Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hamas runs wild in Gaza

Another day, another tale of Israeli soldiers misbehaving. The last time this happened back in March, I was horrified when I picked up my Toronto Star and read about Israeli soldiers saying they’d witnessed deliberate murders of Palestinians. But then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that such “news” is usually bogus.

Sure enough, the next day, it began to come out that these weren’t eye-witness reports, merely rumours, and that some of the soldiers passing on stories of abuse weren’t even in Gaza.

No real surprise. The Israeli army (the IDF) has a well-deserved reputation for professionalism and decency. Most of the soldiers involved in large operations are ordinary people, like me and you. They were called up to help clear the rocket launching sites out of Gaza, and they behaved well and occasionally heroically. (See here.)

However, the Toronto Star followed up its original yarn with an article explaining how war dehumanizes, resulting in indiscriminate killing. This story tried for even-handedness in that it wasn’t just about Israel.

It noted how the Palestinians glorify terrorism and referred to Hamas’s TV programming for children in which J is for Jihad and S is for Shahid – a martyr who kills Jews for Allah.
But the Star’s premise was all wrong. In this conflict, only Hamas targeted civilians.

Indeed, not only does Hamas attempt to murder Israelis, it’s also careless of Palestinian lives. Its soldiers shed their uniforms and hid behind civilians. They used mosques as weapon depots and fired upon Israeli troops from houses.

For its part, Israel went to extraordinary lengths to spare civilians, individually phoning residents of buildings and warning them to get out – a level of care never taken by any other army in the history of warfare. (For a military perspective on this see here.)

When the IDF eventually released the results of its investigation into the allegations, the Star did report it, but as in most of the media, the article was brief and buried in the back pages.
Worse, after stating the IDF had dismissed the allegations as hearsay, the bulk of the story repeated details of some of the worst allegations. And of course it’s details that stick in a reader’s mind.

The Star also left out that the IDF had meticulously tracked the rumours back to their sources and found they were simply untrue.

That won’t happen again, because this time around, the sources of the rumours have been carefully concealed.

For Israel’s reputation, this makes little difference. If the IDF were able to investigate the allegations, the media would again report the conclusions in a paragraph buried in the back pages and would again use the IDF’s report mainly as an opportunity to refresh the original allegations.
This isn’t malice (not usually). It’s just that when the Toronto Star headlines a story: “Israeli troops run wild in Gaza,” it sells papers. A story headlined: “Israeli troops behave well” is merely true.

“If it bleeds it leads,” as the saying goes. So when a source offers them blood, journalists have a hard time saying no, even if the story can’t be verified and the source has an axe to grind.

This is the case with the latest allegations. The reports come from Breaking the Silence, an organization dedicated to blackening the image of Israel’s military. As for the allegations themselves, they’re at least third hand: Breaking the Silence saying what a soldier says that another soldier told him.

Breaking the Silence claims the stories come from soldiers who were in Gaza and claims they edited the stories only to conceal the soldiers’ identities. But because of that concealment, not a word can be verified.

Nonetheless, most media applied little scepticism. The Toronto Star put the story on the front page, with the sensationalist headline: “Gaza invasion: ‘If you’re not sure – kill.’” But midway through, the Star did at least get around to mentioning Israel’s side of the story.

The Globe and Mail’s article was much worse, with no pretence of even-handedness and not a whiff of skepticism. did a far better job. Its story is full of the language of doubt: “Breaking the Silence…said it has testimony.” The soldiers, “say they took part in January's military operation in Gaza.” The soldiers “are claiming.” The soldiers “allege...”

The CBC article noted the difficulty of verifying any of the information, gave space to the IDF’s rebuttal starting in the second paragraph – not halfway through the article – and as befits such a dodgy story, buried it in the back web-pages.

By foregoing sensationalism, the CBC surely missed getting people’s attention. But they kept their integrity, and hopefully, in the long run, that counts for more, even in the news business.

Of course it's possible that some of the stories reported by Breaking the Silence are true or partially true. In every war there's a danger of soldiers abusing the civilian population. It's occasionally happened with Canadian soldiers and with Israeli soldiers, too.

We know this because, like all well-disciplined armies, the IDF investigates allegations of abuse and, when evidence of a crime exists, prosecutes. The other day, a soldier was convicted of stealing a Palestinian's credit card, and the IDF is pursuing a dozen other criminal investigations.

But by concealing the soldiers' identities, Breaking the Silence has insured that nothing can be done about their allegations - no investigation, no disciplinary action or exoneration, no changes made to do a better job of protecting civilians next time around.

But then Breaking the Silence isn't interested in protecting Palestinian civilians. The Israeli army is much more interested in doing that.

A shorter version of this piece previously appeared in the July 28, 2009, Jewish Tribune, and on Dust My Broom.


  1. Comment? Oh no, I'm not going to fall for that. You're not going to get me to say anything, because if I say anything you'll call me an antisemite bastard.

  2. Anonymous,
    Of course there's always the possibility you are an antisemite bastard...