The Rest of the Story: Media Coverage of the War in Gaza

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FOR 23 DAYS in December and January, Israel struck targets throughout the Gaza Strip by air and then on the ground using tanks; Hamas sent an almost-daily barrage of mortar shells, unguided rockets and slightly more sophisticated missiles to towns across a 25-mile range in southern Israel. In the end, approximately 1,300 Palestinians (more than half of them civilians and several hundred Hamas fighters) and 13 Israelis (three civilians and ten soldiers, four or five of the latter by "friendly fire"), were dead, and more than 4,000 Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were wounded. Prospects for renewed progress toward peace were all the more remote.

Media coverage of the war in Gaza was intense, but, not surprisingly, American and Arab media covered the same war in significantly different ways.

Coverage by most U.S. media evidenced an even-handed balancing of official and nonofficial sources. The reporting juxtaposed quotes from Israeli and Hamas political and military figures (many of the latter, in hiding or in exile, were quoted indirectly from prepared statements and television broadcasts) as well as from Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

On the third day of the war, the PBS NewsHour featured back-to-back interviews with the PLO representative to the UN and the Israeli ambassador to the United States; NPR's All Things Considered interviewed the spokesperson for Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and then an adviser to Hamas senior political leader Ismail Haniya.

Even with the balancing of sources and details of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, a significant amount of the narrative about why the conflict had erupted and what its essence was took on a uniform cast: that Israel was defending its citizens against Hamas rocket fire. On the second day of the war, NBC's Meet the Press opened with a lengthy interview with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who said: "Our goal is not to reoccupy [the] Gaza Strip.... But since [the] Gaza Strip is being controlled by Hamas, and since Hamas is using Gaza in order to target us, we need to give an answer to this." The broadcast did not provide comment from any Palestinian source.

The Bush administration's stance was entirely consistent with this narrative. On the second day of the war, White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe blamed Hamas for the outbreak of the violence and called the rocket attacks "completely unacceptable.... Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas."

Within the first three days of the war, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post all ran editorials that emphasized Israel's right to defend itself and blamed Hamas for breaking the six-month truce and provoking the war. On the second day of the war, an ABC News reporter told viewers that Israel's incursion into Gaza "is all designed to try and finally put an end to daily rocket attacks against Israeli towns and cities in southern Israel." The report quoted the Hamas health minister as saying "We desperately need medical supplies," but it offered no Palestinian explanation of the war.

References to the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel in the 18 months before the war cropped up only sporadically in the coverage. On the second day of the war, a representative of the UN relief agency in Gaza told a CNN reporter that "your viewers must realize that for over a year and a half now, there's been a blockade, strangulation--if you like--of Gaza." The same day, NPR reported that Hamas needed the tunnels targeted by Israel "to try to keep Gaza's economy from completely collapsing and for their own smuggling needs. The Israeli army says the tunnels were primarily used to transport explosives and weapons, and today, they destroyed many of them."

In the war's second week, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman reported that Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, "but continued to maintain a closure of the Gaza Strip--control not only of the borders between Gaza and Israel . …