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What the Red Cross Sees, the Media Still Can’t

Red Cross statement on Gaza conditions underscores lack of media access
January 8, 2009

This morning, most newspapers had some version of an account detailing an accusatory Red Cross report of conditions in Gaza. The New York Times’s online account, under the macabre headline, “Gaza Children Found With Mothers’ Corpses,” reads as follows:

In an unusually blunt criticism, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been seeking access to shell-damaged areas in Zeitoun in the east of Gaza City since Saturday but the Israeli authorities granted permission only on Wednesday — the first day that Israel allowed a three-hour lull in the attacks on Gaza on humanitarian grounds.

The statement said a team of four Palestine Red Crescent ambulances accompanied by Red Cross representatives made its way to Zeitoun Wednesday where it “found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses.”

The Red Cross statement also quoted Pierre Wettach, an International Red Cross representative for Israel and the Palestinian areas, as saying: “The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded.”

The Los Angeles Times called the report “blistering,” and The Washington Post’s account of it, “Red Cross Reports Grisly Find in Gaza,” has quickly become one of its most viewed articles of the day. The strong language underscores the fact that, coming from a humanitarian organization, the statement seems uncharacteristically denunciatory. And while it isn’t the reason that the U.N. has stopped its aid to Gaza (the main reason was that Israeli forces shot and killed a U.N. worker, and also shot at a convoy of U.N. vehicles), The Guardian states that the “unusually strong condemnation coincided with [the] UN announcement that it was suspending its operations in the territory.”

What is noteworthy about these accounts, in addition to the conditions that they report, is that they are all nearly the same. All of them rely on the Red Cross report, numbers released by Palestinian authorities, and statements from Israeli officials.

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This is because foreign media haven’t been allowed into Gaza—and therein resides the bigger problem, and an implicit reason that this story has gained so much traction. As the NYT reported from Jerusalem a few days ago:

Three times in recent days, a small group of foreign correspondents was told to appear at the border crossing to Gaza. The reporters were to be permitted in to cover firsthand the Israeli war on Hamas in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling against the two-month-old Israeli ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza.

Each time, they were turned back on security grounds, even as relief workers and other foreign citizens were permitted to cross the border. On Tuesday the reporters were told to not even bother going to the border.

And so for an 11th day of Israel’s war in Gaza, the several hundred journalists here to cover it waited in clusters away from direct contact with any fighting or Palestinian suffering, but with full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel, where Hamas rockets have been terrorizing civilians.

Reporter Ethan Bronner noted that, “Unable to send foreign reporters into Gaza, the international news media have relied on Palestinian journalists based there for coverage.” And indeed, first-hand accounts from the AP’s Ibrahim Barzak, in Gaza City, have circulated widely.

But those are limited reports, and we need more. Bronner noted the probable reason for the denial of access: that this, like all wars, “is partly about public relations,” and that the comparative numbers of dead, without context, don’t tell the whole story. But the way the press has seized on the Red Cross story—and the way that headline grabbed me as a reader—only underscore how little we’ve been hearing from inside Gaza.

And that’s the bigger problem with information tightly controlled for political reasons, which today’s slew of Red Cross stories could begin to address. The Washington Post begins to draw the connection between the singularity of the Red Cross accusation and its own organizational inability to verify other details (noting that even as the Red Cross is negotiating with the Israeli military to guarantee safe passage, the Post couldn’t independently corroborate certain other details about “large numbers of wounded survivors, including children, [that] had arrived at Red Cross hospitals in Gaza from Zaytoun on Wednesday,” because “the Israeli military has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza”).

The Red Cross was able to see precisely what the press was not present to see. These are matters outside of individual reporters’ control. But the Red Cross report should nonetheless remind journalists of the scenes and situations they’re not able to cover in person, or at all. Alan Abbey, at Poynter, has noted that much of the blogospheric conversation about the conflict is happening from outside Gaza and Israel. Still, there are regional blogs, like this Bahraini one, that are receiving regular updates from Gaza. It may not be reportorial gold, but it’s a closer perspective than what most reporters currently have, and that makes it—like the Red Cross report—worthwhile.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.