Lynne Coates: Why Hamas are winning propaganda war in Gaza

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THE resumption of hostilities between Hamas and Israel will, no doubt, result in more appalling scenes of carnage in Gaza. No right-minded person can fail to be affected by the tragic images of dead and injured children, graphically displayed on TV and in the press. Yet, as a photo-journalist, I question the veracity of the media coverage of this conflict.

The spectacle of throngs of international media, jostling for the most advantageous position to film and photograph injured or dead children, is both distasteful and disrespectful.

How do they know where to be and when, in order to capture those images, and how do they get there? Gaza is a theatre of war. Unless they know in advance where and when a bomb is going to fall, how can they be at the target site immediately after or, in some cases, before the attack takes place?

The answer has now been well-documented. Hamas deliberately fire rockets from populated areas, mosques, schools and hospitals, in the knowledge that Israel will respond to destroy the rocket launchers. Therefore, Hamas can direct the media to the location from which they have fired rockets, knowing full well the carnage that will follow.

By using this strategy, they manipulate the world’s press. This is how Hamas conduct their war. It is the duty of journalists to witness and report factual information, and to be fair and accurate. How can they report fairly when they are led by events that are clearly orchestrated for their benefit?

Indian television channel NDTV filmed Hamas firing rockets into Israel from a populated residential area next to their hotel. They are to be commended for their courage and for getting that film aired on TV. After they had safely left Gaza, the reporter, Jain Sreenivasan, wrote an article in which he asked: “How long do we self-censor because of the fear of personal safety,in return for not telling a story that exposes how those launching rockets are putting so many more lives at risk, while the rocket-makers themselves are at a safe distance?”

The FPA (Foreign Press Association) reported that many foreign journalists in Gaza have been harassed, threatened or questioned.

They also revealed that Hamas have put in place a “vetting” procedure that would allow for the blacklisting of specific journalists.

French-Palestinian journalist Radjaa Abou Dagga wrote in an article for French newspaper Libération about how he was “detained and interrogated” by members of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigade in a room in Shifa hospital and was forced to leave Gaza immediately without his papers. Similarly, John Reed of the Financial Times was reportedly threatened after he tweeted about rockets being fired from the same hospital.

Gabriele Barbati, an Italian reporter, refuted the Hamas version of an incident which killed 10 children. According to Mr Barbati, a misfired Hamas rocket was responsible, and militants “rushed and cleared debris”. The Palestinian version of events, blaming Israel, was broadcast by all major media outlets. Mr Barbati’s version was suppressed. Journalists in Gaza are not allowed free access. They are herded around from bomb site to hospital, stage managed and directed.

Hamas ensures that reporters are exposed to maximum casualties by insisting interviews only take place in the courtyard of the Al-Shifa hospital. In some cases bomb sites are used to provide PR opportunities. Sudarsan Raghavan, of the Washington Post, described how he was taken to photograph a mosque that had been bombed and it was obvious that someone had “prepared” the scene by placing a prayer mat and burnt Koran pages, too perfectly, with obvious symbolism. It was easily spotted by a TV crew who filmed it.

Despite reports that Israel hit 1,678 rocket launching facilities, 191 weapons facilities, 977 command centres, and 32 tunnels, there was little footage of those facilities. Given the huge numbers of press in Gaza (an estimated 700) this exposes the prejudiced portrayal of the conflict. The tragedy is that the more complicit the media is with Hamas, the more that Hamas continues to sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians.

Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview that Gaza has been “effectively stage-managed” by Hamas, and that the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel. Many of us are guilty of forming opinions based on sensational headlines, and no other country comes under such intense media attention as Israel. The relentless publication of graphic imagery from Gaza is having dire consequences for Jewish communities throughout Europe, with the exponential growth in anti-Semitic incidents.

However, it would be naïve to imagine that supporting Hamas in Gaza will only harm the Jews. Siding with one terrorist group will serve to empower others. Journalists in war zones have a greater moral responsibility, both to act as witness and to report with integrity and honesty. In the 21st century it is the media that has the ammunition to fight terrorism – let us hope they are brave enough to use it wisely.

* Lynne Coates is a Yorkshire-based photo-journalist who has worked in the Middle East on Palestinian/ Israeli co-existence peace projects.