The Western media have found Hamas. A month into the group’s mini-war with Israel, journalists have begun publishing images of Hamas fighters and reports on its human-shield tactics and intimidation of journalists. Whatever the reason—Hamas PR savvy, media incompetence, or the fear of retribution—it is astounding that the discovery has taken this long.
The Gaza Strip, after all, is just 25 miles tip-to-toe and seven miles at its widest. More than 700 journalists went there to cover Israel's ground offensive, during which Hamas fired more than 3,500 rockets into Israel—an average of more than 100 a day.
Still, since Israel launched its operation on July 8, the media focus has barely shifted from the loss of life in the Strip. That emphasis is understandable: Images of dead and wounded civilians are heartbreaking. Forty-three percent of Gaza’s population is under 14 (and half under 18), meaning the brunt of force is borne primarily by the young.
Moreover, Hamas has waged a sophisticated, even brilliant propaganda war. “Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine,” the group told Gazans in a public-service announcement, “before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank.” Hamas enjoined civilians to use the phrase “innocent civilians” as much as possible when speaking with journalists.
Hamas launches rockets from the Strip’s most densely populated locales—chiefly Gaza City, Beit Hanoun in the north, and Khan Younis in the south—and tells fighters to fire from sensitive locations like schools, churches, mosques, UN buildings and hospitals. It’s a win-win strategy: If Israel is deterred, Hamas fighters and infrastructure are preserved; if Israel is not, the attendant civilian casualties will be a propaganda coup.
Hamas’s media strategy is exemplified by its use of Gaza City's Shifa hospital. There, in one of the conflict’s worst-kept secrets, the group’s leadership has prosecuted the war from an underground bunker. Reporters were denied entry to the bunker and instead invited to a media center in the hospital courtyard. There, journalists seeking interviews with Hamas officials were obligated to line up, in prime position to snap photos as wounded civilians and combatants (the latter inevitably plain-clothed) were rushed into the building.
Let me be clear: I admire the bravery required of war correspondents, and I recognize the onerous conditions under which they work. I see no conspiracy behind the inability of many of them to adequately cover Hamas. Instead, I see a collective failure by much of the world’s press to give an accurate rendering of one party to the Gaza fighting, and to lay bare—whether explicitly or more subtly—the restrictions it enforces upon them in so doing.
Take the New York Times. Its photojournalist team in Gaza was led by Tyler Hicks—a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who has covered asymmetric wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Syria—and included the award-winning freelancer Sergrey Ponomarev, whose portfolio includes conflict zones in Lebanon, Georgia and Ukraine. It is puzzling, then, that the Times’ four major slide shows on the Gaza conflict show not a single Hamas gunman or rocketeer (see here, here, here and here).
Pressed over the discrepancy last week, Hicks said that “the fighters are virtually invisible to us … It’s impossible to know who’s who. We tried to cover this as objectively as possible.” Earlier, Ponomarev had implied that his “war routine” simply hadn’t left time to look for Hamas fighters: “You leave early in the morning to see the houses destroyed the night before. Then you go to funerals, then to the hospital because more injured people arrive, and in the evening you go back to see more destroyed houses.”
As the war dragged on, Hamas' tactics became harder to ignore. On July 21, the Wall Street Journal’s Nick Casey tweeted his suspicion that patients at Shifa were less than thrilled at Hamas’s use of the place. That tweet, however, was soon deleted without explanation. The next day, a Palestinian journalist wrote in France’s Liberation newspaper that he had been interrogated by Hamas and threatened with expulsion from the Strip. A colleague had even denied him shelter for the night, explaining, “You don’t mess with these people”—Hamas, that is—“during war.” Two days later, the story was pulled at the journalist’s request.
On July 28, explosions hit Shifa and the nearby Shati refugee camp, killing ten people—nine of them children. A Daily Beast report from Gaza, "Israel’s Campaign to Send Gaza Back to the Stone Age," described a scene in which "young children writhed in pain on gurneys waiting for scrambling ER doctors to attend to them following an air strike on the Al Shati Refugee camp. Nine of the 10 people killed in the attack were children and many more were wounded." At the same time, however, an Italian journalist admitted the strike had not been Israel’s work but the result of a misfired Hamas rocket—evidence of which Hamas had quickly cleaned up. He had waited to disclose the information, he wrote, until he was well away from Gaza (and Hamas' retribution).
As the conflict approached the one-month mark, media coverage had perceptibly changed. On August 1, a correspondent for Finnish TV reported seeing rockets fired from Shifa. Days later, an Indian TV crew, filming from their hotel room, spotted a Hamas team setting up a rocket launcher in a densely populated area nearby. Yet again, the footage was aired only after the crew left Gaza.
Hamas’s rocket attack was triply cynical: Intended to draw fire not only at its own population, but at a putatively neutral UN building and the very Western journalists who had thus far kept the group’s actions largely hidden from view.
On Friday, Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter for Israel’s left-wing Haaretz daily, pressed a number of foreign journalists just back from Gaza about their coverage. Responses ranged from the patently false (Hamas was “too busy fighting to bother” with media, offered one) to the plausible (“I would have got killed,” a veteran war correspondent said).
Israel is having none of it. “This is the A-team of the war-reporting profession,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman lamented. “How did Hamas succeed so completely?”
Other journalists acknowledged regret.
“Looking back, I should have at least tried to report a bit more about the Hamas fighters,” one unnamed reporter told Haaretz while he was still in Gaza.
“The civilian angle took up nearly all the attention, but the Hamas angle should have got more coverage, especially the fact they … had hidden weapons in private homes and mosques,” he said. “That should have been covered better, but there was just so much death all around.”
Oren Kessler is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London, and formerly a journalist with The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.