Waiting to Exhale

(Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday morning, state mouthpiece Israel News Agency delivered the verdict the world was waiting for: Israel was not guilty of the shelling on Beit Lahiya’s beach that wiped out a family of eight last Friday. Within hours, the mainstream international media rushed to the scene. The BBC and CNN reported that the culprits were Hamas militants who planted mines on the beach to deter amphibious Israeli assaults. The Washington Post ran an Associated Press report by Laurie Copans, who affirmed that shrapnel taken from the wounded that were evacuated to Israeli hospitals showed no evidence of Israeli hardware. Curiously absent from all of these reports were Palestinian voices.

The trend is distinctly Orwellian yet familiar. The harder reality bites, the bigger Israel lies. But the story the media missed rests less in the allegations and disputed facts, and more in the space where the world waited to exhale. That is, while the media interrogated all the possibilities — or in the above examples, only one — it forgot to interrogate itself.

That critical space was created at a press briefing in Washington when the U.S. State Department’s Scott McCormick said that Israel had the right to defend herself. It began on Friday night in Ramallah, when a young woman, returning from her family’s village to meet a friend at Zuriyyab Restaurant, was told that the entire city had shut down to honor the death of the Ghalia family in Beit Lahiya. Simultaneously, it began in Nablus, when Sami Hammad canceled an international piano concert for similar reasons, despite the seeming impossibilities of bringing foreign musicians, much less daily water services, to Nablus. Or it began that same night in Jerusalem’s Old City, when Pizza Ramanda owner Jamiil said, “Why do you think the Israelis volunteered to take in our wounded?” Perhaps it also started somewhere in Chicago on Monday morning, when someone read the moving feature in the Chicago Tribune by Storer H. Rowley, who quoted eight-year-old Hadeel Ghalia, saying of her parents, “If someone loses their face, will they survive?”

Of course, it continued into that day, as Israeli Major General Yoav Galant’s records told Haaretz that his artillery shelling ended at 4:51pm, while witnesses to the Ghalia family’s slaying said, according to Haaretz, that the explosions happened between 5:00 and 5:15pm. Lost in this renewed maze of interrogations were the voices of Palestinian witnesses, who in several news reports, indicated that they heard up to four shells hit the beach. But what would Gazans know about the sound of incoming shells versus that of “landmines”? Why should Palestinian accounts be more credible than that of Israelis, when the latter are revered by many Americans as “the only democracy in the Middle East?” Indeed, it would not be possible that an incident like Friday’s could happen under Israel’s careful watch.

The extent to which certain reporters or editors guard these notions is telling of their role in securing Israel’s public image from even its worst abuses, which include the killings of journalists Raffaele Ciriello, Imad Abu Zahra, Issam Tillawi and James Miller, to name but a few. In each of these incidents, Israeli Defense Force spokespersons denied culpability, although compelling evidence suggested otherwise. And in these cases, the world was largely willing to swallow Israel’s excuses or refusals for independent investigations. Rather, as was apparent Tuesday, our mainstream pundits seemed more obsessed with Israel’s excuses than with her continued attacks on Gaza’s civilians, which brought that day’s death toll to nine.

As this article goes to electronic “press,” reports are emerging from Pentagon battle damage expert, Marc Garlasco, who surveyed the scene of Beit Lahiya’s beach explosions, and indicated that “ ‘all the evidence points’ to a 155mm Israeli land-based artillery shell as its cause” (see The Independent, 14 June 2006). Israel, however, is bent on denying responsibility. That is fine, one expects nothing less. But the real story still remains, waiting for a real journalist to cover it. Can we look to the Washington Post, Associated Press, CNN or BBC for this? Don’t hold your breath.

Zachary Wales is a regular contributor to Electronic Intifada.

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