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Middle East War Reporting: Avoiding the Pitfalls

Illustrative: Thousands of anti-Israel demonstrators from the Midwest gather in support of Palestinians and hold a rally and march through the Loop in Chicago on Oct. 21, 2023. Photo: Alexandra Buxbaum/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

Since Hamas’s unprecedented onslaught in Israel on Oct. 7, the Jewish state has been forced into a struggle to ensure its survival, to free hostages abducted to Gaza, and to disarm terrorists of their ability to again imperil Israelis and Palestinians alike.

At the same time, information warfare has dramatically escalated on both social media and traditional news platforms. Rumors, misinformation, and false equivalence between Israel and Hamas have fed a surge of global antisemitism and undermined international support for Israel’s obligation to defend itself.

Journalism is vital in democratic societies — and war coverage presents immense challenges. But with the stakes of reporting so high, news correspondents bear the responsibility of ensuring accuracy and comprehensiveness in reports.

Here are seven guidelines that all news outlets should adopt to avoid common pitfalls in reporting on this complex and dynamic story.

One: Question Hamas statistics. Fatality figures and other “official” claims from Gaza, including the classification of casualties as civilians, must not be accepted uncritically — and need to be relayed as unconfirmed assertions of Hamas-controlled entities. Since 2007, Hamas has ruled Gaza. Like other malign actors with an interest in manipulating public perceptions, Hamas has made obvious its unreliability as a source of unvarnished data.

Two: Authenticate photos and footage. Caution must also apply to visual material from sources affiliated or aligned with Hamas, which can be staged or misleading. The initial media misrepresentation of the Oct. 17 explosion outside Gaza’s Al-Ahli Hospital demonstrated this hazard. Similarly, reports of shortages in Gaza’s civilian needs must account for the substantial aid long channeled to the Strip, and Hamas’ seemingly unimpeded ability to finance terrorist infrastructure and missiles.

Three: Terror is terror. If attacks similar to Hamas’ — deliberate, indiscriminate carnage among civilians, for ideological reasons — were to be described as terrorism elsewhere, the same must be done when victims are Israeli. Hamas’ atrocities have mimicked or even surpassed attacks by Islamist extremists in other settings, and are undergirded by a common doctrinal framework, reflected in Hamas’ own charter and its leaders’ pronouncements.

Four: “It’s (not) the occupation, stupid.” It’s essential to explain that Hamas’ attacks cannot correctly be attributed to “Israeli occupation.” Israel withdrew completely from Gaza — including all soldiers and Jewish settlements — in 2005. Since then, Hamas has only continued to intensify attacks targeting Israeli civilians. Its attacks have led to Israel’s defensive measures. Hamas’ theology openly rejects Israel’s existence within any borders. After the Gaza withdrawal, Israel again offered Palestinians full statehood in 2000 and 2008.

Five: Numbers tell only part of a story. The legality and intentions of Israeli counter-terrorism efforts cannot be assessed by simplistically comparing Israeli and Palestinian losses. A “scoreboard” approach to warring parties has not been applied to other difficult conflicts — whether World War II, the war in Ukraine, or US operations against Al-Qaeda after 9/11. Hamas deliberately hides and fires from among Palestinian civilians, and unlike Hamas, Israel has sought to minimize civilian casualties by warning non-combatants to evacuate battle zones. International law does not grant attackers immunity through taking human shields, as doing so would only encourage that tactic.

Six: Separate politics from truth. Some perceived arbiters of justice and legitimacy, like United Nations resolutions, must also be taken with a grain of salt — and reported with full context. The UN may well censure Israel, but news consumers need to know that an automatic majority of nearly 60 Arab and Muslim states has the UN routinely condemn the Jewish state — the Middle East’s only democracy — more than all other countries combined. (Too often, other entities, from academic bodies to labor unions, simply follow suit.) It is worth also remembering that the size of street demonstrations backing one side or another may reflect demographic realities rather than the “justness” of a certain party to the conflict.

Seven: It’s not just “war in Gaza.” The conflict, and conditions of humanitarian urgency, must not be presented only through a narrow Gazan prism. Attacks on Israel and Israelis did not begin or end on Oct. 7. Some 240 innocent Israelis, and others, continue to be held hostage in Gaza in unimaginable conditions — and rockets from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon (both Iranian proxies), continue to terrorize millions of civilians inside Israel.

It’s said that war is hell, and conflict reporting is little better.

The “fog of war” is undeniable. Although all protagonists’ emotions run high, so do the stakes of consistent professionalism in news coverage.

