Society / October 20, 2023

Western Journalists Have Palestinian Blood on Their Hands

The mainstream media’s relentless dehumanization of Palestinians is enabling Israeli war crimes.

Mohammed El-Kurd
Bill Hemmer, Fox’s America’s Newsroom anchor, on October 13, 2023.(Fox News / screenshot)

On October 9, the Palestine Authority’s ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, gave an interview to BBC host Kirsty Wark. “They were simply bombarded. Their entire building was brought down,” he told her. Just hours before the interview, six of his family members had fallen victim to the Israeli military operation that has dropped more bombs on the tiny, densely populated Gaza Strip in less than one week than the United States dropped on Afghanistan in an entire year. The latter is 1,800 times bigger than Gaza.

“My cousin Ayah, her two children, her husband, her mother-in-law, and two other relatives were killed instantly, and two of their youngest children, a twin, 2 years old, are now in intensive care,” Zomlot told her. His family members are among the thousands who have been killed in the assault on the world’s largest open-air prison, where 2.2 million lives are besieged. Wark replied, “Sorry for your own personal loss. I mean, can I just be clear, though, you cannot condone the killing of civilians in Israel, can you?”

Wark’s response to Zomlot’s horrifying loss isn’t merely callous. It reveals a troubling phenomenon in the mainstream media: The industry standard is to dehumanize Palestinians. Our grief is negligible; our rage is unwarranted. Our death is so quotidian that journalists report it as though they’re reporting the weather. Cloudy skies, light showers, and 3,000 Palestinians dead in the past 10 days. And much like the weather, only God is responsible: not armed settlers, not targeted drone strikes.

I and a few other Palestinians have been hopping between TV channels and radio stations to talk about the atrocities unfolding in Gaza, most of which are absent from headlines, and we have encountered similar hostility. Producers invite us, it seems, not to interview us for our experiences or analysis or the context we can provide, but to interrogate us. They test our answers against the viewer’s inherent bias—a bias well-fed through years of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian rhetoric. The bombs raining down on the besieged Gaza Strip become secondary, if not entirely irrelevant, to our televised trials.

While I don’t expect pleasantries on air, I want accurate reporting. On the UK’s LBC radio, last week, host Rachel Johnson (sister of the former prime minister) took a break from repeatedly interrupting to question me—in fact, indict me—about unverified, word-of-mouth reports of Palestinian fighters “decapitating and raping” Israelis. She didn’t mention the various videos of Israelis mutilating, stomping, and urinating on Palestinian corpses, many of which are readily available to 83,000 subscribers of an Israeli Telegram channel named “Terrorists_are_dying.”

Such unsubstantiated claims were—and still are—all over the news. The Independent (UK) plastered its Chief International Correspondent Bel Trew’s “impossible to verify” reports of “decapitated women and babies” on its front page. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg reported then redacted “rapes.” On CNN, a teary-eyed Sara Sidner confirmed live, based on Israeli official sources, that “babies and toddlers were found with their heads decapitated,” then apologized on Twitter (now X) that she was “misled,” following a statement, again, from Israeli official sources admitting there is no information confirming the claim that “Hamas beheaded babies.”

This is a familiar playbook. A claim is circulated without evidence; Western journalists spread it like wildfire; diplomats and politicians parrot it; a narrative is built; the general public believes it, and the damage is done.

It may seem trivial to place such weight on the manner of killing, given the fact of killing, but such language isn’t without consequences. On Monday, an Illinois landlord attacked his Palestinian American tenants, seriously injuring a woman and killing her 6-year-old child. “You Muslims must die,” he yelled as he stabbed them each over a dozen times. Joe Biden said he was “shocked and sickened” by the attack, as if he could divorce himself from a claim he had made days before that he’d seen “pictures of terrorists beheading children” (a claim he quietly retracted hours later).

Conjuring rape and decapitation feeds on Islamophobic tropes. Simultaneously, it works hand in hand with the Israeli regime’s PR strategy, which has sought to equate Hamas with ISIS in the audience’s imagination, resurrecting the culture that brought forth the “War on Terror.” It may be the fog of war causing reporters to repeat fabrications (or, at a minimum, report unverified claims as fact), or perhaps it’s a lapse in judgment that drives them to compare Hamas’s assault to 9/11 without considering the ramifications of such analogies. Or, one could argue, it’s journalistic malpractice. Regardless, by abandoning the ethics of their profession, journalists are ushering in the brutality approaching the Palestinian people in Gaza: a possible genocide.

