Our Humanity in the Balance

By Carel Moiseiwitsch, Gordon Murray and Drew Penland

WE recently returned from the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza where we volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Upon returning to Vancouver, we were shocked by the disconnection between our experience of Palestine and its portrayal in the Canadian media.

During our stay there, we accompanied and supported people whose daily lives were being interrupted, interfered with and strangled by the Israeli military. We saw humiliation, pain and death inflicted on ordinary Palestinians.

Back in Canada, we saw newspaper stories about the heroic Israeli victims of barbaric Palestinian terrorists.

Our point is not that Israeli suffering is irrelevant or that Israeli deaths are inconsequential, but that the North American media treat Palestinian suffering and death as irrelevant and inconsequential.

In the West Bank and Gaza, we observed soldiers beating medical personnel and using them as human shields, taunting young children to throw rocks at their tank so they could respond with live ammunition, forcing women with infants to stand for hours in the cold a few metres from their homes, destroying food and water systems, and firing heavy machine guns into residential streets and buildings.

In short, the Israeli military did not seem to view Palestinians as human beings. Soldiers at checkpoints gave us dire warnings that all Palestinians would kidnap or murder us. On the contrary, the Palestinians we met were incredibly warm, hospitable and generous, and many Israelis work bravely to uphold human rights, including some who join ISM in Palestine.

The Israeli military claims many Palestinians they kill are “armed militants” or at least “suspected militants”. The vast majority have not been tried or convicted of anything, but we are expected to trust this instant justice. The logic seems to be that since the army doesn’t target civilians, all dead Palestinians somehow deserved their fate — even a kid throwing stones at a tank that could withstand an artillery shell. According to human rights groups, 85 per cent of the Palestinians killed in the Occupied Territories are civilians.

Israeli soldiers in Tulkarm boasted to us about killing the local Al Aqsa Brigades leader and a man described by the Israeli army and several media outlets as his “aide”, Badia Karoq. According to a dozen people we interviewed, Badia was not a militant. He was simply the hard-working manager of a sweet shop.

We were among the first people to enter Badia’s shop after he was killed. When the shooting started outside in the street, Badia hid in the attic of the shop, unarmed and wearing his shop uniform. An Israeli soldier came to the attic and riddled him with bullets, taking the bottom half of his face off and soaking the floor in blood.

According to his family who live in a village nearby, Badia helped support them when he was growing up by taking odd jobs, such as picking wild herbs in the mountains. They say he was hardworking and honest, and his salary was supporting his entire family, including his elderly father, when he was killed.

The Israeli army is killing and wounding obvious non-combatants such as medical workers, journalists and international human rights activists with increasing frequency. Between March 16 and April 12, 2003, the Israeli forces ran over and killed Rachel Corrie from the U.S. with a military bulldozer and shot both American Brian Avery and British activist Tom Hurndall in the head. Hurndall is currently on life support and is not expected to survive.

In the Avery and Hurndall attacks, the Israeli military claimed they were firing at “armed militants”. But several eyewitnesses reported to us that there were no armed Palestinians or gunfire in the area prior to either shooting. The Israeli army has already cleared themselves of any responsibility in the death of Corrie — who was trying to protect a Palestinian house from demolition — saying she “recklessly” and “criminally” put herself in harm’s way.

The dehumanizing portrayal of all Palestinians as violent fanatics is endemic in our North American media. The mainstream press usually repeats the Israeli military’s characterization of dead Palestinians as “militants” or “terrorists” without proof or qualification.

One typical example of such biased coverage was a Vancouver Sun article on April 11, entitled “Gaza is proof of the problems peace faces”, in which columnist Stuart Bell quotes the bravado of angry young men in Gaza as “proof” that Palestinians don’t want peace.

Bell fails to mention the Israeli Army violence that provoked their anger: 12 Palestinian civilians killed in the Gaza Strip in the previous week, including four children, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

In a single attack, Israeli Air Force F16s and Apache helicopters fired four missiles at a car with two “suspected militants” in a densely populated residential neighbourhood of Gaza City. Five innocent bystanders were killed and more than 50 wounded, half of them children.

Although armed resistance to a military occupation is permitted under international law, Bell uses the loaded term “terrorism” to describe the Palestinian armed struggle against an Israeli occupation that has been declared illegal by the UN Security Council. On the other hand, the Israeli army’s frequent targeted assassinations of “suspected militants”, a grave breach of Article 147 of the 4th Geneva Convention, are described by Bell as “counter-terrorism” and “policing”.

The Israeli occupation army’s “policing” has killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians (including more than 450 children) and demolished more than 3,000 Palestinian houses since September, 2000. That’s taking police brutality to a whole new level.

A stunning media imbalance is revealed by studies of U.S. coverage of the Palestinian uprising. Analysis of the San Jose Mercury News by Alison Wier, a former Sausalito editor, showed that it covered 73 per cent of Israeli deaths on its front page from April to September, 2001, compared to just five per cent of Palestinian deaths.

Cursory readers of the paper would be left with the impression that 500 Israelis — but only about 100 Palestinian civilians — had been killed in the current uprising, when the real figures are 700 Israelis and 2,000 Palestinian.

According to the media watchdog organization, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. fared somewhat better, reporting 34 per cent of Palestinian deaths and 81 per cent of Israeli deaths in the first six months of 2001.

However, the distortion was much worse in the emotionally-charged category of dead children. Only 20 per cent of the killings of Palestinian children were reported, compared to 89 per cent for Israeli children. In other words, being less than 18 years old makes your death more newsworthy to NPR if you are Israeli, but less newsworthy if you are Palestinian.

Our experience in the Occupied Territories bears this out. On a single day in January, two boys were killed by the Israeli military in the town of Tulkarm. Haza Shadid, 16, was shot in front of us while throwing stones at an armoured personnel carrier that had just teargassed his school. Mohi Hamzi, a boy of 17, was shot while crossing the street in front of the Tulkarm refugee camp.

Osama, the ISM regional coordinator, contacted many international news agencies to report the incidents, only to be told time and again that the deaths of two Palestinian boys were not newsworthy.

In times of conflict we can become hardened and insensitive to individual tragedies. Governments and the media use numbers and coded terms, such as “collateral damage” and “regrettable accident” to objectify and distance us from individual deaths. The North American press, in particular, is guilty of partisan distortions and omissions in its coverage of the Mideast conflict.

Whichever side we support, we must — as complete and compassionate beings — learn to see each death as tragic and unnecessary. Portraying one side’s suffering as more tragic or important than the other’s — or some deaths as justified by a simplistic “truth” that serves one side — just facilitates violence.

The media must support the search for shared truths and not merely reiterate the formulas of fundamentalist ideologues — on either side of the Mideast conflict — that serve a single interest. All of us are responsible for helping find a humane solution. To be silent is to be complicit in the ongoing oppression.

Carel Moiseiwitsch, Gordon Murray, both from Vancouver, and Drew Penland of Delta, B.C., recently spent one to three months in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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