Another case involved a mortar landing on the street in front of United Nations Relief and Works Agency school, killing forty-two civilians who had taken shelter there and were standing just outside the gate. The Israeli media reported that Hamas gunmen had been firing from inside the school. An UNRWA spokesman’s denial was reported, but with far less prominence. Later, the IDF’s story changed: the shooting had been “near” the school. An AP report appeared to confirm that Hamas militiamen had been shooting near the school, but none of the eyewitnesses was willing to speak on the record, lest there be reprisals (Hamas militiamen frequently dispatch suspected traitors with a bullet to the head). In the absence of additional, non-Gazan, reporters on the ground, most Israelis chose to believe the IDF’s first explanation, while UNRWA’s denial made a greater impression amongst European reporters I spoke with—even though they had no way of carrying out independent verification until it was far too late.
Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin said that Israeli intelligence suspected Hamas’s leadership was hiding in a bunker located under Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. This claim was widely reported in the Israeli media, although it was impossible to verify. Both Yedioth and Maariv reported Diskin’s theory as a fact that explained why the IDF was forced to hit civilian targets in Gaza—including some small hospitals near Jabalya Camp—because that was where the militants hid. Haaretz indicated its skepticism with a cartoon that shows a female receptionist at Shifa Hospital who, in response to the presence of two IDF soldiers dressed in combat gear, opens a concealed door in the floor and calls out the name of a well-known Hamas leader.
The most extraordinary incident involved Dr. Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish of Jebalyah Refugee Camp. The Hebrew-speaking gynecologist and peace activist was one of the few Gazans allowed regularly into Israel, where he performed research at a hospital. A widowed father of six daughters, he was frequently interviewed for Israeli television, offering eyewitness reports from embattled Gaza in his fluent Hebrew. During the final days of the campaign, just a few minutes before he was scheduled to be interviewed on Channel 10, his house was hit by a tank mortar. Dr. Aboul Aish’s niece and three of his six daughters were killed instantly; two additional daughters were severely wounded. Shrieking with raw grief, he called Channel 10 reporter Shlomi Eldar to beg for help.
Eldar, who was on air at the time, bowed his head and activated the speaker function on his mobile phone. For the first time, Israelis were able to put a familiar human face and voice to the suffering of Gazan civilians. Prior to the Aboul Aish incident, domestic television had broadcast only brief, sterile clips from Gaza, usually showing damaged infrastructure that was identified as Hamas hideouts or weapons caches. On at least one occasion, footage of wounded women and children being treated in a hospital emergency room was narrated by the Channel 2 afternoon broadcaster as a tragedy that would surely be used as anti-Israel propaganda.
But even the compelling case of Dr. Aboul Aish failed to make a strong or lasting impact on many Israelis. One middle-aged woman, typically middle class in her speech and appearance, attacked him during a press conference at Tel Hashomer Hospital, where his wounded daughters were being treated. Screaming in front of the cameras and refusing to be silenced, she said that it was a disgrace to give the Palestinian doctor publicity in an Israeli hospital. He must have had weapons in his house, she insisted, because her sons were in the army and they would never shoot a civilian house. While many Israelis expressed abhorrence for her insensitivity to the doctor’s grief, there was wide agreement—lent credence by the army’s initial explanation, later retracted—that the army would not have shot at the physician’s house without a reason. Perhaps he had been unaware of Hamas gunmen shooting from his house? Dr. Aboul Aish rejected this explanation vehemently: speaking to Israeli television reporters from the hospital bedside of one of his wounded daughters, he insisted there had been no shooting either from his house or near his house.
Why were Israelis—both journalists and news consumers—so willing to accept the IDF’s version of events in Gaza? Why did Israeli reporters, normally cynical and irreverent to a fault, fail to ask critical questions during the military operation? Every journalist I spoke with gave the same explanation: the attitude toward covering the Gaza war was a direct reaction to the Second Lebanon War and the way it was reported.