Corporate American Media and Israel’s 2008-09 Gaza Invasion

The following piece is an excerpt from a talk Salaita gave at the School of Oriental and African Studies on December 7, 2009.

I’m starting on the assumption that we’re all aware of Israel’s brutality in the Gaza Strip and that we all find it unconscionable, as does the vast majority of the world. I assume as well that we’re aware of the brutality preceding and following Israel’s military assault nearly a year ago. I’d like to examine how corporate media in the United States presented coverage of Israel’s invasion, and how discourses of justification for Israel are built into the foundation of that coverage.

First of all, let’s get a sense of just how devastating Israel’s aggression has been. In the weeks following Israel’s invasion, it became clear from a variety of sources that at a minimum 1,400 Palestinians have been killed. Nearly 500 were children. Because American media did such a poor job of putting these numbers into context, I will do it for you: The overall population of Gaza is around 1.4 million. Let’s do a basic comparative analysis, then. At least 1,400 Palestinians were killed, which is .001, or one one thousandth, of Gaza’s population. If you take that number and apply it to Israel’s population of 7.3 million, it would be the same as 7,300 Israeli deaths. The United States’ population is 305 million; the equivalent casualties per capita would be 305,000. 305,000 people. Think about that for a moment. And then think about the fact that we’re being asked to accept this level of Palestinian death as part of some abstruse battle against terrorism.

It’s important to look at these Palestinian deaths in the broader context of Israeli colonization. The vast discrepancy in power between the Israeli military and Palestinian resistance is reflected in some mortality and economic figures. In 2008, for instance, on the eve of Israel’s Gaza invasion, 820 Palestinians had been killed by Israelis whereas 35 Israelis had been killed by Palestinians. You probably didn’t hear much about these Palestinian deaths because the first rule of corporate media in the United States is that periods of “relative calm” predominate when only Palestinians are dying.

Since the September 2000, start of the second Intifada, the figures are equally disproportionate. Although Americans are told over and again that Palestinians started the violence in 2000, the facts reveal this narrative to be fallacious. In the fall of 2000, 140 Palestinians were killed before there was a single Israeli casualty. Likewise, Israel murdered 82 Palestinian children before a single Israeli child was killed. Since 2000, 123 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinians; 1200 Palestinian children have been killed by Israelis. 1,067 Israelis have been killed; at least 5,500 Palestinians have been killed. Around 8,500 Israelis have been injured; over 35,000 Palestinians have been injured. Israel has been targeted for condemnation by over 65 UN resolutions. One Israeli is being held prisoner by the Palestinians; 10,756 Palestinians are being held prisoner by the Israelis. Zero Israeli homes have been demolished by Palestinians; over 19,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israelis. The Palestinians do not have any illegal settlements inside Israel; Israel has over 400 illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land. The unemployment rate inside Israel is 7.5 percent; the unemployment rate inside the Gaza Strip is 80 percent. And yet Israel receives around 7 million dollars per day from the United States. This money goes to a government that continually denies any responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The 2008-09 attacks on Gaza entailed massive human rights violations. Let me give you just one example that you’re not hearing about on CNN and NPR, or from cutting-edge liberals like Rachel Maddow or Michael Moore: Israel has used a variety of illegal chemical weapons, including white phosphorous. If you’re not familiar with white phosphorous it is a substance that ignites and spreads upon contact with oxygen. Anybody who comes into contact with it goes into uncontrollable fits; enough exposure to it will cause one’s flesh to melt down to bone. It is the chemical that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds in the infamous Halabja massacre, the one invoked repeatedly by the United States as a pretext to invade Iraq.

One would think that this sort of brutality would be widely condemned in Israel, where, unlike in the United States, it’s actually reported; but that hasn’t really been the case. There’s been some grassroots action, some low-level protest, and some of the typical philosophical flatulence from famous doves like David Grossman and Amos Oz about the deterioration of the Israeli soul. On the whole, the Israeli cultural, economic, and intellectual elite applauded Israel’s invasion, supporting it whole cloth with little reservation; indeed, much of the criticism focused on claims that Israel is being too restrained.

For all we hear about Palestinians cheering on terrorism, which is a myth, Israeli and Arab news stations have shown footage of Israelis literally dancing in the streets. I’m sure you saw the pictures of the Israelis who set up lawn chairs on a hilltop to have a picnic and watch the destruction of Gaza as if it were a movie. These are the traits of a very sick society, one that can never escape its violent colonial origin. These traits are the result of a fundamental belief among Zionists that Palestinians aren’t human.

