This week’s murder of 8 students at an Israeli religious school by a Hamas gunman has further escalated tensions at a time when the conflict threatens to spiral out of control. To watch the scenes of religious Jews protesting in the streets of Jerusalem, chanting hateful and vengeful anti-Arab slogans is to understand that things may get a lot worse before they get any better.
It is constructive and revealing to retrace the sequence of events that have set off this latest cycle of violence. These events took place within the context of a complete Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip, which has created what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has described as a humanitarian disaster.
On February 27th an Israeli civilian was killed by a Hamas rocket fired from Gaza, the first such casualty in nearly 9 months. Concurrently, or rather in retaliation, Israel launched a series of airstrikes over Gaza, targeting Hamas militants. The result being that over the next 7 days, more than a 100 (by some reports) were dead. In this number dead, a majority were innocent civilians and many children. On March 6th, Hamas enacted a kind of revenge by sanctioning the school shooting.
In the first instance, Israel continues to place the firing of rockets into Israel at the centre of its argument for the isolation of Hamas and by extension, Gaza. Two points are pertinent in making sense of this assertion. Firstly, in the 7 years since rockets began soaring through the sky, a grand total of 3 Israelis have lost their lives. This hardly qualifies the rockets as the existential threat which the standard rhetoric implies. Secondly, in 2006, when a ceasefire was in force and real negotiations were in progress, the rocket fire did indeed abate only resuming once the process had broken down.
It must surely be regarded as remarkable when the loss of one Israeli citizen can justifiably be countered by the murder of 100 Palestinians. To see the manner in which the eight Israeli casualties have been mourned – the political theatre, pomp and ceremony of a seminal national tragedy – is telling. It highlights the alternate political reality in which conflict is being waged.
It speaks of a nation that lives in the rhetoric of war but for the most part has known little of the suffering of war (in recent history). As Israelis go about their daily business, in office parks, shopping malls and social clubs, they hardly demonstrate the mannerisms of a people at war. Which is perhaps why, on the rare occasions the war intrudes into their lives they suffer from a sense collective shock.
It also speaks of a nation and a people (and this applies to the Palestinians as well) who have so vilified their enemies, as to have lost sight of their humanity. Thus, the death of innocent Palestinians can be shrugged off as acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of higher goals. The slaughter of infants in their mothers’ arms can dismissed as unfortunate footnotes in a larger national narrative. One wonders if in the midst of their mourning, in a moment of national reflection, whether some might see the tragic irony of it all.
If it is to be understood that, those who are at once the victims and perpetrators of war, are prejudiced then no such exoneration can be extended to the media. Time and again, since the latest Intifada, the international media community has betrayed shameful partiality in its coverage of the conflict. The media expresses its bias in the most meaningful of measures: time & space.
A passing comparison of the amount of airtime and column inches dedicated to the Israeli’s weeklong bombing campaign and the school shooting respectively is disturbing. Both CNN and the BBC, both gave dedicated, continuous and special coverage to the school shooting on evening of March 4th. On the following day the funeral procession, the accompanying demonstrations and government statements were covered in great detail and accompanied by much analysis. On the other hand, each day of bombing in Gaza was given short and cursory coverage, even once the action had been declared “disproportionate and excessive” by the UN.
Other indicators are both tone and depth. The coverage of the school shooting has appropriately been both sympathetic and dignified: reflecting the grief of those who’d suffered great loss. Beyond this, much of the coverage gave the victims and their families depth by attributing them humanity and personality. However, in the case of the Palestinians the most we can hope for are images of hysterically wailing women and ashen faced young men swearing bloody revenge: caricatures at best. In that sense, the Palestinian remains the hollow image of a person; as ephemeral as the promised nation state for which he struggles.
Considering what has occurred over the past fortnight, the signs are ominous. We can expect a further escalation of the violence. In satisfaction of the blood lust that consumes both sides, Israel shall demand retribution. And if the death of a single Israeli civilian was answered by the death of scores of Palestinians, one shudders to imagine how Israel might avenge this latest assault. The media for its part will continue to colour the picture and in the process do the public a great disservice. This is the situation as we find it.
By: Karabo Che Mokoape