Review and commentary: A new documentary, “Eyeless In Gaza,” delivers the news that coverage of Israel in the 2014 Gaza War with Hamas was skewed, and finds the world media wanting
In Donald Trump’s campaign and during his short but controversial tenure so far in the White House, the term “fake news” has been thrown around by both the President and his opponents, referring both to claims of unfair media coverage and statements by the new American leader and associates that can be proven factually incorrect - like how many people attended the inaugural.
Many of those are easy to prove one way or the other, and some are clearly a matter of opinion.
However, there is another kind of “fake news” that has to do with distorted coverage of people and events that is sometimes done with good intentions and other times to serve a political, social or religious agenda.
That comes home dramatically in a powerful new documentary, “Eyeless In Gaza,” subtitled “Seeing the world through a distorted lens.”
It is a one-hour examination of coverage of the 2014 war in Gaza between the Islamic group Hamas and the state of Israel. It looks at how the coverage impacted public opinion around the world, but not always based on the facts.
The panel discussing the documentary on Feb. 7 at the Ipix Theater in Westwood, CA. From L to R: Moderator Claudia Puig, producer Robert Magid, Alex Ben Block, David Renzer of Creative Community for Peace, and David Suissa, President of Tribe Media. Photo by Anna Feig.
I was part of a panel discussion on Monday evening in Westwood, California, that discussed the documentary after it was screened. It is about to play at special events in New York and other cities, and will soon be available on ITunes and elsewhere.
It is a difficult, complicated subject to which many viewers will bring their own prejudices – pro and anti-Palestinian, for and against Israel, anti-Semitism or anti- Muslim or worse.
Having now watched it twice, “Eyeless In Gaza” clearly has some narrative problems and even credibility issues in places, but what comes through loud and clear is that when it comes to the Jewish state, the game is often fixed in a way that insures bad publicity.
The documentary provides a bit of history. In 2005, after considerable discussion and controversy in Israel, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) left Gaza after dismantling and in some cases forcibly removing Jewish settlers in the territory. Most of those settlers were given sizable cash amounts to help them relocate.
It was the hope of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the people of Gaza would appreciate the Israeli gesture to give the Palestinians their own homeland, and that it would spark moves toward peaceful co-existence. Some in the Israel cabinet disagreed, including Benjamin “Bebe” Netanyahu, who predicted it would just provide a base for expanded terrorist operations.
The U.S. under then President George W. Bush strongly endorsed the withdrawal, praised Israel for the move and authorized $50 million in aide to assist the newly liberated Gaza. Many European leaders and the U.N. also praised the withdrawal.
However most of the Israeli media warned that it would only lead to more terrorism.
After the withdrawal, battles for control erupted between the two main factions in Gaza, the Fatah and Hamas. Ultimately Fatah was seen as corrupt by many citizens. So while Hamas was ruthless in attacking the Fatah backers and what had been The Palestinian authority, they won over the populace.
Hamas was elected on a platform of Independence for Gaza, a call for a Muslim state, hatred for Israel and a promise to destroy the Jewish state,
So instead of peace, Israel’s grand gesture had indeed bought it a new reign of terror. In July 2014, Hamas launched Operation Protective Edge. Its fighters began to launch hundreds of rockets at Israel, some of which fell on Gaza instead.
Hamas used millions of dollars in supplies like cement and construction tools sent in by Israel and others to help rebuild Gaza to build tunnels into Israel, hundreds of them, instead. In some cases the tunnels came up in residential areas of Israel where gunmen would suddenly pop up and indiscriminately shoot and kill civilians until they were stopped.
There were a number of beliefs, causes, angry history and bloody incidents that sparked the fight, but for Israel it became a matter of survival. Explosives were being dropped into civilian areas with little warning, and the government in Tel Aviv determined it had to be stopped.
Israel had a defensive system called the Iron Shield which sent rockets up to shoot down the Hamas rockets, but even that resulted in falling shrapnel.
For seven weeks, the rocket attacks continued, and soon Israel was targeting locations inside Gaza where the missiles were being launched for bombing and rocket attacks.
Hamas placed many of the rocket launches and supplies of munitions in residential areas, next to schools, hospitals and other civilian strongholds. Israel went after them, and the number of civilian casualties mounted.
The U.N. abandoned a school it had operated in Gaza after Hamas turned it into a storage facility for munitions, and began launching rocket attacks at Israel from the nearby buildings. When the shelling ended, much of the world press reported the horror inflicted by Israel on a school and children, without the context of how Hamas had used the victims as human shields in violation of international law.
In the documentary a reporter for the Associated Press, which supplies stories about the conflict worldwide, related how armed Hamas fighters had broken into the news bureau with guns blazing and warned against reporting anything that did not fit in with the Islamic party line.
So when the AP reporters saw Hamas shooting off cannons from a nearby residential area out their own window, they did not report it out of fear for their own lives and well-being.
In some cases, Israel dropped leaflets in advance of the bombing of a neighborhood, and sent thousands of text messages, warning citizens to get out. Hamas radio and soldiers warned the local population to stay in place and said the Israeli’s were lying. They were not. By telling civilians not to go to a safe area, the documentary declares that Hamas was committing war crimes.
