In 1983, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat met with a group of American and European journalists in Tripoli, Lebanon. Recalling the recently ended War in Lebanon, Arafat said, “I still remember the most important battalion I had with me then. It was the battalion from the Commodore.”
The Commodore Hotel was the home base of foreign correspondents, many of them openly hostile to Israel, whose reporting helped create the Palestinian narrative that Israel was engaged in unprovoked aggression.
Three decades later, the Commodore Battalion has morphed into something more than simply a chorus of cheerleaders for terrorists. The international media is now nothing less than a key strategic wing of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
These groups have shrewdly figured out that Palestinian civilian casualties (unlike, say, Kurdish or Syrian or other Arab casualties not caused by Israel) are irresistible to the international media. And pictures, as we know, are worth countless words of explanation.
The reporters and camera crews in Gaza know the game. They realize they are tools of Hamas strategy. Some are happy to go along. Others resent it, but have no choice. Hamas is the producer and director of their daily coverage, and its enforcer, too.
At the end of July, Gabriele Barbati, a reporter for Radio Populare Milano, tweeted: “Out of Gaza, far from the Hamas retaliation; misfired rocket killed children Shati [a UN refugee camp].”
The Shati killings were described by Hamas as a wanton Israeli attack. Israel truthfully denied it. But hey – who are you going to believe, Israel or the guy with the machine gun and the press release in Gaza?
Ten days later, a TV crew from New Delhi witnessed Hamas firing missiles at Israeli targets from a blue tent erected next to the journalists’ hotel. “There was a loud explosion and a whooshing sound. The cloud of smoke that rose was captured by our cameraperson. This report is being aired on NDTV and published on ndtv.com after our team left the Gaza strip – Hamas has not taken very kindly to any reporting of its rockets being fired…”
Gallagher Fenwick, the correspondent of France 24 TV, was actually on the air when he was startled by the sound of a Hamas rocket launch. It was fired, he said, about 50 yards from the hotel where the majority of international media were headquartered – and only 100 yards or so from a U.N. building.
“This type of setup is at the heart of the debate," Fenwick said. "The Israeli army has repeatedly accused the Palestinian militants of shooting from within densely populated civilian areas, and that is precisely the type of setup we have here.”
Fenwick’s candor was as commendable as it was rare. Camera crews and photographers in Gaza routinely lowered the lenses in the presence of Hamas fighters or rockets. “Nobody ordered us to,” said an American journalist who saw this happen again and again. “They didn’t need to. We knew who we were dealing with.”
Unfortunately they didn’t share this insight with the public. The journalist doesn’t want his name used for obvious reasons.
The New York Times had a photographer in Gaza, Tyler Hicks. He is a well-regarded and highly experienced combat photojournalist who produced some arresting pictures of Palestinian casualties and suffering. But, oddly enough, there were no shots of armed Palestinians or rocket launchers in the newspaper of record.
On Aug. 5, the Times, facing criticism, took the unusual step of interviewing its own photographer.
Q. We have many photos of the casualties in Gaza. Why don’t we have many photos of Hamas fighters or missiles?
A. “They are operating out of buildings and homes and at night … If we had access to them we would be photographing them. I never saw a single device for launching the rockets to Israel. It is as if they don’t exist.”
And of course, if they don’t exist, then Israel is simply firing at civilians. At least in the pages of the New York Times.
I don’t know why Tyler Hicks, a certifiably brave and battle-hardened journalist, went eyeless in Gaza. Perhaps he was suffering from a Samson-like haircut. If so, many of his colleagues had the same barber.
Why did they act this way? There are many reasons – ideology or self-preservation, orders from the home office or simple peer pressure not to embarrass colleagues by deviating from the accepted “story.” In any case, the effect was to turn screens and front pages into weapons aimed at paralyzing Israel, while making the real perpetrators of the war all but invisible.