When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008 to stop Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israeli journalists were hungry to cover the military operational details. They wanted to know how many Hamas militants had been killed or captured, what of the terrorist group’s infrastructure had been hit, what remained on the Israel Defence Forces’ target list, and so on. What didn’t interest most newspapers or newscasts was the wider impact on the other side, especially the civilian death toll. If there was any questioning, it wasn’t why so many Palestinians were being killed, but why the campaign hadn’t started sooner. By the time Israel launched Pillar of Defence, its next Gaza military offensive in 2012, the Israeli media watchdog group Keshev concluded that the war had "blurred the distinction between the IDF spokesperson and Israeli media outlets more than ever."
The same can be said today.
Israeli journalists, many of whom I have known and admired during nearly two decades of reporting on this conflict, are skilled. They can be relentless questioners, brutal in their analysis, and still maintain their access to key figures. Give them a good old-fashioned financial or sex scandal and they’ll make that politician wish he’d never run for office. Just ask former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or former President Moshe Katsav how the coverage of their trials went.
But in times of war, many, if not most, Israeli journalists — with some admirable exceptions — hunker down with the rest of the country and are afraid to ask tough questions, especially in the early days of a military campaign. Instead, they tend to parrot the country’s political and military leaders. Israelis are barred from entering Gaza. And with that access cut off, few Israeli journalists have cultivated Palestinian sources because there is amazingly little interest among the Israeli public in understanding Palestinian affairs.
It helps explain why Israel and the world see the war in Gaza so differently. With their country under fire by rockets and with soldiers fighting and now dying on the battlefield, the Israeli journalists’ role transforms from dogged inquirer to purveyor of piecemeal information provided by the military. Patriotism suddenly trumps any duty to report impartially. That leaves Israelis — many of whom even in this global media age turn exclusively to Hebrew-language news sources — an incomplete and skewed picture of what is happening. Public support for the war is bolstered. And the narrative put forth by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Gaza and Hamas simply becomes the consensus.
American media, some would argue, acted similarly by failing to question intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. But the situations are decidedly different. There just isn’t the same intimate relationship between the American press and the military the way there is in Israel, where everyone serves and the IDF remains the most vaunted institution. In 2003, there was a multitude of voices in the American media arguing against the war. Today in Israel there are very few speaking out against this campaign, however ill-advised it may seem to the outside world.
The few who do are vehemently criticized. "You’re a traitor!" a man yelled at Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist, as he was being interviewed on a street corner about a column he wrote criticizing Israeli pilots for carrying out bombing runs in Gaza. "Have you no shame? You should be the one to live with Hamas. We have the most ethical fighter pilots. You think children should spend the summer holiday in a bomb shelter? Shame on you!" One newspaper reported that Israel Channel 2’s telephone circuits crashed after the flood of calls protesting even having him on air. Similarly, the Israel Broadcasting Authority banned a radio broadcast produced by a human rights organization because it included the names of some of the Palestinian children who have died in Israel’s shelling. Israel’s regulators claimed the content was too "politically controversial."
In a climate where almost any dissent is deemed treason, Israeli media mostly choose to limit the coverage of what is actually happening in Gaza, lest they be accused of siding with the enemy or undermining the state when it is under attack.
Long before this calamitous war, fatigue with the issue and a dramatic drop in Palestinian attacks on Israelis allowed the country to turn inward and pretend the conflict had gone away. The public wanted to read about Israel’s hi-tech successes, not its military occupation. Most Israelis have today, in fact, become decidedly post-Palestinian, and as a result so has the media. That is why, for many, this war feels like it came out of nowhere, even if it was entirely predictable.
The lack of interest is not mirrored on the Palestinian side. "Can you believe what happened?" a Palestinian woman asked me on a 2010 trip to Gaza while I was reporting for The Washington Post. I had no idea what she was talking about. An Israeli man had killed his wife in a shocking case of domestic violence. She had heard about it on the radio.
If the war drags on and Israeli military casualties mount without a clear end game, more Israeli journalists will surely become more critical. But for now there remains little dissent. Indeed, if anything, there is cheerleading. As Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most influential analysts, wrote in the daily Maariv on Monday: "We need to continue to grit our teeth, shut our ears and get the job done."
There’s been too much discussion of how social media are shaping how this war is being perceived abroad. Facebook and Twitter are simply vehicles for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates to have a vitriolic, virtual slugfest. How Netanyahu continues to maintain wide support for this offensive has more to do with how the leading Israeli writers and news outlets allow him to shape the story. Diplomats will never get Israel to explore alternatives to this military option until the Israeli press leads a domestic debate that is as honest and exhaustive as its democracy deserves.
Janine Zacharia, formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief of The Washington Post, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.