Soon after the second intifada broke out in September 2000, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy in Gaza, crouching in fear against a wall with his father, was reportedly killed during gunfire exchange between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. A French news video of the incident was seen around the world, and Israel was accused widely of the killing.
It took more than a dozen years and countless media reports, legal trials and investigations before it was determined by most objective observers that Israel was not responsible for the boy’s death, if indeed he died. “This was a blood libel against Israel,” concluded Yuval Steinitz, who chaired a special Israeli committee of inquiry in 2013. Four years earlier two French media experts who examined the raw footage of the film determined that the only way the boy, Mohammad al-Dura, could have been hit by an Israeli bullet was if it had traveled around a corner.
But of course by the time the infamous case was closed, the damage in terms of Israel’s image had long been done.
What brings the incident to mind now is that the primary narrative of Israeli aggression and over-zealous bombing, as described by mainstream media in this summer’s Gaza war, is being called into question on a number of fronts. But again, it may be too late to change people’s perceptions.
A lengthy piece for Forbes online by investigative journalist Richard Behar accuses mainstream journalists, and especially The New York Times, of a “media intifada” in which Israel is skewered while reporters have allowed themselves to become part of “the Hamas war machine,” whose tactics endanger Gaza civilians and fuel anti-Semitism in the West as the civilian casualties pile up.
Behar cites an Aug. 11 statement by the Foreign Press Association in Israel, not known for its sympathy for Jerusalem, which asserted that Hamas threatens foreign reporters through “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods.”
A number of foreign journalists, many of them from Europe and now safely out of Gaza, have come forward and said they were intimidated and threatened by Hamas. They acknowledged that they did not report on Hamas operating out of schools, hospitals and mosques while they were in Gaza for fear of their lives. These incidents have been little covered in the U.S. mainstream press. The Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, took exception to the FPA statement, saying it could be “dangerous” to the “credibility” of the foreign press.
But Behar’s exhaustive report asserts that press credibility has been endangered by its own lack of objectivity, its willingness to accept for weeks highly suspect casualty figures provided by Hamas and local UN officials, and its failure to report on Hamas operating and firing out of residential areas, with some of its errant rockets directly responsible for civilian casualties.
Another critique of mainstream media comes from Matti Friedman, a former AP reporter who has covered the Mideast extensively. Writing in Tablet, the online Jewish magazine, he accuses editors and journalists of “severe malfunction” when it comes to reporting on Israel. “Every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported” while Palestinian society gets a free pass, Friedman maintains. “Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story.”
The broader criticism is that Mideast reporting essentially revolves around the Israel-Palestinian conflict rather than the real, and connected, story: the growing radical Islam movement that is sweeping the region and bringing untold chaos and destruction.
One senses that reports like those by Behar and Friedman preach to the converted, giving additional information and confirmation to those who share their views on Israel and media bias but probably not changing the views of Jerusalem’s critics.
Behar agreed with that assessment. “Positions just tend to harden,” he told us. But it’s our obligation” to tell the truth.
He is right. Let’s hope enough thoughtful readers are paying attention.