With the collapse of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the horror of Israel’s latest Gaza assault continues. At least 185 have been killed, almost 80 percent of them civilians. Almost half are women and children. At least seventy homes were specifically targeted and destroyed. Five healthcare facilities, including a hospital, have been damaged in air strikes. There was a direct attack on a center for profoundly disabled people. It was one of Israel’s much-bragged-about “carefully targeted” bombings, including the now-iconic “knock on the roof” message from the Israeli bombers—the small bomb that signals much worse to come. It wasn’t an accident. Three people, two patients and a caregiver, were killed there. It goes on.
And Congress—indeed almost all of official Washington—is speaking with almost one voice: we stand with Israel. Israel has the right to “defend” itself. No country would stand by and allow this. But something is different this time. And not only that the assault is different, and worse.
The difference is the political environment in which this attack is happening, especially the political environment here in the United States. For those of us who’ve been working on changing US policy in the Middle East for decades, the bad news is in front of us every day: that policy hasn’t changed, and billions of dollars in aid money and uncritical political, diplomatic and military support for Israel remains constant.
But there is some good news. It’s only obvious when you can back up for a moment to look past the daily bad-news reality. The good news is that the discourse has shifted dramatically—in mainstream news coverage, punditry, pop culture and more. It's much better than ever. They don’t get it right, still, but things are changing. Twelve years ago, during the siege of Yasir Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the surrounding of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we didn’t hear many Palestinian voices in the mainstream press. In 2006, during Israel’s attack on Gaza, The New York Times and NPR didn’t send their reporters to the Khan Younis refugee camp or to Gaza City.
But the coverage had already begun to shift during Cast Lead, the three-week Israeli war against Gaza in 2008–09, and we realized then how much the media changes reflected the overall discourse shift. Despite Israeli efforts to exclude the international press, Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels were broadcasting live out of Gaza. The Times had a terrific young stringer, Taghreed el-Khodary, filing hour by hour. Israel probably wouldn’t have allowed her into the Strip, but they couldn’t stop her, she was already there—born and raised in Gaza and living with her family.
Most importantly, cellphones and computers were already ubiquitous, even in impoverished Gaza refugee camps. So when the electricity flicked on for an hour or two, the first thing people did was to power up their phones so they could send their photographs, videos, stories and heartbreak out into the world. It transformed how we understand what an occupation looks like, what a siege does to a town, what white phosphorous bombs look like when they hit a school.