Monday, June 26, 2006

Gaza & the Battle over International Public Opinion

The ten-year-old Huda Ghaliyya - a new Palestinian symbol? (AFP, SZ)

A Joint Post by Amos and J.

I've been kicking myself for it these past few days, but I have simply been unable to post on the latest developments in Israel and the Gaza Strip area. I think this paralysis set in about a week ago, when Amos and I set out to report on an article published in the German Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the tragic killing of several Palestinians from Beit Lahiyya who had simply gone to the beach. Following the incident, the Israel Defence Forces conducted an inquiry on the basis of which it rejected allegations that Israeli forces had fired the shell that killed members of the Ghaliyya family. The inquiry said that the shrapnel found in the bodies of Palestinians wounded in the incident who are being treated at Israeli hospitals did not match Israeli munitions. The Israelis also suggested that the deaths of the Ghaliyya family may have been caused by Hamas mines or booby-traps buried in the sand to thwart attempted landings by Israeli naval commandos.

It was an exposé in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung written by Thorsten Schmitz that strengthened our initial resolve to write something about this issue. In his article, Schmitz takes a critical view of the role Palestinian camera crews, on whom international news agencies rely almost exclusively for footage, have played in shaping portrayal of the conflict. He calls the work of these crews “Pallywood” and points to several instances in which they have been involved in attempts to trick public opinion. Schmitz recalls a “60 Minutes” documentary in which footage was shown of Palestinians transporting an alleged casualty of Israeli soldiers on a stretcher. At some point, the people carrying the stretcher of the “fallen” Palestinian stumble and fall themselves. Suddenly, the earthbound “fallen comrade” is seen bracing himself and nimbly jumping back onto the stretcher. Palestinian crews who see themselves as part of the Palestinian struggle have often been complicit in these kinds of distortions by complying with the directives of militants and by filming and re-distributing images on a selective basis. Schmitz notes that in a more recent incident, members of the Islamic Jihad whose car had been fired upon by an Israeli gunship were seen scrambling to remove a home-made rocket from their car to make it seem as if they had been unarmed. Tragically, the missile intended for these people killed up to eight civilians. It was images of these casualties that were most prominently broadcast around the world.

Schmitz argues that Palestinian footage of the Gaza beach tragedy is another example of "how the Palestinians sometimes distort the truth" [Ein Beispiel, wie Palästinenser manchmal die Wahrheit verbiegen]. In his account, Schmitz concentrates primarily on the cameraman Zakariya Abu Harbed who made Huda Ghaliyya famous, and on some hitherto ignored aspects of his footage. Huda was the young girl who lost her father and other family members on the beach and was declared an "orphan of the occupation" (a child who loses his/her father is considered an orphan in Arab society) and adopted by both Palestinian PM Haniyyeh and President Abbas.

In a telephone interview conducted by Schmitz, Abu Harbed insisted that he had arrived at the scene of the killings with the ambulances sent to rescue the wounded. On his tape, however, he was somehow able to film the arrival of the rescue crews. Furthermore, some of the injured and dead people have already been covered with blankets - Schmitz questions who might have done this if Abu Harbed came with the ambulances. More disturbingly, the footage shows a man lying motionless on the ground, covered by a blanket and presumably dead, suddenly getting up and holding a rife. In the background, there are dozens of men, most sporting beards typical of Hamas members [Schmitz's words], who are apparently collecting pieces of evidence - items whose existence has not been acknowledged by the Palestinians. There is also no crater visible in the footage. None of the "rescue workers" are doing anything to help the wounded people.

Schmitz also accuses the cameraman or others of having choreographed Huda's mourning scene. The reporter asked Abu Harbed why he did not try to calm down the hysterical Huda when he arrived on the scene, instead of following her with his camera for several minutes while she ran down the beach screaming. Abu Harbed responds: "She asked me to film her. She wanted to be seen with her father and to show the world what crimes Israel is committing." Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that a young girl of Huda’s age would be pre-occupied with these kinds of thoughts at the moment that her family lay dying.

The more and more I thought about Schmitz’s article, however, the less comfortable I felt writing only about this story. It turns out that that since its publication, other reports have provided more detail on the beach tragedy. Ha’aretz reporter Gideon Levy, for example, interviewed Huda Ghaliyya’s aunt in an article published on Friday, June 23. It could very well be true that Abu Harbed’s footage was choreographed in part, but that unexploded IDF ordinance that had landed on the beach some time prior to this is nevertheless to blame for the death of those civilians. Somewhere else I read that the shrapnel that did not match Israeli artillery might be accounted for by the fact that it stems from fragments of cars parked nearby. In any case, in subsequent incidents, innocent Palestinian civilians were again killed by Israeli missile fire. It is ludicrous to call these incidents deliberate killings of civilians, because it is simply not in the interest of the Israeli Air Force to miss its real targets. They are, however, tragic nevertheless, and it seems almost meaningless to focus only on the Gaza beach incident to prove a point about Palestinian distortions.

1 comment:

Derek said...

Thanks boys, I don't read German.