Images of Gaza and the erasure of history

By failing to contextualise the Gaza assault the media helps embed a kind of official ignorance - much of the British public have no idea what is actually happening, or why.

Ludek Stavinoha
19 August 2014

The IDF shells Gaza. Flickr/IDF

For more than four weeks now, Israel’s war on Gaza has dominated news headlines around the world, confronting us with images of its terrifying human toll. Yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, images of suffering, however tragic or gruesome, do not speak for themselves. Nor do such images “in themselves affect how audiences see the validity of actions in war”, as Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow Media Group reminds us. Context is everything.

What distinguishes Israel’s latest assault from previous attacks on the Gaza Strip is not its wanton brutality. This, after all, has long been the modus operandi of the ‘most moral army in the world’. This time, however, Israel has been unable to prevent the proliferation of first-hand reports by western journalists documenting the scale of the destruction.

Indeed, images such as those of the four boys killed by an Israeli shell while playing football on a beach have for many journalists and their audiences come to symbolise the obscenity of this war. As in Jon Snow’s courageous and humane series of reports for the UK’s Channel 4, the war on Gaza’s children - more than three hundred of whom have so far been killed and thousands more injured and traumatised - has left many journalists visibly distraught. “I've seen dead children before,” wrote Sara Hussein, AFP’s war correspondent, upon completion of her latest assignment, “but never like during this war in Gaza. Never so many, never so often.”

What is more, however slick its PR machinery may be, mainstream news reporters are challenging the official Israeli narrative as never before. Even on the BBC, reporters are refusing to accept attempts by the IDF’s spin-doctors to rationalise further killings and simultaneously absolve Israel of any culpability.

But important as these shifts in news coverage may be, they mask much deeper, long-standing deficiencies that plague media representations of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the UK and beyond. As Susan Sontag observed in Regarding the Pain of Others, images of suffering may “haunt” us but it is “narratives” that “can make us understand.” And it is here that many news organisations fail in their responsibility towards their audiences.

Paradigm of parity

Much of mainstream news coverage frames the conflict through the lens of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe and Palestinian sociologist Jamil Hilal call the “paradigm of parity”. According to this “there are two warring parties in Palestine who each carry equal responsibility for both the outbreak of and the solution to the conflict.” In reality, of course, the relationship is radically unequal. Yet, one of the main conclusions reached by a 2006 study commissioned by the BBC was precisely its “failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation”.

This pretence of parity facilitates the almost uniform propensity to accept Israel’s rationale for its latest assault – destroying Hamas’ tunnels and stopping rocket fire – at face value. After all, Israel is merely exercising its right to ‘self-defence’ as any other state would (though, curiously, that right rarely extends to armed Palestinian groups). Israel’s attack is therefore an understandable, if perhaps disproportionate, “response” to security threats posed by Palestinian “terrorists”.

In this context, the images and stories about the plight of ordinary Palestinians serve a very particular function. As Greg Philo and Mike Berry argue in More Bad News from Israel, the most extensive empirical study of news coverage of Israel-Palestine in the UK to date, journalists are effectively “balancing the Israeli account of the cause of the conflict against the effects of Israeli actions upon civilians”. In other words, Palestinians tell tales of their suffering, but it is Israel that explains why it is happening.

This carries important consequences for public attitudes towards the conflict. Consider the findings of a Sunday Times opinion poll conducted on 24-25 July. 52 percent of the British public believe that Israel’s current bombing of Gaza is “unjustified”, whereas only 18 percent believe it to be justified. Concerning Hamas’ rocket attacks, that number drops to a mere 9 percent. The data thus clearly points to widespread opposition to the use of violence by both sides.

But when it comes to attribution of responsibility for the “substantial number of Palestinian civilian casualties”, public opinion is far more equivocal: only 20 percent say Israel is to blame. Remarkably, the same proportion of respondents point the finger at Hamas and almost half—42 percent—blame both parties equally. In light of the repeated shelling of UN shelters and hospitals and the pulverisation of entire neighbourhoods by the IDF, this level of equivocation is astonishing. It seems to indicate the relative success of Israel’s attempts to shift the blame on to Hamas via its spurious “human shields” allegations and the extent to which the false paradigm of parity continues to inform public attitudes towards the conflict.

Erasure of history

A second fundamental flaw in mainstream news reporting is the tendency to abstract particular episodes of violence from their wider historical, social and political context. Only rarely do media accounts mention key dimension of the conflict - be it Israel’s dispossession of Palestinian land, the daily brutality and dehumanisation of military occupation, systematic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, or the structural violence of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip.

These omissions in coverage closely mirror gaps in public knowledge. According to a 2011 survey, less than half of the British public are able to identify Israel as the occupying force. One in five is aware that “most UN resolutions have been directed against Israel”. And only 36 percent are aware that Israeli settlements and the Separation Wall in the West Bank are illegal under international law (whereas, interestingly, more than two thirds state correctly that Palestinian suicide bombs and rocket attacks are illegal). Across all such basic knowledge questions, the most common answer was “don’t know”. 

Of course, the media are not solely to blame for this state of ignorance. How news coverage shapes public opinion is an immensely complex question. Nonetheless, traditional news media such as the BBC continue to be the main source of information about Israel-Palestine for most people. These numbers are therefore, at least in part, a testament to the profound failure of news organisations to communicate even the most basic realities of what is arguably the most mediatised conflict in the world.

This erasure of context and history is hugely consequential.

According to the Sunday Times poll, taken at the height of Israel’s bombing campaign when identification with Palestinians would presumably be at its highest, 27 percent of the British public stated their “sympathies lie more with Palestinians”. And, yes, this is almost twice the number of people who identify more closely with Israel. Crucially, however, four in ten said their sympathies lie with neither side.

Public opinion towards Israel-Palestine is indeed slowly shifting. But when abstracted from the root causes and causalities that determine the reality of the conflict on the ground—a reality which amounts to Israel’s piecemeal destruction of Palestinian nationhood—images of Palestinian suffering do not necessarily translate into large-scale support for the Palestinian cause. Presumably, this has something to do with the fact that a considerable section of the public believes Palestinians themselves are to blame for their own plight.

Correcting the narrative

None of this is to suggest that stories and images of suffering need not be told and shown. They are a necessary, if not sufficient, step towards the re-humanisation of Palestinian lives in our collective imaginary.

But “images”, writes Sontag, “cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.” Israel may be losing the war of images but its preferred narrative still dominates mainstream media accounts of the conflict. This fundamental imbalance has prompted Britain’s leading media scholars to call on the BBC to host a televised debate about its own performance. Because as long as this deeply entrenched bias persists, the media will continue to bear a responsibility for the unfolding tragedy to which they bear witness.

For what is so often lost in the dominant media account is the Palestinian view of the war, a war that did not begin on July 8 but one that has been going on for decades, a war not confined to the Gaza Strip but the entire Palestinian people, and a war that will continue to diminish their lives even when the bombs temporarily stop falling and news cameras rolling.

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