This isn’t some wild conspiracy theory. On October 13, the Center for Constitutional Rights asserted that the Israeli regime, by taking actions “to destroy a group in whole or in part, including by killing or by creating conditions of life to bring about the group’s destruction,” is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip. A day later, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention issued a SOS alert warning “that without immediate peacemaking efforts, the international community will oversee and be complicit in Genocide in Gaza.” Raz Segal, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, has called it a “textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.”

If that sounds outrageous, it is precisely because establishment media has been shielding—or blocking—readers and viewers from the countless statements made by Israeli officials that suggest genocide is in the works. When The New York Times reported the Israeli defense minister’s instructions to tighten the siege on Gaza by cutting off water, electricity, and food to the enclave, the article conveniently omitted his description of Palestinians as “human animals.” When Israeli President Isaac Herzog attempted to justify the bludgeoning assault on Gaza with the genocidal argument that “an entire nation is responsible,” the Financial Times did initially report his saying, “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved.” But the broadsheet quickly removed those words and the rest of his revealing statement from the article.

Meanwhile, an Israeli soldier “corrected” CNN anchor Abby D. Phillip, telling her the “war is not just with Hamas” but “with all the civilians,” but there were no headlines. A celebrated Israeli reservist who participated in the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre told troops that Palestinians are “animals” whose “families, mothers and children” must be erased; “If you have an Arab neighbor, don’t wait, go to his home and shoot him,” he said—still, no headlines. And in the busiest street in Tel Aviv, Israelis hung up signs that read, “Genocide Gaza.” No headlines.

Even more critical than genocidal declarations are the genocidal acts, which have also received very little coverage: threatening to bomb aid envoys should they attempt to enter Gaza; actually bombing ambulances; killing (and, many argue, targeting) medics and journalists; bombing the Rafah crossing repeatedly; and wiping out entire families from the public registry.

There was little reporting of charges that the Israeli military used white phosphorus bombs in Gaza and the south of Lebanon, despite international prohibitions against using it in densely populated areas. And there were no headlines about the Israeli municipalities in the occupied West Bank that have begun arming (often already-armed) Israeli settlers with thousands of rifles or the fact that the number of West Bank Palestinians killed by settlers or soldiers since October 7 has gone well above 50. And who knows what more is coming?

I sincerely doubt that the average American knows that the Israeli military ordered 22 Palestinian hospitals to be evacuated, or that it struck Al-Durrah Children’s Hospital in eastern Gaza with white phosphorus, or that it ordered the expulsion of over 1 million Palestinians from northern Gaza within 24 hours, in violation of international humanitarian law (I include this here only because the politicians cheering on this assault love to cite it). When thousands attempted to relocate from north to south, the Israelis bombed them as they fled. And when MSNBC reported their massacre, the channel cast doubt on their innocence, calling them “what appear to be evacuees.”

Over the past few weeks, newspapers like the Daily Telegraph have paired images of Palestinian residential towers destroyed by Israeli warplanes with headlines that would seem to suggest they were Israeli buildings, while The Times (UK) published an image of wounded Palestinian children with a headline suggesting they were Israeli (only a close look at the fine print of the caption revealed that they were Palestinian).

And just today, the Associated Press published an article with several astonishing paragraphs—which the news site then cut—describing how American diplomats “became increasingly alarmed” by the genocidal comments made by their Israeli “counterparts.” These comments pertained to “their intention to deny water, food, medicine, electricity and fuel into Gaza, as well as inevitability of civilian casualties,” and included remarks to the effect that “the eradication of Hamas would require methods used in the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II.”

Covering a “war” without introducing its roots to readers is inaccurate. Ignoring the 17-year Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip or pretending that the Israeli regime has no control over its borders and resources (as evidenced by the Israeli capability to block water, food, and electricity) is insidious. Omitting decades of colonial violence is duplicitous. As for the refusal to acknowledge that 70 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza hail from the lands where many Israeli settlements now stand—lands from which Zionist militias dispossessed them—I have no adjectives for that erasure.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Palestine, obfuscation and fabrication are permissible. The passive voice is king. The commitment to truth disappears, as does due diligence. I once believed journalism to be the industry of “doing no harm” and “speaking truth to power.” But reporters all too often resemble stenographers and state secretaries, mindlessly (or intentionally) amplifying Israeli propaganda.

And their hands are bloody as hell.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Mohammed El-Kurd

Mohammed El-Kurd is a writer and poet from Jerusalem, occupied Palestine, currently serving as The Nation's first-ever Palestine Correspondent. He is the author of RIFQA (Haymarket) and the forthcoming nonfiction project tentatively-titled A Million States In One (Haymarket). His 2023 Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Princeton will be adapted into a book.

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