I have Palestinian friends. As an American, this fact places me squarely in the minority. It gives me a touchstone that the average citizen in this country doesn’t have. The average American doesn’t hear firsthand accounts of how frightening, humiliating and miserable life in the West Bank and Gaza can be. Perhaps that’s why the average American is rarely outraged by media coverage of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Let me make one thing clear – by average I don’t mean people of average intelligence or average cultural sensitivity. I don’t mean it as a pejorative. I mean only that most Americans have no contact with those on the Palestinian side of the conflict. When considering media, therefore, most Americans don’t perceive the slant. Watching CNN coverage of the siege with my mother yesterday, I noticed that her face didn’t indicate any anger. I saw sympathy, helplessness – natural responses to a human tragedy on the other side of the globe – but no anger. "Mom," I demanded, gesturing wildly towards the TV, "do those look like Hamas militants to you?" The CNN anchor was dispassionately describing Israel’s target as Hamas over images of bloodied women and children on stretchers. But for my mother, as for most Americans, the disconnect didn’t seem to register.
I’m not going to argue for the existence of a vast Zionist mechanism conspiring to shape our collective understanding of the conflict. I don’t think we need to elevate the discussion in such alarmist terms to make the point that when it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine, the mainstream narrative is biased. Consider the opening sentence of today’s New York Times editorial: Israel has the right to defend itself. Who could possibly argue that it doesn’t? The ethically inviolable right to self-defense is a constant refrain – offered time and time again as justification for Israeli military action as well as its unwavering US support. It is also the premise upon which most Western media coverage seems to be built. That Israel is defending itself is a relatively unchallenged assumption in the mainstream narrative. And because it is seen as the defender, Israel cannot logically be perceived as the aggressor.
But consider this fact – the Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated urban tracts in the world – 1.4 million people occupy an area roughly twice the size of Washington D.C. Its borders – land and sea – as well as its airspace, are controlled by Israel. Life in Gaza, as a Palestinian acquaintance related, is like living in an overcrowded prison. "For the news to say that Israel is "targeting" Hamas inside Gaza," he explained "is like saying they are targeting a particular fish in a barrel full of them." That it would be impossible for Israel to target individuals without killing scores of innocent civilians is as well-known to the Israeli military as it is to the terrorized citizens of Gaza. But the average American doesn’t know. And they’re certainly not going to get any hints from the mainstream media. "According to Western media, Palestinian civilians are killed only when they’re sheltering militants," says my acquaintance. "We’re not sheltering anyone. They are among us because we are all trapped here. There is simply nowhere else to be."
Where does defense stop and aggression begin? Where is the line between proportionate retaliation and collective punishment? These are questions for the media, mainstream and otherwise, to be aggressively exploring as they relate to this conflict. If the last eight years have taught us anything, its that when the media fails to be a vigilant, objective seeker of truth, dangerous disinformation is disseminated quickly and widely. Here, as it has so often in the past, I fear the media isn’t giving us the full story…and we’re not paying enough attention to ask. What do you think?