Distributed April 5, 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Elliott Colla

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 695 Words

Elliott Colla

Atrocious reports and reporting atrocities

As long as the Israeli military closes off its military operations to news coverage, we have the moral duty to take seriously reports of atrocities that arrive via other media each day.

The last few days, frantic e-mails are among the only things regularly breaking the sieges of Nablus and Bethlehem. The stories form a consistent stream of information: Palestinian cities lie in ruins and Palestinians are burying their dead at mind-numbing rates; entire towns, villages and camps of boys and men between the ages of 15 and 40 have been rounded up in the night by the Israeli army; a massive humanitarian catastrophe is afflicting thousands of families who have run out of water and food after a week of heavy fighting. Some of the facts – like hunger and secret detentions – are by their nature difficult to confirm quickly, though there is no reason to disbelieve them since what they say does not diverge greatly from other well-documented accounts we have of the 35-year-old occupation.

Some accounts, and indeed pictures, suggest a much grizzlier possibility: Human rights Web sites contain the first eyewitness accounts about finding groups of bodies of activists summarily executed at close range; medical Web sites report on the deliberate targeting of Arab hospitals and ambulances; European newspapers report of peace delegations shot at and deported by the Israelis. Some of these accounts are based on multiple authoritative sources, some are collective anecdotes – together what they point to is an unprecedented scale of both targeted and indiscriminate violence being waged against the Palestinian people.

My students, raised on the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, now ask about parallels in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda. How do I confidently tell them that this is different? That Israel is not Serbia? They ask, “Didn’t the Serbians label the Bosnians and Kosovars terrorists‚ too?” I am at a loss: How does one respond to the question when there is a news blackout on what’s happening on the ground? While even Israel’s most fair-weather supporters now argue that Israel has the right to pursue terrorists in a war without limits, no one yet has put forth a persuasive answer for why the Jewish state has forbidden all journalists to cover the scenes of devastation that attend war.

Indeed, what good reason does Israel have to hide the self-proclaimed justice and precision of its anti-terror operations? The Israeli army has said that it wants to protect the lives of journalists – an argument that seems paradoxical when one considers the alarming number of foreign journalists shot accidentally by Israeli units in recent weeks. More astounding, perhaps, is the new line adopted by Israeli press handlers: They want to prevent the spread of pro-Palestinian propaganda among journalists. This reason is made laughable by the fact that foreign reporters are notoriously as unacquainted with Arabic as they are conversant in Hebrew, tend to live (and marry) in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (rather than Jenin and Gaza), and respectfully attend IDF briefings.

Moreover, the restrictions also apply to Israeli journalists – hardly a press corps that is going to adopt a Hamas line! No doubt the military brass is still steaming over the recent broadcast of close-up footage showing the chilling accidental death of a Palestinian woman who died in her home in Bethlehem while her children – and Israeli television audiences – looked on in horror. No, the reasons given by the Israeli military are not persuasive, especially when accusations of war crimes are growing.

I would like to think that reports of mass suffering in Palestine are untrue. The accounts sent by frantic friends, the pictures on respectable Web sites, the eyewitness stories sent by established international agencies – they not only bespeak shocking human tragedy for the Palestinian people, but they will also, unless contradicted by free press coverage, undermine the moral claims Israel has used to pursue its relentless war. Israeli human rights workers understand this and have been complaining – more loudly than the American press – that the news blackout can serve no good. Many of us would also like to tell our students and colleagues that Israel is not Serbia and that Ramallah is not Srebrenica. But as long as the Israeli military closes off its military operations to news coverage, we have the moral duty to take seriously the reports of atrocity that arrive in our mailboxes each day.

Elliott Colla is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University
and on the editorial committee of Middle East Report.

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