There has been a significant number of articles criticising the reporting by the Western media on the Israel-Hamas war. This article addresses some of the more problematic tendencies in this reporting and seeks to contextualise the war and share Palestinian voices that often go unheard.
One tendency is to not factor in the events that led to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, thereby decontextualising it from over a century’s worth of history. To be clear, Hamas’ murder of around 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping of civilians was unjustifiable and has since been condemned for its “violations of international law” by United Nations (UN) independent experts. It was not only wrong but a disservice to the Palestinian cause. A former prime minister of Palestine, Salam Fayyad, who stood united with his Princeton University colleagues against all violence against civilians, described how the “just cause” of the Palestinians is now being “exclusively” viewed through these acts of violence. He stated in the Economist that behind Hamas’ decision to escalate is a “host of grievances” that are “legitimate” and “widely held” beyond Hamas and by Palestinians too.
Professor Jeroen Gunning, deeply informed on Hamas, has also talked about the “tendency to take the political context away” from the Hamas movement. He has talked about the need to consider the radicalising effects of state, as well as non-state, violence and brutality, noting how over 230 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank this year before the Hamas attack (alongside over 1,000 settler attacks and settlement expansions) and the poverty of Gazans as a result of the Israeli blockade since 2007. But reporting often omits such realities, as well as the historic Israeli occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land.
Disinformation, fake news and the perceived need to get the news out as quickly as possible makes the work of those media outlets who desire to engage in responsible and accurate reporting all the more challenging.
This decontextualisation is not a new phenomenon, with a study from 2011 into reporting on Israel and Palestine by BBC One and ITV News concluding that gaps in the knowledge of viewers “closely paralleled the ‘gaps’ in the news” and that there was a consequent “tendency for viewers to see the problems as ‘starting’ with Palestinian action.” To not acknowledge the negative role of the Israeli state suits the narrative that Israeli actions are always reactionary and that the war had been “forced upon” Israel by murderous “animals”.
The fact that the demands of the Palestinian people include more than just a ceasefire as an end to the current hostilities also reflects the importance of events prior to October 7. The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM, a transnational, independent, grassroots movement of young Palestinians) has called for an “end to the entire system of settler colonialism that has strangled Palestine for the last century” and the international support of Zionism. It seeks recognition of “Palestinian resistance as fundamentally just and as a means of survival for our people”, characterising Palestinian resistance as “driven by a love for one’s people, a love for one’s homeland, and a love for life and freedom.”
But another tendency is for media outlets to conflate Palestinian resistance with the actions of Hamas, both explicitly and implicitly. Amidst complaints, the BBC apologised for a “poorly phrased” and “misleading description” of “pro-Palestinian demonstrations” in the United Kingdom (UK) as people voicing “their backing for Hamas”. Those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are also frustrated by reporters beginning interviews with Palestinians by asking the question, “Do you condemn Hamas?” which is interpreted as an implicit conflation of Palestinians with Hamas.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the UK, responded to one such question in an interview with Sky News by arguing that this stock question represented an “obsession” with “blaming” the victims and the colonised and the “dehumanisation of Palestinians”. Zomlot called out the media’s double standards for not asking Israeli officials or Israelis to condemn the detentions or bombardment of Palestinians by the state. Even before this recent escalation, Amnesty International stated last year that Israel’s continued oppression “constituted a system of apartheid” and that 2022 saw a rise in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and a “14-year high” in administrative detentions, which does not appear to even be on the radar of some media outlets, as compared with the actions of Hamas.
Similarly, a clean slate has been given to the Israeli security forces by some. A good example is an opinion piece in the New York Times by the editorial board, the basic point of which is that Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism but that it must respect international law and human life in the process. While the article portrays Hamas as being “known” for hiding among civilians, using them as “human shields”, and being indifferent to human suffering, it paints the Israeli army in a far more positive light, i.e. the army “acknowledges and espouses an obligation not to target civilians for military purposes, and to avoid actions that inflict disproportionate harm on civilians, such as destroying an entire city block to kill fighters in a specific building that could be targeted more precisely” and faces an enemy “that does not respect the same rules of warfare that they have committed to.”
But international human rights organisations have cast aspersions over the Israeli forces’ commitment to international law in the past. For example, Human Rights Watch described their practices over the past few years of killing and injuring civilians who pose no imminent threat to life in Gaza as stemming from a “decades-long pattern of using excessive and vastly disproportionate force to quell protests and disturbances, at great cost to civilians. Despite the frequency of such incidents over the years, Israeli authorities have failed to develop law enforcement tactics that comport with international human rights norms.” UN Security Council resolutions have also historically condemned the use of violence by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians, such as resolutions 672 in 1990 and 1322 in 2000.
Israeli forces have since failed to meet obligations that the opinion piece says they had to in this war, such as not “destroying an entire city block to kill fighters in a specific building that could be targeted more precisely.” The Israeli military said that it targeted the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza with airstrikes to kill a Hamas commander, but over 50 civilians were killed and around 150 injured as the death toll of Palestinians surpassed 8,500. The UN human rights office said it had “serious concerns” that this and other attacks have been “disproportionate” and “could amount to war crimes”. Amnesty International has also condemned the military’s indiscriminate use of white phosphorus on civilians on October 16 as “unlawful” and which “must be investigated as a war crime”.
It must be borne in mind that the Western media has also been criticised for being too soft on Hamas, though far less often. The UK’s defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said that the BBC’s policy of not describing Hamas militants as “terrorists” was “verging on disgraceful”, given the actions of Hamas on October 7 and the fact that it is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK. But the BBC defended its decision as a “long-standing position for its reporters not to use the term themselves unless attributing it to someone else.” Foreign correspondent John Simpson similarly stated that “calling someone a terrorist means you’re taking sides.”
Disinformation, fake news and the perceived need to get the news out as quickly as possible makes the work of those media outlets who desire to engage in responsible and accurate reporting all the more challenging. There will also be times when there is insufficient, verifiable evidence to hold the perpetrators of individual attacks to account. But equally, responsible reporting requires the provision of historical, political and legal context because many people rely on the news to understand the present situation. But this context seems to be lacking in the reporting on this latest escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine.