Can Photos From Gaza Help Blaze The Path To Peace?
Amy Goodman, iconic host of the popular independent Pacifica news program, Democracy Now, has been quoted frequently stating:
“I really do think that if for one week in the United States we saw the true face of war, we saw people's limbs sheared off, we saw kids blown apart, for one week, war would be eradicated..."
It's easy to argue that graphic images of the carnage of war evoke lasting impressions on those who view them. Few people can forget the horrific photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb or the suffering faces and emaciated bodies from the Holocaust. Indeed some of history's most memorable and haunting photographic images arise from war. For people of my era, who lived through the time of Vietnam, the image of naked nine year old Kim Phuc, running, arms in air, screaming, her back seared from napalm, is carved into our memories. Many believe as I do, that Kim's photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize, swayed public opinion enough that it helped to end the war.
Interestingly, audio tapes of a cynical Richard Nixon, famous for his hatred of media and his belief that it conspired to take him down, reveal Nixon thought Ut's photo was altered. But it wasn't altered. It was painfully real.
One can't emphasize enough the unique ability media has to influence public opinion. In America, and most countries, media is routinely used by governments to manipulate consensus for, or opposition to, public policy. The George W. Bush administration was particularly adept at using corporate media and right-leaning independent media to push acceptance for attacking Iraq. But once the war began, Bush, Cheney, et al, were equally adept at keeping the visual images of Iraqi deaths from the public eye; quite a feat since some reports estimate Iraqi casualties to number as high as one-million. Of course, embedding compliant journalists made censoring graphic photos a fairly simple task.
But it wasn't only images of dead and wounded Iraqis that Bush, Cheney, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and submissive photo journalists hid from the American people. They also hid the highly emotional images of flag-draped coffins of American troops being transported home to their families. Only after a successful ruling of an October 2004 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed by University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter, were more than 700 photos of flag-draped military caskets released in April 2005. But it wasn't until February 2009, during the Presidency of Barack Obama, that the ban on viewing coffins was officially lifted.
One might presume that since President Obama lifted the ban, he was more inclined toward transparency, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout his first term as President, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still being waged, few photos of civilian or military casualties were seen by the public. The same is true of photos of the many casualties, including civilians, of Obama's covert and highly controversial weaponized drone attacks. Photos of drone casualties are never broadcast and difficult to find . If one googles "US drone attack photos," "US drone attack victims," or similar word combinations, hardly any drone victim photos on English language websites appear. Hence most Americans, upon hearing the words weaponized drones, don't conjure images of bloodied dead children, strewn body parts and decapitations, although they should, because that is the job of the drones.
Bottom line: war is heinous and perverse. As Amy Goodman posits, seeing images of sheared off limbs and blown apart kids should evoke a righteous revulsion for war. The limp and bloodied body of a child is a travesty, a crime, and for most people (sadly not all), nearly impossible to justify - which is why those who orchestrate war try so hard to conceal its results.
Operation Pillar of Defense
In Israel's recent incursion into Gaza, dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas and Israel faced off in an uneven battle. Hamas' long range missiles, most of which were intercepted by Israel's state of the art American-made defense system, flew into Israel as far as the areas around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, reportedly taking the lives of six Israelis and injuring many more.
For its part, Israel bombarded Gaza using American-made F-16 fighter-bombers and American-made Apache helicopter gun ships that repeatedly dropped American-made bombs into heavily populated areas. As of now, the eight long and brutal days of bombing, resulted in 170 Gazan deaths and reportedly over 1000 wounded.
Journalists Under Fire
As is often the case in the middle east, the incursion into Gaza caught the attention of the world. Journalists from across the globe made their way into Gaza to cover Operation Pillar of Defense. Unlike other battles, fought in remote regions spread across a vast mass of territory (think Afghanistan), Gaza's war zone was the impoverished, densely populated small strip of land that has long been controlled by Israel. In this condensed arena, journalists were in just as much danger as Gaza's civilian population, and they suffered greatly for being there. Israel attacked their hotels and dropped bombs on their cars, killing several Palestinian journalists and injuring many more. As a result, Israel is facing accusations from several fronts of purposely targeting journalists, but it rejects all such charges.
The most vocal challenger of Israel's aggression is Abby Martin, a TV anchor for Russia's RT station. After Israel accused Martin of being a terror sympathizer, Martin hit back at Israel on her show in a no-holds-barred lashing for Israel's bombing of RT's office in Gaza. She excoriated Israel for verbally attacking her after she characterized it as an apartheid state, and she pummeled Israel for deliberately targeting journalists. It's a performance worth watching for its fearlessness in confronting Israel directly - which American journalists and the American government lack the courage to do.
Despite the extreme dangers for journalists covering Operation Pillar of Defense, one positive (which is equally a negative) was the fact that it was fought in so confined an area that journalists didn't need travel great distances to get their stories. Reaching dead and injured victims or locating the charred and damaged remains of homes, businesses and mosques was often a matter of following explosions as they happened. Journalists were able to arrive on scene in a short enough time to photograph the dead and wounded and document the brutal events while they were still fresh. As a result, a large number of gruesome and disturbing photos made their way to newspapers and online news sites around the world. Many of the photos were of fallen children, which increased the already widespread and loud condemnation of Israel for being overly aggressive and reckless in bombarding areas populated by innocent civilians - including children.
Israel, which sees itself as the world's perpetual victim, an increasingly implausible portrayal, went on an all-out media offensive against journalists who photographed the casualties. Understanding how incriminating images of massive explosions, battered bodies, demolished buildings, dead babies and grieving families could be for Israel, Israel deployed every available surrogate to appear on as many international media platforms as possible to parrot the story that Israel had been forced to defend its people against the relentless assault by Hamas.
American born Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., became an everyday presence on American media. Speeches or interviews with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others, were broadcast regularly on American TV. And, as is commonly the case in American corporate media, few, if any, representatives for the Palestinians were given an equal platform.
Some more diligent interviewers, like MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell and CNN's Piers Morgan, questioned the surrogates about the wisdom of jeopardizing civilians by bombing highly concentrated residential areas. Well-schooled in their responses, the surrogates answered with Israel's customary refrain that it wasn't Israel jeopardizing the civilians, but Hamas, who purposely hid in residential neighborhoods to use civilians as human shields - a claim refuted by the 2009 United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, also known as the Goldstone Report, which stated:
The Mission, however, found no evidence of Palestinian armed groups placing civilians in areas where attacks were being launched; of engaging in combat in civilian dress; or of using a mosque for military purposes or to shield military activities.
Perhaps the most shrill and offensive of Israel's surrogates is American lawyer and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who in a November 19th appearance with CNN's Piers Morgan, repeated a claim he has made in the past. It's a claim Dershowitz has not categorically proved. It's a claim Dershowitz has no way of knowing from seeing first hand. And it appears to be a claim Dershowitz may have invented for the purpose of dehumanizing the Palestinian people. It's hideous in its label and its tone.
Here is part of Dershowitz' conversation with Piers Morgan regarding Operation Pillar of Defense and what he refers to as the Dead Baby Stategy:
Morgan: But they [Israelis] killed a whole family.
Dershowitz: Hamas was firing rockets in order to induce them to kill the family. You know what it's called in Gaza? It's called the Dead Baby Strategy. It's a strategy. They want - this sounds terribly brutal - but it's absolutely true. They want their children to be martyred so they can carry them out, show them to the international media and thereby gain an advantage over Israel. It's a double war crime and the media encourages it.
Dershowitz' seems to allege that in Gaza, Hamas, with the complicity of the families of Gazan babies, knowingly station the babies where the Israeli military will kill them. Dershowitz contends in his comment that some unnamed [it's called] entity in Gaza calls this plan the Dead Baby Strategy. Dershowitz presents Dead Baby Strategy as a known label, but he never identifies exactly who in Gaza uses this label.
Interesting that two years ago, on November 5, 2010, Dershowitz appeared as a panelist in Israel at the annual John Gandel Symposium. There he also talked about the Dead Baby Strategy, but he described the genesis of its label somewhat differently. He said at 15:46 minutes into the panel:
And then you have military deligitimation. It is such a clever - if it weren't such a horrible technique - such a clever technique. Again, I have a name for it. I call it Hamas' and Hesbollah's Dead Baby Strategy.
In this case, Dershowitz proclaims that he named the Dead Baby Strategy. Are we then to believe Hamas liked Dershowitz' label and strategy so much that they somehow appropriated it and began using it in Gaza? Or that the IDF said, 'Hey, let's use Alan's label and say Hamas uses the Dead Baby Strategy so we can kill their kids.' Likely not.
What it does appear we should believe is that the term Dead Baby Strategy is an invention of Mr. Dershowitz, used to promote a heinous accusation against Palestinians. Here's the rest of Mr. Dershowitz' description of his so-called Strategy. Do note his mention of the Goldstone Report, which (as shown above) refutes Dershowitz' contention that Hamas purposely endangers civilians through the placement of its rockets.
It sounds cruel but it's very very simple. The media, the most powerful image in the media is a mother holding a dead baby - whether it be Jesus being held by Mary after the Crucifixion, whether it be Guernica, Picasso's painting where you have mothers holding dead children. And what Hamas and Hesbollah know is that then when they fire enough rockets at Israeli children, at school buses. When they aim the rockets from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning when school buses are on the way. When they hit schools, fortunately the principals had the foresight to release the students, they know eventually any democracy, any democracy will have to respond. And how do you respond? You try to get the rocket firing. Where do they put the rockets? You wouldn't know it if you read the Goldstone Report, but right in the middle of civilian populations and the goal is to induce Israel to kill as many Palestinian babies as possible. That's the goal. The object is to have the Al Jazeera and the camera there to photograph the dead baby.
Those Who Have Been There
I've never been to Gaza but I've known many Americans who have visited there and even some who have lived there. I asked some of them if they had ever heard of Dershowitz' Dead Baby Strategy or if they had ever witnessed Gazans doing anything that would purposely endanger their children.
Freelance journalist Kristen Ess Schurr, who lived in Gaza from 2002 to 2006, and traveled frequently between Gaza and the West Bank during Israel's physical occupation of Gaza, had never heard of theStrategy. She said:
I lived in Gaza and worked there. Strikes were part of daily life during the occupation. I was there during many of them, having to run in supermarkets when Apache helicopters fired missiles into the city. I've seen children get shot and parents horrified, screaming and crying. I saw Palestinian parents try to protect their children at all costs. I saw Israeli soldiers target children and schools and talk about children as terrorists. These people have endured more than anyone should ever endure and they show only love and compassion, stronger than I've ever seen.
Asked why she thinks Dershowitz invented the Dead Baby Stategy, Kristen responded:
The only way Israelis get away with what they do is to dehumanize Palestinians to the point where they're not even allowed to publicly mourn the deaths of their children.
I spoke with Barbara Lubin, Director of the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA), who will be returning to Gaza in two weeks with emergency supplies for the children. She, too, had never heard of Dershowitz'Dead Baby Strategy. Here's some of what she said:
In my twenty-five years of traveling to Gaza and working there, I have never seen any such endangerment between Palestinian parents and their children. It's insulting and obnoxious for him [Dershowitz] to make any kind of statement like this about Palestinians using children for some Dead Baby Strategy. It's sickening.
I agree. It is sickening.
To The Heroes
For those like me who've never been to war or lived through war, it's difficult to grasp the degree of pain, fear, destruction and suffering its victims endure. What must it be like to cling to tumbling walls when bombs fall, or watch a loved one explode into pieces, having done nothing to deserve such a fate? It took the photo of nine-year old Kim Phuc to show many my age the horror of Vietnam. Discussions of nuclear weapons evoke devastating images of a mushroom cloud and a torched landscape of burned bodies. Mention of the Holocaust brings vivid recollections of emaciated bodies caged behind fences and mass graves piled high with corpses. And in Gaza, because of the hard work and valor of intrepid journalists, we have the horrific photos of dead children and their grieving families that Dershowitz and his cohorts vindictively besmirch.
We need these photos. We need more of them and we need to honor and protect the heroes who take them. Having these photos helps pave a path to ending wars. Having them (for most of us) challenges the perception of glorified war promoted by video games and corporate media. Having these photos allows us to equate war with the pain, loss, suffering and failure that war always is.
Further reading on the Dead Baby Strategy: