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May 21, 2018 7:21 am

Gaza and the Fallacy of Moral Equivalence

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Rarely does the photo, four columns wide, of a dead baby appear on page one of The New York Times as it did on May 17. The sorrowful death of Layla Ghandour became, for the Times, “fodder for competing narratives.” But, in fact, a dead Palestinian baby is grist for a newspaper eager to blame Israel first.

The accompanying article was written by Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh. He told the poignant story of an eight-month-old Gaza girl with sparkling eyes that he actually never saw. Held “in the arms of her grandmother when a cloud of tear gas engulfed them” at Monday’s Gaza protest, when 50-plus Palestinians were killed as they attempted to breach the border with Israel, Layla supposedly inhaled “acrid gas.” Dying several hours later, her story “shot across the globe, providing an emotive focus for outrage” not directed at the politically zealous family members who brought her there but, predictably, at Israel.

Layla’s photo was taken by Gaza photographer Mahmud Hams, who described his specialty as “shots of children crushed in the rubble. Parents weeping beside lifeless little bodies. Death. Destruction. Funerals of men, women, children, sometimes very young children.” It is, by implication, always Israel’s fault. Walsh describes “the pressures of life” in Gaza under “an Israeli blockade” that contributed to Layla’s death.

But he inadvertently describes a family’s tragic, zealous dysfunction. Layla was dozing at home when the call sounded from a nearby mosque that a bus awaited passengers heading to the Gaza border fence. Her 12-year-old uncle, assuming that her mother was already on board, took Layla with him. Later that afternoon, when she began to cry, the boy carried her toward the border to find her grandmother, who was busy shouting at Israelis across the fence. Tear gas fell nearby, an hour later Layla died.

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In Gaza, Walsh notes, “the rules of grief” transform private suffering, to say nothing of family history, into a political frenzy. An uncle who belonged to the terrorist Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, died fighting Israelis soldiers. Another uncle died while throwing stones at them. The day after Layla died her father marched to Hamas’s fiery tune, carrying her body wrapped in a Palestinian flag while leading a crowd chanting slogans about “Israeli blood lust.” Layla’s death parade, Walsh notes, was designed to win “international sympathy.” And the Times took the bait.

Measured by expansive Times coverage, Hamas’s “dead baby strategy” — as Alan Dershowitz aptly labeled it — succeeded. Layla’s mother insisted, “The Israelis killed her.” But, as Walsh reported, the family acknowledged that Layla had a congenital heart disease, a hole in her heart. And the Gaza Health Ministry admitted the next day that it did not yet know the cause of the baby’s death.

An Israeli soldier writing in The Times of Israel on May 17 addressed his “moral humane friends” and “those good and moral Zionists who fear that the many Palestinian victims may be our fault.” Kinley Tur-Paz, founder and CEO of the Kibbutz HaDati Educational Network, wrote of his experiences during recent IDF reserve service on the fence separating Israel and Gaza. His response to Israel’s critics is based on “firsthand knowledge. … I was there.”

Tur-Paz knew that he was at the border to help prevent an invasion of thousands of Gazans that “would be perilous, mortally dangerous” to Israeli communities. Had “terrorists disguised as civilians” entered Israel, the only choice would have been “to target every single infiltrator.” For that reason, Israeli soldiers were ordered “to prevent infiltration … using live ammunition only as a last resort.”

Citing their “efforts not to kill and to only injure” their attackers, Ur-Paz recognizes that 62 deaths is an “enormous number.” But “every bullet and every hit is carefully reported, documented, and investigated.” The IDF, he asserts, makes an “enormous effort to protect Israel’s borders while minimizing injuries and loss of life on the other side.” Israel’s cause, he believes, is “morally just.” He concludes: “We do not rejoice when we must go to war, but we also don’t go like sheep to the slaughter. Not anymore.”

Layla Ghandour is the tragic victim of her family’s fervent complicity in the Hamas attempt to destroy Israel. No moral equivalence there.

In an on-line New York Times essay the following day, Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner recognized that Israel took the necessary precautions to protect its soldiers and citizens against “a provocation by an organization known to engage in acts of terrorism.” Fully aware of the consequences for Israelis of a Hamas border breach, he bluntly asserted, “Guarding the border was more important than avoiding killing, and guarding the border is what Israel did successfully.” To be sure, Gazans indisputably “suffer more than they should,” but “not because of Israel, because of Hamas.”

Times editors did not place Rosner’s incisive essay on the Opinion page of the print edition. I wonder why.

Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016.

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