In Gaza, as the documentary documents, Hamas carefully controlled media coverage, threatening and expelling journalists if they didn’t like the coverage. A number of local journalists in Gaza who remained did what they were told and twisted the facts to please Hamas,or because they were loyal to that cause.
Hamas encouraged TV pictures of victims of the Israeli retribution attacks, but blocked pictures of Fatah members attacked by Hamas.
But it wasn’t just Palestinians locked in this living nightmare with Hamas, International journalists covering the conflict also showed pictures of children and women and hospitals and schools being killed, destroyed and devastate, with little or no context. Some French and British outlets in particular pushed this heart-breaking point of view.
However, there was little coverage of what it meant to be a civilian in Israel when bombs were flying and it wasn’t safe to walk the streets. Even when Israel intercepted ships full of arms and put them on display, it received minimal coverage.
Much of the international coverage focused on a sea blockade by Israel to keep out arms and weapons. Some ships tried to run the blockade claiming they had to bring food and medicine to the Palestinians, and were being turned away.
That was how it was reported but in reality, this documentary declares, the Israelis who controlled the border were allowing hundreds of trucks into Gaza each day with food and medicine; while working to stop the inflow of weapons
This documentary makes the point that the international press either bought into the Hamas views or were forced to leave by the Palestinians or out of concern for the safety of their reporters.
This kind of powerful image from the 2014 War in Gaza was used against Israel
Israel sought peace talks and a way to end the killing but Hamas repeatedly refused. Its goal was to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and replace it with an Islamic state run under Sharia law. A loss of life by Palestinians seemed to be a price they were more than willing to pay.
“They’re calling it a massacre,” said a synopsis of the documentary provided by the producers. “Children and civilians comprised the vast majority of the 200 killed.” “Israel is targeting... hospitals.” These quotes come directly from international media reports on the 2014 Gaza War. All of them are incorrect, yet they were used to create the narrative that the world, to a great extent, accepted. A narrative that saw Israel as the aggressor. Interviewing Israeli and Palestinian combatants, administrators and civilians, along with analysts, journalists and aid agency officials on the ground, Eyeless in Gaza sets out to find out how this narrative arose... and arrives at a very troubling conclusion.”
The conclusion is largely that because Israel is the only Democratic state in the region, and in that battle, it was the subject of a lot of distorted reporting; while Hamas, by limiting news flow and access, while pushing its own narrative, was treated as the victim.
Producer Robert Magid said he made the documentary, “because the war in Gaza is a stage for dramatic media presentation. The media is not immune to what takes place in front of them and while seeing objectivity as a standard they invariably get sucked in and become participants rather than reporters. We have used the Gaza War of 2014 as a platform to investigate the media and find that it has fallen short in presenting an objective analysis of the events that have taken place before their eyes.”
In other words, many of the world’s media accepted fake news put out by Hamas while ignoring the true story of how Israel was the victim and was forced to defend itself.
There will be those who will condemn even this analysis and commentary because they are so dedicated to one side or the other. But the evidence provided is powerful and disturbing. And while the Gazan War is over, the battle for the hearts and minds of the global audience that consumes media continues.
There are many issues that get tangled up in these debates. Is Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries using Hamas as a surrogate to stir up these troubles and to take attention away from the way they treat their own citizens – especially women - and their refusal to spend a lot of money to help the Palestinians, or give them other land.
The documentary is directed by Martin Himel, who had been a producer based in Jerusalem working on behalf of ABC News, CTV Canada, Fox TV, CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and others. His past documentaries include “North Korea Desperate or Deceptive”, “Persecuted Christians” and TV series, “Global Anti-Semitism”, "Infidelity" and "Twist of Faith" profiling religions around the world.
The documentary has already been rejected by TV networks in a number of Western countries, either because they don’t like how it is done or fear fallout if it airs. Either way it clearly is struggling even to reach an audience.
Is this documentary the truth, or another kind of “alternative facts,” to paraphrase Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway? Like so much else these days the haters will hate it and the backers will say it proves their point. But the facts seem very real as presented.
Certainly the Israelis know the truth, and that is why they elected Netanyahu as the Prime Minister on a get-tough platform that puts defense first.
The sad ultimate lesson is that even as this kind of other “fake news” is allowed to pollute the media out of a lack of understanding or a bias toward one side or the other, there is still no clear path to peace. In many quarters, it is even hard to agree on what is true. There is no consensus that black is black and white is white in the Middle East. There is a twisted, sickening form of color blindness that sees only what the patron of each cause wants to see.
So for those who want ammunition to prove there has been bias by global news organizations, whether inadvertent or purposeful, this is a full course meal of truth.
For those who are blinded by hate, sadly it is just more fuel on a fire that seems likely to go on burning for generations.
NOTE: "Eyeless In Gaza: will be available Feb. 28, 2017 on Google Play, ITunes, Amazon Prime and Vimeo.
For upcoming screenings www.eyelessingazamovie.com