For the sake of an informed public and policymakers alike, reports on the Middle East must consistently convey the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

David J. Michaels is Director of U.N. and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International

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Flip through the digital edition of the Summer 2024 print magazine from The Canadian Jewish News

We’ve produced a collection of feature articles four times a year since 2022. A special edition of this magazine will appear in mid-September—with reflections on the Jewish year that was. And in December, look out for a reimagined publication with a name of its own. Get future copies delivered to your door as a thank-you […]

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Top US Official Calls Hamas Leader Sinwar a ‘Psychopath,’ ‘Messianic’ as Ceasefire Talks Swirl

Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a meeting with people at a hall on the seashore in Gaza City. Photo: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images/Sipa via Reuters Connect

A senior US official said that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is the Palestinian terrorist group’s ultimate decision maker and has little interest in reaching a ceasefire deal with Israel, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there’s one guy 10 stories below the ground: a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history, and [he believes that] there’s a sunk cost of having lost thousands of fighters and carnage in Gaza,” said Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza and the mastermind behind the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, has reportedly been hiding in Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels during Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the coastal enclave.

Leaf’s comments echo others made by Biden administration officials.

In April, a US official told reporters that Sinwar is single-handedly holding up any progress on a potential hostage deal.

The senior Biden administration official said that while Hamas’ political bureau has shown some willingness to compromise on the terrorist group’s most hardline positions, Sinwar’s maximalist demands continuously win out.

“Sinwar has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7] than secure a ceasefire, and that’s just the truth of the situation,” the official said.

Leaf, in her testimony on Tuesday, said that Qatar — where many top Hamas political officials are based — has been “squeezing” the group — though to little effect, according to a report from Axios.

“There’s a cadre of political officials of Hamas in Doha, and boy do they squeeze them, I can assure you they squeeze them,” Leaf said.

Israel has described Hamas’ response to the new US ceasefire proposal as total rejection. But efforts to secure an agreement are still continuing, according to mediators in Qatar and Egypt, backed by the United States.

The Axios report added that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani met on Tuesday in Doha — Qatar’s capital — with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the talks about the hostage and ceasefire deal.

Egypt and Qatar — which along with the United States have been mediating between Hamas and Israel — said on June 11 that they had received a response from the Palestinian groups to the US plan, without giving further details.

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Blinken Confirms US Pausing Bomb Shipment to Israel After Netanyahu Calls for End to ‘Inconceivable’ Weapons Halt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday confirmed the US was still withholding a shipment of bombs to Israel, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Washington to remove restrictions on arms deliveries to the Jewish state and asserted that the top American diplomat had assured him the Biden administration was working to lift any halts on weapons.

The Biden administration is “continuing to review one shipment that President [Joe] Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area like Rafah. That remains under review,” Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department.

However, he added, the administration is committed to making sure “that Israel has what it needs to effectively defend itself.”

Blinken’s remarks came after Netanyahu posted a video online earlier in the day in which he lamented that the US recently paused a weapons shipment to Israel and threatened to block more but said Blinken told him that Washington was seeking to end any halts on arms deliveries.

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the US has given Israel from the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

“But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” he continued. “Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The Israeli premier then asserted that Blinken told him the issue would be addressed.

“Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks,” Netanyahu said. “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the US: ‘Give us the tools; we’ll do the job.’ And I say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job much faster.’”

Following Netanyahu’s comments, both the White House and the US State Department refuted his apparent claim that Washington was withholding more than a single shipment of bombs.

“Everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again, with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” Blinken said.

The White House echoed Blinken’s comments, saying that only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs had been withheld and nothing else.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We just don’t.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US and Israel have been having discussions about the release of the shipment but that there was no update at this time.

“There are no other pauses, none,” Jean-Pierre said. “No other pauses or holds in place.”

On Monday, unconfirmed reports in both Israeli and German media said that during Netanyahu’s meeting with Blinken in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli premier urged the US to return the frequency of its arms shipments to the level immediately after Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched the war in Gaza with its massacre across southern Israel. According to the reports, Blinken said that Washington would remove all restrictions on weapons transfers to Israel in the coming days.

Netanyahu also reportedly warned Blinken that the slowing of aid and the perception of America’s weakened support for Israel benefits Iran and its terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas, emboldening them to intensify attacks against Israel and potentially resulting in a broader regional war.

The Biden administration has been under intense pressure from Democrats, especially those on the progressive left, to condition if not outright withhold US military support for Israel. Critics of Israel have argued the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed too many civilians and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has said Hamas is to blame for starting the war, stealing aid, and intentionally placing its operation centers inside or underneath civilian sites.

Hamas started the war with its surprise invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, when the terrorist group murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped over 250 others as hostages. Israel responded with its ongoing campaign aimed at freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas, which rules Gaza.

In recent months, the Biden administration has become increasingly critical of Israel’s operations both in public and private, pressuring Jerusalem to change its military strategy and seek a ceasefire.

The issue came to a head last month, when Biden announced that it would cease a bomb shipment to Israel and threatened to halt more weapons deliveries if the Israeli army launched an offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza and Hamas’ last major military stronghold.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN.

Israeli officials and experts have said operating in Rafah is essential to eliminating the last remaining Hamas battalions. Netanyahu said the Jewish state appreciates US support but “will stand alone” if necessary.

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