British commentary pages ignore Gaza’s plight

The British media largely failed to report the Gaza siege until Palestinians broke it themselves: Palestinians and Egyptians wait to cross the border between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt in Rafah, 5 February 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)


The following is a report by Arab Media Watch released on 11 February:

Arab Media Watch expresses concern at the lack of critical commentary in the British press on Israel’s recent decision to intensify its siege of the Gaza Strip by withholding vital fuel supplies and increasing military attacks.

Israel’s actions have resulted in civilian deaths, a worsening humanitarian crisis, the breach of Gaza’s border with Egypt, and bleaker prospects for the resumption of peace talks. Nonetheless, there has been no comment whatsoever in The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Star and Evening Standard.

The only commentary in The Times, by Robin Shepherd entitled “A barrage against Israel,” unreservedly defends Israel’s actions, blaming the situation in Gaza on “the culture of violence in Palestinian society” and accusing Israel’s critics of “sheer irrationality.”

He adds: “In the topsy-turvy world of British and European commentary … reasoned argument is cast aside. The frenzied, rhetorical onslaught against the Jewish state is at best intellectually lazy. At worst it forms part of a hateful agenda that shames those who indulge in it.”

It is deeply troubling that this is the only comment made in The Times about the collective punishment of 1.5 million civilians, which is illegal under international law and a violation of Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power.

The only commentary in The Daily Express, by Frederick Forsyth, focuses on how Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria have “kept the Palestinians penned like animals in rat-infested ‘refugee camps’, which are truly stinking slums breeding hopelessness and despair,” and have kept them “in destitution and captivity as a stick to beat Israel.”

Sympathy for Palestinian living conditions is unusual for Forsyth who, unsurprisingly, has no such strong words for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

A commentary by Deborah Orr in The Independent (“The tragic truth about collective punishment”) and one by Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph (“Gazans should make the most of liberation”) take a similar approach, focusing more on Arab treatment of the Palestinians, and Palestinian treatment of themselves and Israel. This is puzzling given the country’s central role in the crisis, and the fact that it initiated the military and economic siege.

The Telegraph, Independent, Financial Times and The Guardian each published a leader on the issue. Each is praiseworthy for their condemnation of Israel’s actions, but perhaps most interestingly and unexpectedly, The Telegraph calls on Israel to “consider putting out feelers to Hamas, with the aim of starting a political dialogue … Hamas should no longer simply be ignored.”

This pragmatic approach is, however, countered by Coughlin’s view on how Israel should “deal with the existential threat the terror group poses”: “To make peace in the Middle East, it is often necessary first to make war.”

In addition to the leaders, nine commentaries were published: five in The Independent, and one each in The Telegraph, Guardian, Times and Daily Express. As such, The Independent had by far the most to say.

However, The Independent was the only newspaper to react directly to Israel’s intensification of its siege on Gaza. Commentary in the other newspapers appeared only after the Gaza-Egypt border was breached as a reaction to the blockade. As such, one wonders whether there would have been any commentary beyond The Independent had Palestinians not reacted the way they did.

AMW commends commentaries by Mark Steel (“Not a shopping spree, just a taste of freedom”) and Richard Ingrams in The Independent, and Karen Koning AbuZayd in The Guardian.

However, the treatment of the issue by significant sections of the British press can be summed up by Guardian correspondent Rory McCarthy’s statement last month: “The case of the increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip has been … often ignored.”

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