NBC eased into its story more gently. “Israel,” anchor David Gregory began, “has always said that its attack on Gaza was an act of self-defense, a response to missile attacks against Israeli civilians. But now Israel has been shaken by charges from some of the soldiers themselves that the Israeli military acted far more brutally than previously thought.”
Gregory then handed off to correspondent Martin Fletcher, who showed film of Israeli tanks that “flattened Palestinian homes”—in order, he said immediately, “to keep their own soldiers safe” by avoiding main roads.
Both the BBC and NBC went on to relate the two soldiers’ accounts of snipers shooting women. Both showed footage of an Israeli military spokeswoman promising an investigation. To balance her, NBC showed a Hamas spokesman saying that the “confessions confirm the criminal and terrorist mentality of the Israelis.” BBC, by contrast, brought in an Israeli human-rights activist with a more measured and hence more credible response. She said the reports didn’t represent “a few bad seeds” but rather “norms of behavior” communicated by “mid-level or high-level officers.”
BBC’s Wood then sharpened the allegation. “The claim then is that the Israeli army’s rules of engagement allowed soldiers to kill with impunity,” he said. “That charge is unproven. For an Israeli army that prides itself on purity of arms, these allegations are a challenge.”
Fletcher’s conclusion was far more cautious: “It isn’t clear how widespread these acts were.”
Here’s the scorecard: both television reports gave the same basic background about the soldiers’ visit to the academy. Both related the same two accounts of snipers shooting women and children. The difference was that BBC opened with the prosecution’s charges, while NBC opened with the defense. BBC made no mention of the Hamas rocket attacks that preceded the Israeli invasion. NBC didn’t mention any claims of permissive rules of engagement coming down from the higher-ups.
Missing bits of information like those can go a long way, intentionally or not, in tilting a story to one side or the other. Omitting mention of the rockets allowed viewers to conclude, as many observers around the world have concluded, that the Israeli onslaught was a senseless display of cruelty meant to humiliate Palestinians. It turned Israelis into stick figures, cardboard Nazis. In so doing, it tarnished the credibility of peace negotiations.
On the other hand, failure to note the substantial evidence that the army’s rules of engagement had been loosened had the effect of weakening the soldiers’ credibility. If there were no evidence that the abuses had been ordered from above, then the entire case would rest on the soldiers’ testimony. The public could then conclude that the misdeeds represented only a few bad apples—or never happened at all.
That theme—that the evidence was flimsy—was sounded repeatedly by conservative columnists and bloggers as they began to counterattack in the days after the first reports. “There is no evidence,” [emphasis in the original] conservative British columnist Melanie Phillips wrote in a Sunday posting on the Spectator Web site, tellingly titled the Haaretz blood libel. “Not one single verifiable actual incident of intentional killing of civilians.”
Back in Israel, a virtuoso summation of the stories’ purported flimsiness was presented by conservative columnist Caroline Glick, a longtime fixture at the venerable, rightist Jerusalem Post. Glick termed the entire process of eliciting and publicizing the soldiers’ testimonies a “major media assault on the IDF,” or Israel Defense Forces, and “a coproduction of a far-left political activist”—that would be Rabin academy director Danny Zamir—“and far-left reporters.”
At Zamir’s institute, she wrote, students are “subjected to post-Zionist political philosophy that according to sources familiar with the institution indoctrinates them to believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.” Actually, the school is a prime source of elite Israeli fighters, and Zamir remains a trusted officer.
More important, there was substantial evidence for the charge about changed rules. Ofer Shelah wrote, in his second-day report in the Maariv weekend supplement, that the military had drafted new rules of engagement in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war. “Changing the rules was a General Staff decision,” Shelah told me in a phone interview. The army had concluded after Lebanon that its rules on protecting civilians left troops vulnerable to ambushes and booby traps. This time, it would protect its soldiers first. One of the senior commanders in Gaza, artillery chief Colonel Tzvi Fogel, had described the rules to him in an on-air interview on Channel 10. The army was instructed to target an area of suspected Hamas activity with artillery fire, then drop leaflets warning residents to clear out. Anyone who was still around after that was to be considered a suspected terrorist and fair game.