing Israel, some of which cast dark shadows over the long-term viability of a democratic Jewish state'[15]

A 'shadow' creeping over the 'democratic state' was there for all to see the week before. As reported in The Guardian, Israel's parliament has banned Arab parties from running in next week's election.[16] How's that for democracy? While the military suppress the occupied, the democratic rights of the 20% of Israel's population that don't matter are simply flushed away, by means of unsubstantiated claims about sedition. But Time, apparently, is not interested in such irksome facts. It's the abstract shadows that are more substantial. Or: it's the metaphor, stupid.

Compare-and-contrast the studious, evasive abstractness of Time's reportage to the hard-hitting, on-the-ground, fact-intensive reporting of The Guardian. In short, when openly known facts openly disgrace Israel, there are always certain organs of the American media who can be depended upon to say ' without furnishing anything in the way of examples ' that: (i) there's a conflict going on; (ii) there are victims on both sides; and (iii) the situation is hand-wringingly lamentable ' assertions which, respectively (i) mask the enormous military disproportion of the conflict; (ii) mask the correspondingly disproportionate number of casualties on the Palestinian side; and (iii) fail lamentably to bring home the quotidian reality of the purgatory that Gaza has been turned into.

Note that there is also a ham-fisted attempt in McGirk's article to get the reader to look at an irrelevant 'broader picture' of the Middle East (Iran, Hezbollah) in which nothing remotely as notable as the Gaza assault was happening that month. Anyone might think that such counsel on 'viewer discretion' was furnished with a view to making the reader look away, lest he see the true face of America's strongest ally.

All of this might be bearable were it not prefaced by a blithely self-congratulatory editorial on the Gaza crisis from editor Richard Stengel, who asserted that 'The hallmark of our coverage of Israel is balance.' The very statement is itself unbalanced, since the conflict is about Israel/Palestine, not Israel. This accidental admission of being 'balanced towards Israel' was an intellectual gaffe which was borne out by the remainder of the article, which focused entirely on Israel and never mentioned the plight of the Palestinians. The dependable abstractness was on show here too: the assertion that 'the struggle has intensified between Israel and Gaza' of course masks which part of the Holy Land has been more 'intensely' bombarded. And we are again asked to look away from conspicuously current affairs by pondering 'what the future holds for the Jewish state.'

Here's a little snippet of journalistic advice which Mr. Stengel and Mr. McGirk might do well to heed. It comes from the Jewish writer (and one-time staunch Zionist) Arthur Koestler. While covering the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (during which Franco's fascists treated the world to the spectacle of the world's first carpet-bombing of a major urban population ' a spectacle now all too familiar to us), Koestler had the following to say:

'There is a form of journalistic vanity which is just as dangerous as the indulgence in unscrupulous and tendentious propaganda; I call it 'objectivity neurosis.' The journalist who is determined at all costs to give proof of his objectivity often succumbs to the temptation of maintaining silence with regard to concrete facts, because these facts are in themselves so crude that he is afraid of appearing biased.'[17]

Are Mr Stengel and his staff in the grip of such a neurosis regarding Israel's conduct? I will leave the reader to judge from the above evidence. Stengel ended his piece by quoting with approval an underling's claim that 'honesty is a duty' and then adding 'it's one that we have always striven to meet.' The moral vacuum which Stengel's anodyne editorial presented to Time readers was at least filled by its entertainment value for connoisseurs of fine prose: at one point he described the middle east as 'this volcanic part of the world.'[18]

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1 'Strip's survivors have little faith war is over'; The Guardian Weekly, 23 January 2009. Note that since Gaza is effectively a refugee camp, the Israeli bombardment has created 'refugees from refugee camps'. (The phrase is from Robert Fisk, who observed the same phenomena during Israel's bombardment of west Beirut in 1982. See Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Oxford University Press, Third Edition, 2001.)
2 'When victory is a hollow word'; The Guardian Weekly, 9 January 2009.
3 'Both sides declare a fragile ceasefire'; 'Thousands of children face a long road to recovery'; The Guardian Weekly, 23 January 2009, and 30 January 2009 respectively.
4 'Israel vows to fight Hamas 'to bitter end''; 'Killing a two-state solution', The Guardian Weekly, 2 January 2009.
5 'Israelis 'could be guilty of humanitarian crimes'', The Guardian Weekly, 16 January 2009.
6 'Israelis 'could be guilty of humanitarian crimes'', The Guardian Weekly, 16 January 2009.
7 'Both sides declare a fragile ceasefire', The Guardian Weekly, 23 January 2009.
8 ''This one to the morgue, this one to intensive care'', The Guardian Weekly, 16 January 2009.
9 'Strip's survivors have little faith war is over'; The Guardian Weekly, 23 January 2009.
10 'Israelis 'could be guilty of humanitarian crimes'', The Guardian Weekly, 16 January 2009.
11 'Both sides declare a fragile ceasefire', The Guardian Weekly, 23 January 2009.
12 'Thousands of children face a long road to recovery', The Guardian Weekly, 30 January 2009.
13 Tim McGirk, 'Can Israel Survive?' Time, 19 January 2009
14 Tim McGirk, 'Can Israel Survive?' Time, 19 January 2009
15 Tim McGirk, 'Can Israel Survive?' Time, 19 January 2009
16 'Arab political parties banned from poll', The Guardian Weekly, 16 January 2009
17 Arthur Koestler, Spanish Testament, Victor Gollancz Limited, London, 1937, p. 84.
18 Richard Stengel, 'Covering the Holy Land' Time, 19 January 2009