Top Nine Gaza Media Myths
With Israeli ground action in Gaza now underway, in response to ceaseless Hamas attacks, the usual media myths and misrepresentations about Gaza are being recycled, with some new ones thrown in.
Here are some of the key myths, gleaned from present and past coverage:
Myth: It’s true that Palestinians in Gaza are attacking Israel with indiscriminate rocket fire, but what other answer do they have to Israel’s suffocating blockade?
Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already. (Nicholas Kristof, New York TImes, July 20, 2014, Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East?)
Of course, there were no Palestinian children dying as a result of Israel’s restrictions on Gaza, since Israel has been careful to allow in more than enough food and medicine. But beyond this, Kristof’s claim is that the only way for the Palestinians to end the “suffocating … Israeli embargo” (to use his term) is to fire missiles.
What Kristof and those who speak similarly ignore – or simply don’t know – is that before there was a missile assault and other terror attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza, there was no “embargo,” just as there is no embargo on the West Bank.
So missiles are not the answer for the embargo, they are the cause for the embargo.
For example, according to the Washington Post (Sept. 20, 2007), reporting on the embargo:
JERUSALEM, Sept. 19 — Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” and said it would begin cutting electricity and fuel to the Hamas-run territory in an effort to stop near-daily rocket fire into Israel.
Myth: Through its typically shortsighted policies Israel intentionally encouraged the growth of Hamas.
After all, it was Israel itself that helped nurture Hamas and its predecessors in the 1970s and ’80s. The late Eyad El-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist in Gaza, warned Israel’s governor that he was “playing with fire” by nurturing religious militants. According to the book “Hamas,” by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, the governor replied: “Don’t worry, we know how to handle things. Our enemy today is the P.L.O.” (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, July 16, 2014)
Fact: Israel never encouraged Hamas or its Islamist rival Islamic Jihad. Israel supported the building of clinics, mosques and religious schools in the territories because this was their obligation under the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Conventions, which required that taxes collected in the territories be used for the benefit of the territories, and that existing laws, which included the funding of religious institutions, be maintained. Among the groups the government cooperated with in this regard was the so-called Muslim Brotherhood, a non-profit registered in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood, while rejecting the existence of Israel, was explicitly non-violent in those days, believing that Islamic society would have to be strengthened over the long term before any conflict could be initiated with Israel. (See, for example, Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza, Ziad Abu-Amr.)
In contrast, the Islamic Jihad was explicitly violent from its founding in 1980, calling for immediate jihad against Israel, and showing little interest in building social institutions. Indeed, it was created out of frustration with the non-violent policy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamic Jihad’s cofounder, Fathi Shikaki, was arrested by Israel in 1983 and again in 1986, and was then deported to Lebanon in 1988 (Islamic Fundamentalism, p 93-94). Does sound like the Israeli “nurturing” foolishly repeated by Kristof?
When the intifada began, the Muslim Brotherhood feared a loss of influence and popularity to the terrorist Islamic Jihad, which had openly mocked the movement for its non-violent stand. In response, under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood created on December 9, 1987 a subgroup eventually called Hamas, which was meant to compete with Islamic Jihad in murdering Israelis. That is, contrary to Kristof, Hamas essentially did not exist until 1988, and Israel never cooperated with it.
Indeed, in May 1989 Israel arrested Sheikh Yassin and sentenced him to 15 years in jail for his role in the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers (Islamic Fundamentalism, p 65).
Myth: Israel and the United States helped cause the war in Gaza by refusing to allow, after the Palestinian reconciliation, payment of salaries to Hamas civil servants in Gaza.
[T]he most immediate cause of this latest war has been ignored: Israel and much of the international community placed a prohibitive set of obstacles in the way of the Palestinian “national consensus” government that was formed in early June.
Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and Gaza residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government … (Nathan Thrall, New York Times, July 17, 2014)
Fact: It was PA head Mahmoud Abbas who opposed paying salaries to the Hamas employees, according to multiple press accounts. The AP reported, for example, that:
In comments earlier this week, Abbas indicated he is in no hurry to pay the Hamas loyalists. He said Hamas should keep paying their salaries “until we agree” on a solution. He also criticized the protests by Hamas loyalists over the salary issue, saying it was a “bad sign.” (AP, June 9, 2014)
Myth: Because far more Gaza residents than Israelis have been killed, the Israeli actions are “disproportionate.”
Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, according to United Nations officials; one Israeli has been killed. (Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, July 16, 2014)
[Israel] is causing a huge and disproportionate civilian casualty level in Gaza. (Christiane Amanpour CNN, Jan. 4, 2009)
The targeting of civilians, whether by Hamas or by Israel, is potentially a war crime. Every human life is precious. But the numbers speak for themselves: Nearly 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the conflict broke out at the end of last year. In contrast, there have been around a dozen Israelis killed, many of them soldiers. (Rashid Khalidi, What You Don’t Know About Gaza , New York Times Op-Ed, Jan. 8, 2009)
Fact: First of all, contrary to Khalidi, three quarters of the Palestinians killed at the time of his writing were combatants, not civilians, including 290 Hamas combatants who had been specifically identified.
Moreover, it’s impossible to reach conclusions about right or wrong based on the number of people killed. Consider that the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor killed about 3,000 Americans. Does it follow that the US should have ended its counterattacks against Japanese forces once a similar number of Japanese had been killed? Since it didn’t do so, does that mean the US acted disproportionally, in violation of international law, or even immorally, and that the Japanese were the aggrieved party? Clearly the answer is no.
Taking this further, in the Pacific Theatre in World War 2, over 2.7 million Japanese were killed, including 580,000 civilians, as against only 106,000 Americans, the vast majority combatants. Does it then follow that Japan was in the right and America was in the wrong? Again, clearly the answer is no. Just having more dead on your side does not make you right.
Proportionality in the sense used by Nicolas Kristof, and before him Christiane Amanpour and Rashid Khalidi, is meaningless.
Myth: Israel’s actions are illegal since International Law requires proportionality.
International law … calls for the element of proportionality. When you have conflict between nations or between countries, there is a sense of proportionality. You cannot go and kill and injure 3,000 Palestinians when you have four Israelis killed on the other side. That is immoral, that is illegal. And that is not right. And it should be stopped. (Dr. Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, CNN, Jan 3, 2009)
Lawyer Salah Abdul Ati, the director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, said that the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip constitutes war crimes and massive violations of human rights, which require prosecution and accountability. (Al Monitor, July 11, 2014)
Fact: Proportionality in the Law of War has nothing to do with the relative number of casualties on the two sides. Rather it refers to the military value of a target (how much of an impact would the target’s destruction have on the outcome of a battle or war) versus the expected threat to the lives or property of civilians. If the target has high military value, then it can be attacked even if it seems there will be some civilian casualties in doing so.
What has to be “proportional” (the term is not actually used in the relevant conventions) is the military value of the target versus the risk to civilians.
In particular, Article 51 of Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 prohibits as indiscriminate:
5(b) An attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
By this measure, Israel’s efforts to destroy missiles before they can be fired at Israeli civilians, even if that places Palestinian civilians at risk, seems to conform perfectly to the Laws of War. There is no requirement that Israel place the lives of its own citizens in danger to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians.
Myth: Hamas has no choice but to place weapons and fighters in populated areas since the Gaza Strip is so crowded that is all there is.
[Hamas has] no other choice. Gaza is the size of Detroit. And 1.5 million live here where there are no places for them to fire from them but from among the population. (Taghreed El-Khodary, New York Times Gaza reporter, on CNN, Jan. 1, 2009)
Fact: There is actually plenty of open space in Gaza, including the now empty sites where Israeli settlements once stood. The Hamas claim, parroted by the Times reporter, is nonsense.
Beyond this, placing your own civilians around or near a military target to act as “human shields” is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention:
Art. 28. The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.
