Images of Gaza plunged in darkness alongside pictures of Palestinians streaming across the border to Egypt provided Hamas with a significant public relations victory last week. It wouldn't have been possible without the complicity of major media, all too happy to invoke the usual narrative of Israel as the "bad guy" and the Palestinians as "the victims."
While Israel's image undoubtedly took a mauling, the bigger picture is starting to emerge - one that shows how Hamas was able to pull off a sophisticated operation before the eyes of the mainstream media (MSM).
A 'cycle of violence'?
Most media presented the Gaza crisis in a manner similar to the AP:
It started last week with what Israel says was the inadvertent killing of a son of Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar in an Israeli arrest raid. Hamas retaliated with rocket barrages on Israel, and Israel struck back by sealing Gaza hermetically and cutting off fuel shipments. Several days later, Gaza militants blew down the border wall with Egypt, effectively ending the Israeli blockade, which had been tacitly backed by Egypt.
Why did the media fail to add the vital context? Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in mid-June 2007 until the end of December 2007, 475 missiles and 631 mortars were fired at Sderot and the surrounding region. Since January 16, 2008, well over 200 Qassams and mortars have been fired by Palestinian terrorists from Gaza.
Despite this, most media chose to attribute Israeli security measures as the cause of the Gaza situation rather than the continuous Palestinian terror that necessitated an Israeli response.
Who turned off the lights?
Were the power cuts and Palestinian demonstrations staged by Hamas in coordination with the Arab media? Calev Ben David of the Jerusalem Post wonders:
Indeed, so ready was Al-Jazeera with live coverage of candle-bearing Palestinian children and immediate reaction from across the Arab world, that Israeli officials said Tuesday they strongly suspect the Arab news network had coordinated its coverage in advance with the Hamas leadership.
"They were so prepared, it's hard to believe they didn't know this was going to happen," said the official. "Although it's already dark in Gaza by 6 p.m., they waited two hours to shut their generator down so that the lights going out in Gaza could be carried live on Al-Jazeeera during prime-time viewing."
Writing in the same paper, Amir Mizroch notes:
The footage was powerful and unforgettable: thousands of people gathered to light candles in a Gaza City plunged into darkness. The possibility that Hamas itself had switched off the lights in the densely populated city to create the impression of an urgent humanitarian crisis was likely not considered by many watching the broadcast.
Naturally, he continued, many viewers associated the darkness with Israel's decision to reduce fuel shipments. But the media downplayed the fact that Israel's Ruttenberg power station in Ashkelon was still streaming electricity into Gaza and that there had been no Israeli action that shut the city's lights off.
Hamas continued to manipulate a compliant media for its own ends. As the Jerusalem Post reported:
On at least two occasions this week, Hamas staged scenes of darkness as part of its campaign to end the political and economic sanctions against the Gaza Strip, Palestinian journalists said Wednesday.
In the first case, journalists who were invited to cover the Hamas government meeting were surprised to see Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his ministers sitting around a table with burning candles.
In the second case on Tuesday, journalists noticed that Hamas legislators who were meeting in Gaza City also sat in front of burning candles.
But some of the journalists noticed that there was actually no need for the candles because both meetings were being held in daylight.
Clearly visible in the background are drawn curtains blocking the sunlight. This, however, didn't stop Reuters spinning a different story with photo captions such as the one below:
If some journalists saw that they were being manipulated, why was it only the Jerusalem Post that reported this? Were these journalists really so lacking in integrity that they preferred to play along with the deception?
A 'spontaneous breakout'?
Typical of many media's explanation of events was The Daily Telegraph's:
The wall fell after a nearly week-long Israeli blockade of fuel and humanitarian aid into Gaza, a response to a week of heavy Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns after Israeli air strikes killed the son of a senior Hamas leader and 18 other people.
In fact, as McClatchy News discovered:
They had apparently been planning the attack for weeks. With the knowledge of locals, militants had spent weeks methodically using blow torches to cut along the bottom of the 30-foot-tall corrugated iron wall along the Egyptian border.
A Palestinian guard also told The Times of London that he saw people surreptitiously working to undermine the wall "for months."
'Starving' Palestinians and a humanitarian crisis?
Hamas and the media conveyed the distinct impression of a humanitarian crisis as Gaza's Palestinians 'starved'. Many media reported the closure of bakeries due to shortages of power and supplies. However, a Palestinian Authority official interviewed by the Jerusalem Post:
accused Hamas of ordering owners of bakeries to keep their businesses closed for the second day running to create a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. "Hamas is preventing people from buying bread," he said. "They want to deepen the crisis so as to serve their own interests."
The official said that contrary to Hamas's claims, there is enough fuel and flour to keep the bakeries in the Gaza Strip operating for another two months. "Hamas members have stolen most of the fuel in the Gaza Strip to fill their vehicles," he said.
In addition, hospitals were said to be dangerously low on fuel, putting patients' lives at risk. Was this also a result of Hamas actions? CAMERA quotes the independent Palestinian news agency Maan report of Dec 6, 2007:
The Palestinian health ministry of the Ramallah-based caretaker government said on Thursday that "Hamas militias" have looted the fuel stores destined for hospital vehicles in the Gaza Strip.
A statement released by the health ministry said that fuel from the European hospital in the Gaza Strip had been stolen by the director of the hospital drivers to supply the Hamas-affiliated Executive Force.
The statement explained that the fuel reserve had been supplied by the ministry to enable the hospital to continue working for as long as possible.
McClatchy News Jerusalem bureau chief Dion Nissenbaum even states:
Israel is pumping in some fuel for Gaza's only power plant and offering some diesel, but Palestinians are actually refusing to accept the small shipments of diesel to protest Israel's policies.
The Christian Science Monitor comments on Gazan 'hunger':
While starvation has not been a problem there – most of the strip's residents receive food aid from the UN – it's proved a powerful idea in the propaganda war over Gaza's fate.
Will the media relent?
Some media will not admit that they have been manipulated by Hamas. Others prefer to stick to their rigid analysis where Israel bears sole responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians and any related crises.
Are the cracks starting to appear however? The Washington Post, for example, recognizes the new reality:
In fact, as Mr. Mubarak well knows, no one is starving in Gaza -- though food, fuel and cigarettes are much cheaper across the border.... Hamas took advantage of the blockade first by arranging for sympathetic Arab media to document the "humanitarian crisis," then by daring Egypt to use force against Palestinian civilians portrayed as Israel's victims.
Its ultimate goal, stated publicly yesterday by Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshal, is to force Egypt to permanently reopen the border in cooperation with Hamas; that would greatly diminish Israel's ability to respond to rocket attacks with economic sanctions, and it would undermine the rival Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.
Sadly, as is so often the case, the damage to Israel has already been done as a result of the media's willingness to buy into the Hamas propaganda. As Amir Mizroch says:
What is obvious is that Hamas was thinking on its feet, being proactive, initiating campaigns tailor-made for powerful media images and taking full advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.
Please start the fightback to restore some credibility to the reporting of the situation in Gaza. Write to your local media - point out how Hamas has propagandized for its own ends at the expense of its own people and remind the media of the continued suffering of Sderot.
Full contact details of many media outlets can be found on HonestReporting's website.