International Law Seldom Newsworthy in Gaza War

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Steve Rendall
srendall@fair.org
Tel: 212-633-6700 x13

International Law Seldom Newsworthy in Gaza War

Israeli justifications often cited uncritically

NEW YORK - U.S. corporate media coverage of
the Israeli military attacks that have reportedly killed over 900--many
of them civilians--since December 27 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 U.N.
school, have been widely reported. Yet despite the fact that attacks on
civilian infrastructure, including police stations, are illegal (Human
Rights Watch, 12/31/08), questions of legality are almost entirely off the table in the U.S. media.

Only two network evening news stories (NBC Nightly News, 1/8/09, 1/11/09) have even mentioned international law--a mere 3 percent of the total stories that NBC, ABC and CBS's newscasts have broadcast on the Israeli military offensive since it began on December 27.

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 U.S. newspaper stories
mentioning Israel and Gaza since December 27: That single reference was
an op-ed (1/7/08) 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 (12/29/08). NBC Nightly News
(12/28/08) explained: "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, 3/27/03). 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 (12/30/08) 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 (12/27/08, 1/3/08),
under international law, police officers are classified as civilians,
and targeting them is thus illegal (see also Human Rights Watch, 12/31/08). 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 U.S.
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 (12/31/08) 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, 8, who had severe brain damage as well as
two broken legs, according to a doctor there. Earlier that day, two of
his sisters, Lama, 5, and Hayya, 12, were killed.

That "ambiguity" was matched days later (1/4/09),
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 5-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 (1/11/09)
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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FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

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