Study: International law seldom newsworthy in war on Gaza

13 January 2009

US corporate media coverage of the Israeli military attacks that have reportedly killed more than 900 — many of them civilians — since 27 December has overwhelmingly failed to mention that indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets are illegal under international humanitarian law.

Israel’s recent aerial attacks on Gazan infrastructure, including a TV station, police stations, a mosque, a university and even a United Nations school, have been widely reported. Yet despite the fact that attacks on civilian infrastructure, including police stations, are illegal (Human Rights Watch, 31 December 2008), questions of legality are almost entirely off the table in the US media.

Only two network evening news stories (NBC Nightly News, 8 January 2009, 11 January 2009) have even mentioned international law — a mere three percent of the total stories that NBC, ABC and CBS’s newscasts have broadcast on the Israeli military offensive since it began on 27 December.

The largest circulation daily newspaper, USA Today, has made only one reference to international law, according to a search of the terms “international law,” “humanitarian law,” “war crime” or “laws of war” in the Lexis Nexis database of US newspaper stories mentioning Israel and Gaza since 27 December: That single reference was an op-ed (7 January 2009) by a spokesperson from the Israeli embassy in Washington who criticized Hamas violations.

Much of the media coverage has echoed Israel’s terminology. Early reports on the fighting spoke of Israel destroying “Hamas targets,” bolstering the Israeli position that anything connected to Gaza’s government was a legitimate target. “Israel’s attacks on Hamas, its leaders and its institutions in Gaza intensified today,” ABC’s David Muir reported (29 December 2008). NBC Nightly News explained on 28 December 2008: “Warplanes pounded strategic locations in Gaza for the second day: a prison, a mosque used to store weapons, a Hamas TV station and dozens of other targets. The Israelis attacked the Islamic University, which is a strategic, a moral and a cultural key point for Gaza.”

While places of worship are singled out as a kind of civilian object protected under the Geneva Protocols, a mosque used to store weapons could be a military target — though it is unclear what independent confirmation NBC had that allowed the network to state this claim as fact. A prison not directly used in the military effort would be a civilian object, and TV stations are normally considered civilian objects as well (FAIR Media Advisory, 27 March 2003). While it is unclear what NBC means in calling the university a “strategic” key point, targeting an object on the basis of its “cultural” value is specifically forbidden under the Geneva Protocols.

A lengthy Washington Post report (30 December 2008) likewise recounted Israel’s target lists largely without question:

“While previous Israeli assaults on Gaza have pinpointed crews of Hamas rocket launchers and stores of weapons, the attacks that began Saturday have had broader aims than any before. Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip. The choice of targets suggests that Israel intends to weaken all the various facets of Hamas rather than just its armed wing.”

That description was followed by quotes from two Israelis. The Post went on to explain Israel’s targeting, each time offering the Israeli rationale with barely a hint of skepticism: “In the Israeli offensive, one of the first targets was a police academy, where scores of recruits were preparing to join a security service that Hamas uses to enforce its writ within Gaza.”

As two op-ed pieces in the London Guardian pointed out (27 December 2008, 3 January 2009), under international law, police officers are classified as civilians, and targeting them is thus illegal (see also Human Rights Watch, 31 December 2008). Though the Post did not mention this, it did see fit to point out that “the Israeli military has said the police are fair game because they are armed members of Hamas’s security structure and some moonlight as rocket launchers.”

Similarly, the Israeli attack on the Islamic University was presented in a way that would justify the attack: “The university was once known as a bastion of support for the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement, but it gradually fell under Hamas’ sway, and many of the movement’s top leaders are alumni. Hamas heavily influences the curriculum and uses the campus as a prime recruiting ground.”

The idea that leaders of a military or government force being alumni of a particular school makes that school a military target is not one US media would take seriously in most contexts. The CIA often recruits officers from Yale; does that make Yale a legitimate military target?

A New York Times report (31 December 2008) punted on the issue of legality:

“In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target. Palestinians argue that because Hamas is also the government in Gaza, many of the police officers who have been killed were civil servants, not hard-core militants. Israel disagrees, asserting also that a university chemistry laboratory, which it claims was used for making rockets, was a fair target in an attack this week, even if it could not show conclusively that those inside the laboratory at the time where engaged in making weapons.”

If Israel is attacking civilian institutions without showing evidence that they are in fact military targets, it’s unclear why news reports would suggest that that meant that no one knows what a military target is. But the Times persisted:

“The ambiguity was evident at the intensive care ward in Shifa Hospital. … There were 11 patients. One was a pharmacist, Rawya Awad, 32, who had a shrapnel wound to the head. Several were police officers. It was impossible to know the identities of many of the others. But there were several children in another intensive care unit on Tuesday. Among them was Ismael Hamdan, eight, who had severe brain damage as well as two broken legs, according to a doctor there. Earlier that day, two of his sisters, Lama, five, and Hayya, 12, were killed.”

That “ambiguity” was matched days later (4 January 2009), in a vivid account from a Gaza hospital that discovered mostly civilians being treated — which the paper called “both harrowing and puzzling.” The paper added:

“The casualties at Shifa on Sunday — 18 dead, hospital officials said, among a reported 30 around Gaza — were women, children and men who had been with children. One surgeon said that he had performed five amputations. … In recent days, most of those arriving at Shifa appeared to be civilians. On Sunday, there was no trace here of the dozens of Hamas fighters that the Israeli military said its ground forces had hit in the past few hours in exchanges of fire. The exact reason was not clear. … But at Shifa, most of the men who were wounded or killed seemed to have been hit along with relatives near their homes or on the road. Two young cousins and a five-year-old boy from another family were killed by shrapnel as they played on the flat roofs of their apartment buildings.”

Given the population density of Gaza and the completely predictable civilian death toll usually associated with aerial bombing and urban warfare, the civilian toll is anything but “puzzling.”

But The New York Times continued to grant Israel a pass on the legality of its attacks, though often the arguments were difficult to parse. Times reporter Steven Erlanger (11 January 2009) noted that “Israeli officials say that they are obeying the rules of war and trying hard not to hurt noncombatants but that Hamas is using civilians as human shields in the expectation that Israel will try to avoid killing them.”

That would seem to be at odds with what Erlanger also reported about an alleged Hamas “trap” in one Gaza apartment building:

“According to an Israeli journalist embedded with Israeli troops, the militants placed a mannequin in a hallway off the building’s main entrance. They hoped to draw fire from Israeli soldiers who might, through the blur of night vision goggles and split-second decisions, mistake the figure for a fighter. The mannequin was rigged to explode and bring down the building.”

That account — which Erlanger seems to find plausible — would suggest the opposite of what Israeli officials are saying about avoiding attacks on civilians; if a “mannequin in a hallway” would appear to Israeli forces to be a military target and hence “draw fire,” then presumably virtually any Gazan — who typically live in buildings, many of which have hallways — would be taken as such as well.

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