Ethan Bronner described a telling wartime conversation with an Israeli colleague and friend. “He said he really didn’t care about the foreign press being prevented from entering Gaza,” recounted Bronner. “So I said ‘but what if the army is doing bad stuff in Gaza?’” Raising his eyebrows to indicate astonishment, Bronner continued, “And my colleague just answered, ‘I trust them.’ But why would he trust them? The whole nature of our business is not to trust anyone!”
Two months after the ceasefire went into effect, Haaretz and Maariv newspapers published the first reports in Hebrew about possible misdeeds on the part of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. There were allegations about loose rules of engagement that resulted in a sniper shooting an old woman, and a child accompanied by his mother. There were also reports about unnecessary destruction of civilian property, and photographs of racist graffiti on the walls of homes that had been commandeered by soldiers.
Some people were disturbed, but the prevailing reactions were disbelief, and a tendency to discredit the sources—a leftist newspaper (Haaretz) and “leftist” IDF officer. Major Danny Zamir, the reserve officer who compiled the report, is a self-described Social-Democratic Zionist who opposes the occupation of the West Bank. As a soldier, he was once jailed for refusing an order to guard a West Bank settlement; this fact was widely reported in the uproar that ensued after his report was published. Few considered that a former career officer who defined himself as a Zionist might have been motivated by patriotism and a commitment to the IDF’s purity of arms.
But the army could not ignore Zamir, who is a respected officer—especially not after his report was taken up by Maariv and Israeli television news. And so they announced an investigation into the matter. Eleven days later, they released their conclusion: the reports were hearsay; the matter was closed. For the Israeli public, that was the end of the matter. The army said nothing had happened, and that meant nothing had happened. The media did not follow up on the story.
For many of my friends, the army’s conclusion merely confirmed what they already believed. Zamir’s report was all hearsay, they said -although they could not think why a committed, respected officer would undermine the army to which he had dedicated so many years of his life. One acquaintance said he knew the stories could not be true because he had served in the army, his son was serving in the army, and he knew that Israeli soldiers simply do not behave that way. Most Israelis believe the international media is biased against Israel, so they don’t believe foreign reports either. And Israeli reporters are still barred, by a law that has so far gone unchallenged in the courts, from entering Gaza. In the end, the only thing we definitely know about Gaza is that nothing can be confirmed.
In addition to this online report from Israel, the Columbia Journalism Review is offering two additional perspectives on the coverage of the fighting in Gaza. J.J. Goldberg, former editor of The Forward, compares the reporting on alleged brutalities against civilians in the U.S. press and the British press, and how this illuminates the different cultural pressures in the two countries when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. From Gaza itself, Taghreed El-Khodary, a correspondent for The New York Times, writes a Reporter’s Notebook piece on the war. Both articles are in the May/June 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. All three pieces in this special package were supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.