This fundamental belief has pervaded American media coverage. There are two features of media coverage around Israeli colonization that stand out: 1) the Palestinians, no matter who is dying, whether it’s a bearded gunman or a baby, are always called militants, terrorists, or some other term that suggests they are never civilians; and 2) any Israeli military invasion is almost uniformly deemed retaliatory. At the height of Gaza’s destruction, the International Herald Tribune noted, “Civilians have been caught in between suicide fighters and a powerful military.” This phrase suggests, of course, that Israel’s aggression is justified. But it’s even more insidious when you look at it closely. It also suggests that the Palestinians are unworthy of the very freedom that Jews naturally deserve. Palestinian deaths therefore become unremarkable. These narratives are not only inaccurate and irresponsible, they are racist because they refuse to imagine the Palestinian in a human capacity, seeing him instead only in the context of Israel’s whims and desires. And when Israel desires to kill Palestinians, the justification is easy, because it is built into a perception of Palestinian inhumanity: Israel wishes to conduct the business of its apartheid, colonization, and human rights violations without the inconvenience of those pesky Palestinians fighting for basic dignity and freedom.

Everything Palestinian is a Hamas stronghold according to American media, which simply reiterate whatever propaganda comes out of the Israeli military’s spokesperson’s mouth. In the past year, Israel has attacked hospitals, schools, heavily-populated residential areas, police stations, mosques, orphanages, and a civilian boat carrying humanitarian aid. The rationale is the same every single time: whatever Israel bombs is a repository of terrorists. Nothing Palestinian, then, is fundamentally free of the influence of terrorism – not Palestinian schools, not Palestinian kitchens, not Palestinian automobiles, not Palestinian mosques and churches, and not Palestinian children. At one point during Israel’s slaughter, a Palestinian infant was killed by Israeli bombs while she was feeding. Apparently, his mother’s breast was a Hamas stronghold.

I would suggest that we don’t simply counter these pernicious Israeli and American narratives by pointing only at the current Israeli human rights violations. We have to remember, and remind others, that Israel is a colonial nation, created on the ashes of an indigenous population that is now confined to 22 percent of its homeland and constantly under threat to lose that, too. So, when people deem Israel’s actions retaliatory, we can say that such a claim is factually untrue and in contravention of the historical record. And we can point out that as a rule, colonization is never defensive. It never was and it never will be. Its very nature renders it offensive, and that’s exactly what Israel is doing now: launching a genocidal offensive on a dispossessed and colonized people.

To hear American media tell it, though, the death of Palestinian civilians is an unfortunate byproduct of their own innate barbarity. By continually emphasizing Israel’s so-called retaliation, American media simultaneously justify and absolve Israel of its cruelty. We need to point out that most of the Gazans are refugees who are indigenous to the villages and cities Israel claims to now be protecting. Gaza’s population does not consist of irrational Muslim extremists who inexplicably dislike Jews and take a perverse joy in undermining Israel’s timeless and innocent democracy, as American news outlets relentlessly suggest; it consists of people who have been systematically dispossessed, starved, tortured, and economically exploited. Nor does this population exist outside of history; it is engaged in a colonial war against a powerful state that has long undertaken a program of ethnic cleansing.

If it seems like this is too tall an order for the hopelessly pro-Israel corporate media, then keep in mind that the world is comprised of fundamentally decent human beings, which is why over 99 percent of people in the world will agree with you. Corporate media reflect the interests of the elite and the powerful, but they aren’t strong enough to control the flow of all information in an age of mass communications. Therefore, even though American media relentlessly vilify the Palestinians, most Americans aren’t buying the bias anymore. For example, a Rasmussen poll last year showed that 44 percent of Americans supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza, while 41 percent opposed it.

Unsurprisingly, among Republicans there was 62 percent support, with 27 percent opposed. Among Democrats, however, there was only 31 percent support, with 55 percent of respondents opposed to Israel’s aggression.

While this poll is far from comprehensive of American attitudes, it is hopeful. We learn, for example, that the new ruling party in the United States takes a position on Israel that contravenes well over half of its supporters. Israel won’t be able to keep up its impunity and belligerence forever. Its free pass, which it acquired through constant fear- and guilt-mongering, is about to be invalidated. This is Zionism’s last gasp as a civil, cultured movement. It’s difficult to support a state that constantly claims to be victimized but somehow has the capacity to starve millions of people and swiftly slaughter over 400 children.