What You'd Know About Israel If You Watched Al Jazeera TV
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Throughout the 11 days of Israel's pummeling of Gaza, live coverage of the war hasn't made it into most American living rooms.
That's because Israel, America's staunch ally, isn't allowing journalists to enter Gaza while Al Jazeera, called anti-American and pro-terrorist by many in Washington, is the only network broadcasting live images from Gaza to the world.
The 350 reporters who descended on Israel when the conflict began are stuck at the border between Israel and Gaza. Israel says that opening border crossings to journalists would put their soldiers in danger, but many have accused them of trying to control the story. Instead of giving their viewers up-close pictorial evidence of what is occurring in Gaza, television networks have been restricted to showing their viewers plumes of smoke as they rise in the distance.
But Al Jazeera, the Qatari network that has previously undergone attacks and had its reporters arrested by the U.S. military, remains typically defiant. While other networks are increasingly severed from Gaza as phone lines are cut and 75 percent of the territory is without electricity, Al Jazeera is bringing its approximately 140 million English- and Arabic-speaking viewers live images of bombings, tanks rolling through Gaza's farmland, and interviews with civilians and aid workers inside Gaza city.
Like all of the networks, Al Jazeera gives constant hard-hitting interviews with politicians and analysts from Israel, the West Bank, and the rest of the Arab world. But while others can only balance pundits with more pundits, Al Jazeera has been taking the viewer to the scene to weigh the words of politicians against the reality on the ground.
Take Israel's claim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. After showing an Israeli politician writing off the assertion of the existence of a humanitarian disaster, Al Jazeera cut to the Al Shifa hospital, the largest in all of Gaza. There, we saw that there were not enough medical supplies and civilians lying on bloody hospital beds told us that their lives were not only being crippled by bombs falling on their houses, but by the extreme lack of water and food for the people cowering inside them.
One man, as he held his dead, pale faced 7-month-old son in his arms, said, "We were in our house for three days before the bombs fell on us. We called for the Red Cross and humanitarian groups, but no one was able to reach us…We have no one but God."
Israeli officials continue to assert that they are allowing in humanitarian aid by opening the border, but as Al Jazeera's Ayman Moheyaldin reported from the inside, "The point is not that you open the crossings to allow in 30 to 40 trucks, but that you keep them open and allow a continuous amount of goods to enter for a sustainable amount of time."
The problem isn't only that supplies can't get in. People still can't get out. Most are left searching hopelessly for safety while their stories remain trapped within Gaza's walls.
"There is nowhere safe in Gaza," an enraged John Ging, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, told Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros in front of the Al Shifa hospital today. Those words came after the Israeli Defense Forces bombed a UN school that was being used as a refuge. Later in the day, a second UN school was struck by the Israelis, killing at least 40. "Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized and they have the right to be because there is no safe haven…This violence needs to stop now. Neither side can wait for the other to stop first," he said.
While Al Jazeera might be the only channel reporting from inside Gaza, scores of channels across the Middle East are airing constant commentary as well as images of wailing women, dead children, and burning buildings on loop. On the Syrian satellite station Al-Sham, for example, a pro-Hezbollah series about Israel's occupation of south Lebanon was alternated with a 20-minute musical piece sung over images of dead babies, American soldiers kicking men in orange jumpsuits, a naked Arab man with a bag over his head running from American military dogs, stone-throwing Palestinian children, and endless footage of blood-soaked Palestinians and Iraqis. The song's chorus, "The heart of humanity has died. It died between us brothers. Maybe we forgot one day that all Arabs are brothers," reflects the deep anger that people are feeling toward the inaction of Arab governments here.
By and large, media here is "all Gaza, all the time," and the more people see and hear about what is going on there, the angrier they seem to get. As I rode a bus into the Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, a few days ago, the Syrian radio station was taking calls. A woman screamed into the airwaves, "The people of Gaza don't need food; they need guns to resist the Israelis!" The bus remained silent, full of straight-faced, clench-jawed passengers.
Many went home and watched the ground invasion live a couple of hours later in night vision-green on Al Jazeera. Since then, the death toll has climbed to at least 598, according to Al Jazeera, with 2,700 injured.
Meanwhile, the world's only live coverage of the tragedy is kept away from American eyes. While Al Jazeera English competes with CNN and BBC as one of the largest networks in the world, no major American cable provider has been willing to carry the channel since it launched in 2006. Some say cable providers are squeamish about working with a channel popularly perceived in the United States as giving airtime to terrorists.
But Al Jazeera is finding its way around the problem. Today, Americans hungry for inside coverage of Gaza can download Livestation, a free program that will let viewers watch Al Jazeera English among other international networks. Defiant as always, Al Jazeera might break through another media blackout, and into American homes.