Perhaps you are thinking you have seen a lot of horrible images coming out of the Gaza hellhole; very likely more than you want to see. Among the 1.5 million Palestinians under bombardment in an area 7.5 miles wide and 25 miles long, many somehow manage to get online and get their stories onto the World Wide Web. The satellite news network Al Jazeera has staff based in Gaza who feed their control room in Qatar a constant stream of dispatches. At least one European photographer, my Belgian friend Bruno Stevens, has managed to slip in. And the pictures we're seeing are as shocking as they are predictable: a blitz from the air that has run out of primary targets but just keeps hitting and hitting; a slow-moving Israeli advance on the ground against zealous Hamas fighters; and day after day, a slaughter of innocents.
A steady stream of video showing screaming, bloodied children and tiny corpses has fueled outrage against Israel not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but in Europe, where anti-Semites have seized on this fresh pretext for their vandalism and arson against Jewish targets.
Among a lot of my war-correspondent colleagues, it's become a truism that the Israeli government's refusal to let foreign reporters into Gaza is counterproductive for the Israelis themselves, as if once Western correspondents got in, their reports might actually counteract the flow of gruesome images that keep coming out. But I am not so sure.
I think the Israeli government's strategy of banning reporters is working. Its attempt to stop Hamas from firing rockets onto its territory is justifiable, but the kind of urban warfare Israel is engaged in now is a hideous business. Soldiers move into and through a dense maze of ambushes and booby traps, constantly threatened by snipers and would-be martyrs making their last stands. Even the most disciplined troops are likely to shoot anything that moves. When you're doing this in one of the most densely populated places on earth—where half of the population is younger than 17—a lot of children will be cut to pieces in the crossfire. There's no way around it. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, has charged Hamas with using kids as human shields. But, really, they are just part of the terrain. Thus far, citing Palestinians and U.N. sources, available news reports say more than 1,000 Gazans have been killed in 20 days of fighting, among them more than 300 children.
If Western correspondents were on the ground seeing these events first hand, they might discredit some Palestinian hyperbole. During the battle for Jenin on the West Bank in 2002, for instance, when Western reporters finally slipped past the Israeli lines to see for themselves what was happening, they were the first to debunk histrionic claims by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat that 1,000 civilians had been killed. (In fact, about 50 Palestinians had fought and died in a ferocious battle that also cost the lives of 23 Israeli soldiers.) On the ground in Gaza, Western reporters might be able to verify Israeli government claims that scores of Palestinians actually have been murdered by Hamas as suspected collaborators. It's unlikely, in any case, that American reporters would lionize the Islamic resistance.
But what Western correspondents would do is give new credibility to accounts that show the human cost of fighting like this. The suffering of the children would seem more real when an American or European reporter beheld it first hand, verisimilitude would become verity, and demands for a ceasefire that the Israel government does not yet want would be pushed even higher on the agenda of the United States, Europe and the United Nations.
Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a daily in-depth survey of television news in the United States, suggests that on balance the Israeli government has been able to shape the American coverage along the lines it wants. To be sure, about twice as many Palestinians as Israelis have been given air time on the American networks as eyewitnesses to the war and its effects. (The Palestinian casualties are as much as 100 times higher.) But, as Tyndall told me, compared to the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, in this conflict "the explanation of the fighting, the framing of it, is more tightly controlled and more top-down on the Israeli side."
In the week of Jan. 5 through Jan. 9, for instance, Tyndall counted the sound bites from politicians, government spokespeople and experts commenting on the conflict on the U.S. networks' nightly news broadcasts: 15 were Israeli, 5 were from the United Nations, 1 was from the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1 was from Hamas and 1 was from the Palestinian Authority.
You may see footage from camera crews embedded with Israeli troops, but the voice you hear is of an official spokesman or a senior Israeli official, says Tyndall. And since only one or two Western reporters have been able to get into Gaza on their own, there is much less of the double-sided drama that attracted the anchors of the major American networks to cover the Lebanon War. With no American media stars to tell the story—with no American TV correspondents in Gaza at all, in fact—the Palestinians just don't get the play that the Lebanese did, and often the conflict doesn't make it onto the evening broadcasts. As the Western media run out of fresh perspectives on the Gaza fighting, the explosions and screams become just so much background noise.
In the print press, much of the coverage has been self-consciously same-old same-old, "here we go again." And this, too, works to Israel's advantage with Western audiences, whose indignation has a short attention span. In 2002, Israel's then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained the basic strategy of a stop-start invasion of Palestinian lands. At the time, he wanted to halt a horrific series of suicide bombings and to crush the Palestinian administration of the late Yasir Arafat. Sharon sent thousands of troops into territories known as "Area A" that had formerly been returned to the Palestinians under the peace agreements following the 1993 Oslo Accords, but he didn't retake them all at once. People "forget what things were like in the beginning," he told the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "When we went 300 meters into Area A, the whole world was shocked." But after a while, Sharon boasted, "I got the whole world used to these incursions."
So it's not surprising that the Israeli government persists in preventing journalists from crossing into Gaza. The whole world has gotten used to it. The media strategy is working in the West, and especially with Western governments that continue to pass impotent resolutions calling for a truce. What really is not working, what really is counterproductive is the Israeli strategy as a whole. It rests on the notion of a military victory won with the power of an awesome arsenal—a victory meant to impress the Israeli public as much as Israel's enemies, and to win the respect of Washington as much as of Gaza City or Ramallah.
But for Hamas, Western hearts and minds are largely irrelevant. Hamas and its cheerleaders in Iran want the shocked sympathy and righteous anger of Arabs, Muslims and a whole vast array of formerly colonized peoples around the world who could not care less about what Brian Williams or Katie Couric, or for that matter The New York Times is telling them about the conflict. What matters to the target audience of Hamas is that its mystique of resistance continues to grow, fueled by the awesome power of the Palestinians' suffering. In the past such images have inspired protests around the globe, revolutions in the Arab world, and violent attacks against targets in Europe and the United States. Those will surely come again. Same-old same-old indeed.