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January 21, 2020 9:11 am

Mideast History Does Not Begin When Journalists Arrive

avatar by Mitchell Bard


Palestinian rioters shout during clashes with IDF troops on the Israel-Gaza Strop border, April 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Mohammed Salem.

One reason that journalists often get stories wrong and mislead their audiences is because they often behave as if history begins when they arrive in the Middle East. By failing to be aware of or account for prior events, reporters fail to provide necessary context and relevant information to understand contemporary issues. Often, ignorance results in stories that are inaccurate.

One article that caught my attention in this regard was when New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger wrote a story in 2007 about Gaza that said:

Palestinians never used to do these things to one another. Putting bullets in the back of the heads of men on their knees. Shooting up hospitals. Killing patients. Knee-capping doctors. Executing clerics. Throwing handcuffed prisoners to their deaths from Gaza’s highest (and most expensive) apartment buildings.

If Erlanger knew anything about Palestinian history and society, he would know Palestinians have been killing each other for decades. By the end of the First Intifada, for example, the fighting had turned into an intrafada, as nearly 1,000 Palestinians were killed by their fellow Palestinians, more than were killed in confrontations with the Israelis.

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More recently, a new staff writer reporting on foreign news from Washington, DC, Miriam Berger, co-authored a story in The Washington Post about the deprivations of Palestinians in Gaza: “The UN once predicted Gaza would be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. Two million people still live there.”

The story quotes a Palestinian living in a refugee camp who describes the terrible conditions there, which he blames on “the various Palestinian parties” and the Israeli blockade. Another Gazan said, “Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the Arabs, and the United States are responsible for what is happening in Gaza, and they must work to help some people here in Gaza.”

One of the main reasons for the description of Gaza as “unlivable” is that 97% of the coastal aquifer’s water is undrinkable.

One other statement worth noting is that “of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents, 1.4 million are refugees.”

Let’s examine the history and context missing from this story.

In 2005, Israel did what Palestinians and the international community had long demanded — they ended the “occupation” of Gaza by withdrawing every soldier and citizen. The Palestinians that were interviewed in the Post story are under the direct control of their fellow Palestinians.

The authors are apparently unaware that billions of dollars of international aid have been sent to Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal. Qatar alone has provided more than $1 billion since 2012. Did they ask where the money was spent? Did they ask whether a single house was built for a single refugee?

Could the habitability of Gaza have anything to do with Hamas siphoning off the aid for its own members and purposes?

A simple search of the Post’s archive would have revealed that Hamas spends an estimated $1 million for each terror tunnel it builds. Another Post article, for example, quoted Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar, “Much to the misfortune of the people of Gaza, Hamas has invested far more resources in ‘underground Gaza’ than in ‘upper Gaza.’”

Why didn’t the authors mention how many houses could be built for refugees with the money spent on tunnels?

How about the money that Hamas gets from other corrupt activities? For example, Gaza imports more than $45 million worth of products from Egypt each month, from which they siphon off approximately $15 million in commissions. Where does that money go?

In 2015, Hamas passed the National Solidarity Tax law on “non-basic” goods such as meats, fruits, electronics, and clothing being imported into Gaza. The revenue was to pay the salaries of Hamas employees.

And why was the person the Post authors interviewed living in a refugee camp? The Israelis left 14 years ago; nothing prevents the Palestinians from closing the refugee camps and moving the people into permanent housing. When Israeli settlers left, the Palestinians were supposed to tear down those homes and build apartment buildings. They never did.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance, UNRWA provides housing, education, health, and other services for the Palestinians. The article says UNRWA was created in the 1950s, but it was established in 1949 and began operations in 1950, which could have been easily verified if the authors bothered to check UNRWA’s website. More important, they left out the fact that UNRWA was never meant to provide indefinite assistance to people it defines as refugees, and that the Palestinians are the only refugee population that has its own separate UN welfare agency.

And what about that figure of 1.4 million refugees? The authors do not question how that figure was determined or ask how there could be that many refugees in 2020, when the total number of Palestinians who left, fled, or were expelled in 1947-49 was 600,000 (UN and CIA estimates were less than 400,000).

The economy in Gaza is dreadful. Are the authors aware that Israel left Gaza a multi-million dollar export economy when settlers gave up their greenhouses? Do they know those greenhouses were destroyed or converted to Hamas training camps?

The article mentions the serious water problems in Gaza and the polluted aquifer: “It’s been so heavily pumped that saltwater and other pollutants have poured in where groundwater was taken out.” Put plainly, the Palestinians’ drinking water issue is a result of them polluting their most important natural resource. That, however, is not the impression given by the story.

The authors do acknowledge that Egypt has imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza, but inaccurately report that only “Israel flexes control via policies on who and what can enter and leave Gaza.” They do not mention that Israel permits tons of supplies to enter Gaza, that it increased the supply of electricity, or that thousands of Gazans are now being allowed into Israel to work.

The authors also don’t consider that the habitability of Gaza might be related to the Palestinian decision to launch 10,000 rockets at Israel instead of focusing on state-building, and that those attacks provoke Israeli retaliation that affects living conditions.

I emailed Miriam Berger to point out the story’s omissions and lack of context. I have not heard from her. In the future maybe she can learn the relevant history or stick to stories on American policy — especially if she is going to report from Washington.

Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.

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