By Omar Radwan
Following Israel's murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla taking humanitarian aid to Gaza, it is hard not to conclude that sections of the media in Britain and other Western countries have been desperate to find ways to justify the crime. On the BBC and Sky News, a frequent argument has been that Israel feels "isolated" by the international community and is in a "war" situation, and therefore feels that it has to take extraordinary measures to defend itself. To shore up this argument, these media outlets have, once again, repeated two tired fabrications; Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and Israel's blockade of Gaza was imposed in response to Hamas rocket attacks.
The reality is, of course, very different. Israel is not isolated by the rest of the world. On the contrary, unlike, say, Iran and Syria (and before 2003, Iraq) in the Middle East, Israel has not been subject to sanctions in any way by the international community. It remains the largest recipient of US financial, political and military aid, despite the much-hyped rift between the Obama administration and the right-wing Netanyahu government and was recently co-opted to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development with the blessing of the European Union Nations. Nor is Israel in a war situation. None of Israel's Arab neighbours pose a military threat to its existence and two of them, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state; Egypt cooperates actively with Israel in the siege of Gaza.
Israel's blockade of Gaza is usually said to have started in June 2007, when Hamas took control of the territory after pre-empting a coup by a faction within political rivals Fatah, but Israel had been limiting the movement of goods and people into Gaza long before that. The rockets fired from Gaza are not a threat to Israel and are not the reason for the blockade. Israel conducts frequent and deadly raids into the Gaza Strip and the rockets are fired in response to these raids. These rockets are very basic and inaccurate, capable of causing limited damage; they are very rarely lethal and are the only "serious" weapon available to a desperate people who have been brutalised by Israel for years. What about the claim that Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction? Hamas has offered Israel an open-ended ceasefire if it withdraws from the West Bank and lifts the blockade of Gaza; Israel has refused. The very fact that this "hudna" has been offered is de facto recognition of the state of Israel.
It is still not known exactly how many fatalities there were during Israel's assault on the flotilla. Most news reports claim that nine or ten of the passengers were killed by the Israeli commandos, but other sources suggest that the figure could be as high as nineteen. Israel has imposed an information blackout designed to make sure that only its version of events comes out. As part of this "hasbara" campaign, the Israeli military issued a grainy black and white video, labelled helpfully, showing some of its soldiers being attacked with iron bars and chairs, with one being thrown from one deck to another, as they stormed it from their helicopters. This film has been played without comment on Sky News, the BBC and other channels. In addition, Israeli claims that the activists were carrying knives and stun grenades on their ship have been taken at face value and reported without comment all too frequently. The Israelis would have us believe that helpless commandos were attacked by unarmed "terrorists" masquerading as activists and the main news channels in Britain and other countries have been more than willing to repeat this message.
In this way, the murder of at least nine unarmed people by soldiers armed to the teeth is made to look natural and justifiable. The Israeli video is so surreal and unbelievable that it is barely worth commenting on. Apart from the fact that there is another, better quality video of an announcement made by an activist to his fellow passengers telling them not to resist because there is nothing they can do against the Israelis' live ammunition, suffice to say that Israel has used this tactic before. During the war on Gaza, in order to justify its attacks on civilians, the Israeli army posted videos of rockets being loaded or fired, which later turned out to be faked. Even if we suppose that the latest "attack" video is authentic, isn't it natural for people under attack to defend themselves? And yet the activists are being portrayed as thugs, hooligans and terrorists for doing so.
Israel has called the Freedom Flotilla an "Armada of Hate" and said that the activists on board are linked with Hamas, al-Qaeda, and "global jihad"; again, these absurd claims have been taken at face value by sections of the media. The Turkish humanitarian organisation, IHH, which has played a leading role in the flotilla, has been smeared in the Daily Telegraph as a front organisation for al-Qaeda, without any evidence being proffered. This charitable society operates legally around the world apart from Israel where it is banned, as are many other legitimate charities which support Palestinians in the midst of a desperate humanitarian catastrophe; no credible evidence is ever provided for these bans. They are seen by many as just another tool used by Israel to deny Palestinians much-needed aid.
The same DailyTelegraph story mentions that the flotilla has been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the British Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. On board the flotilla were the Swedish bestselling author Henrig Mankell, the former United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Dennis Halliday and the founder of Northern Ireland's "Peace People", Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Did the Telegraph bother to ask why all these people endorsed and took part in a project organised by IHH if it was indeed an al-Qaeda front organisation?
One very important aspect has been played down amidst all this hostile media coverage – the dire need of the people of Gaza for the items on board the ships of the flotilla. Among other things the flotilla carried cement, building materials, school supplies and medical equipment. The admittedly limited quantity of aid on the convoy would still have been of immense value to the people of Gaza. The homes and buildings that Israel destroyed in its December 2008 assault on the territory are still in ruins because Israel has since blocked the import of building materials. In fact, there is a long and arbitrary list of items that cannot be imported: pencils, computers and other educational items, for example, are banned, as are many food items, such as canned fruit. The volume and category of goods permitted to be imported into Gaza are kept at a level low enough to create poverty, malnourishment and suffering but not too low to create a humanitarian catastrophe that will make Israel look bad in front of the cameras. Despite this, the statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that there is "no humanitarian crisis in Gaza" and that Israel is allowing thousands of tons of food and equipment in has been reported without comment. The organisers of the Freedom Flotilla have also been criticised by some for not accepting Israel's offer to unload their ships in Ashdod so that the Israelis can deliver their cargo "through the usual channels". They were, of course, supposed to believe that the same "channels" which have made the people of Gaza suffer for so many years would suddenly and willingly help to alleviate that suffering.
Media complicity in Israel's crimes has long been accepted by analysts, and Israel has spent a great deal of money on promoting its side of the long-running conflict narrative through a sophisticated propaganda machine. This latest episode, however, has exposed the double-standards and lack of genuine objectivity by the compliant sections of the media. On BBC Radio 5's "Up all Night" programme on 2 June, Bruce Shapiro, the executive Director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University in New York City, said that in most cases, the "facts" which emerge within the first 24-48 hours of incidents like Israel's hijacking of the flotilla are usually shown to be false with the passage of time. Should this happen in this case (and it has already been admitted by an Israeli military spokesperson that none of the passengers had any weapons on them prior to the assault), a lot of media outlets will be left with egg on their faces because they have allowed the Israeli side of the story to be pushed almost unchallenged. How long will it be before members of the public grasp the fact that they are being duped, say enough is enough, and demand a balanced media approach to this conflict?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.