Article 58 of Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 (which the Palestinian Authority has accepted) goes even further in this regard, requiring that Hamas remove Palestinian civilians from the vicinity of its military facilities, which would include any place where weapons, mortars, bombs and the like are produced, stored, or fired from, and any place where its fighters train, congregate or hide. Here is the text, which calls on the parties to the conflict to:
(a) … endeavour to remove the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives;
(b) Avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas;
(c) Take the other necessary precautions to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control against the dangers resulting from military operations.
Even UNRWA has weighed in on this, denouncing on July 17 the “group or groups” that had hidden missiles in a UN-run school in Gaza.
Hamas, as the defacto government in Gaza, is responsible for the missiles and other weapons hidden in civilian buildings and areas, and has clearly violated all three of the above provisions.
Myth: Israel is in the wrong because it’s not fighting fair: it has anti-missile defenses and bomb shelters, while the Palestinians don’t.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It’s getting a lot worse. It’s already worse here in Gaza where we have a death toll at this point, Erin, of about 113 according to our sources. Keeping in mind of course that the Palestinians don’t have an iron dome system to stop the Israeli rockets from coming in, for civilians there are no air raid sirens to warn people of incoming air raids. There’s no bunkers. There’s no bomb shelter, there’s nowhere to hide. (CNN, July 11, 2014)
Fact: Why hasn’t Hamas built bomb shelters for civilians in Gaza? Who’s stopping them? Hamas has imported huge quantities of cement, but it’s been forcefully diverted from the civilian sector and instead used to build bunkers and tunnels for Hamas leaders and fighters, along with hidden missile firing positions and underground warehouses full of weapons including long range missiles.
On the other hand, Israel’s requirement since the early 1990’s that all new homes have a secure reinforced room, and its building of (often rudimentary) bomb shelters in communities near Gaza have helped to shield Israeli civilians from Hamas attacks, though at a cost of over $1 Billion dollars.
It is ironic that Israel is criticized for successfully protecting its civilians by following international law, while Hamas is portrayed as a victim because it violates that same international law.
Myth: Gaza is one of the “most densely populated” places on earth.
Critics said Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk. Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, “this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well.” (AP via Politico, July 12, 2014)
Fact: Gaza is far from the most densely populated territory in the world – many places in the world, some rich and some desperately poor, are more densely populated than Gaza. To cite just a few examples:
Myth: Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 it is still occupying Gaza through its control of the territory’s borders, coastal waters, airspace and power.
Despite Israel’s withdrawal of settlements and bases in 2005, Gaza remains occupied both in reality and international law, its border, coastal waters, resources, airspace and power supply controlled by Israel.
So the Palestinians of Gaza are an occupied people … Seumas Milne, The Guardian, July 16, 2014
Fact: Of the land borders with Gaza, Israel quite naturally controls those that are adjacent to Israel; the border with Egypt at Rafah is controlled by Egypt. Beyond this, it is clear under international law that Israel does not occupy Gaza. As Amb. Dore Gold put it in a detailed report on the question:
The foremost document in defining the existence of an occupation has been the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention “Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.” Article 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly states that “the Occupying Power shall be bound for the duration of the occupation to the extent that such Power exercises the functions of government in such territory….” If no Israeli military government is exercising its authority or any of “the functions of government” in the Gaza Strip, then there is no occupation. (Legal Acrobatics: The Palestinian Claim that Gaza is Still “Occupied” Even After Israel Withdraws, Amb. Dore Gold, JCPA, 26 August 2005)
But what if despite this we take seriously Milne’s claim that Israel is the occupying power and is therefore legally the sovereign authority in Gaza? In that case the relevant body of law would be the Hague Regulations, which in the relevant article states:
The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country. (Article 43, Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907)
Under this article Israel’s incursion into Gaza would therefore be completely legal as a legitimate exercise of Israel’s responsibility for restoring and ensuring public order and safety in Gaza. This would include removing Hamas, which by Milne’s logic is an illegitimate authority in Gaza. Under international law – and the Oslo Accords – Hamas certainly has no right to stockpile weapons or attack Israel, and Israel is therefore justified in taking measures to disarm Hamas and prevent it from terrorizing both the Israeli population and the Gaza population. That is the inescapable logic of Milne’s position.