Western coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza – bias or unprofessionalism?

Media experts say some agencies are ‘legitimising Israeli war crimes’ in Gaza.

Publishing unsubstantiated claims, telling only one side of the story, and painting  Palestinians as nothing more than objects in Hamas’s hands are all unprofessional mistakes Western media makes while covering the conflict between Israel and Hamas, media experts and Arab journalists say.

Experts and journalists who spoke to Al Jazeera said the systemic “bias in favour of Israel” is “irreparably damaging” the credibility of news agencies considered “mainstream” in the eyes of Arabs and others.

As Western media organisations “dehumanise Palestinians” and “legitimise Israeli violations of international law” as Israel bombs Gaza, it is glaringly obvious that the vital historical context of the trauma Palestinians have been through for the past 75 years is being left out, experts say.

One-sided

On October 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on military outposts and communities in southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages back to Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

The same day, Israel launched a relentless bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 8,000 people, about 40 percent of whom are children.

It also devastated Gaza’s health sector and flattened much of its infrastructure while strengthening its choke-hold siege by cutting off fuel, water and food – acts that may amount to war crimes under international humanitarian law.

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(Al Jazeera)

United Nations experts say Palestinians in Gaza are facing the risk of genocide.

Western correspondents have gone to Israel where they reported extensively on the grief of Israeli families, but Israel has not allowed foreign journalists to enter Gaza, which means they’re missing a vital aspect of the story.

“If you don’t live in Gaza, if you don’t listen to the prayers Palestinians make when they lose loved ones, if you don’t learn about the life story of loved ones [who have been killed] …then the coverage [of Gaza] won’t be the same [as the coverage of Israel],” Taghreed El-Khodary, an analyst from Gaza, told Al Jazeera from her home in the Netherlands.

This means, she continued, that they “are not just covering the Israeli narrative, but they are living the Israeli narrative”.

When one trauma trumps another

Most of the people within Gaza are the children or grandchildren of Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland during the creation of Israel in 1948 – an event commemorated annually as the “Nakba” or catastrophe.

Rights groups refer to Gaza, where 2.3 million people are squeezed into a piece of land only 41km (25 miles) long and 10km (6 miles) wide, as the largest “open-air prison” in the world.

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(Al Jazeera)

“You don’t hear the word ‘victims’ [in reference to Palestinians] as you hear [when there is reporting] about the Israeli side,” El-Khodary explained.

Rather than cover the human toll in Gaza, many Western media networks either refer to the Palestinians killed as numbers or echo American and Israeli talking points including Israel’s “right to defend” itself and Hamas using civilians in Gaza as “human shields”.

According to international law, Israel is an occupying force in the West Bank and Gaza. For decades, it has built and expanded illegal settlements in the former. It has maintained a suffocating siege on the latter since 2007.

Amnesty International has pointed to what it terms “damning evidence of war crimes as Israeli attacks wipe out entire families in Gaza”. Satellite imagery shows whole neighbourhoods in Gaza that have been flattened.

These “double standards” reflect a broader tendency of Western media organisations to portray Muslims and Arabs as “less than human”, said Arwa Damon, a former CNN correspondent and now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC, think-tank.

“What we are seeing right now is a repeat – especially in terms of coverage – of what we saw on 9/11 where [Arabs and Muslims] were painted with this ‘terrorist’ brush and vilified,” she said.

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Palestinians invited to speak to Western news channels are frequently asked if they “condemn Hamas”, while Israeli guests are seldom asked to condemn their government’s apartheid policies in the occupied West Bank or its siege and bombardment of Gaza, experts told Al Jazeera.

“In every [Western news] report, they keep mentioning that Hamas is [designated] a terrorist group,” said El-Khodary. “But what about mentioning what Israel is doing? It’s violating international law, it’s committing genocide. It has imposed an apartheid system [in the West Bank]. It has imposed a 16-year blockade on Gaza.”

“Where is the context? Only that Hamas is [a designated terrorist group] and that is the only context they are giving us here.”

Manufacturing support

Unsubstantiated claims made by Israeli parties have made their way to the front pages of Western news agencies, according to the experts Al Jazeera spoke to. A recent example was the oft-reported claim that Hamas “beheaded 40 babies”.

Despite the lack of evidence, the allegations were reported by The Independent, CNN, Fox News and the New York Post.

Even United States President Joe Biden implied he had seen pictures of dismembered babies on October 12. The White House later walked back his comments, saying Biden had seen no such images, and that he had seen news reports.

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(Al Jazeera)

That claim – and other unsubstantiated allegations like Hamas fighters raping hundreds of Israeli women – was an attempt to manufacture public support for Israel’s military response in Gaza, said Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese writer and critic who has written for major Western news organisations.

While an Amnesty International report concluded that children were killed in Hamas’s attack, neither Israeli authorities, Western journalists nor rights groups found any evidence of “beheaded babies”.

“When [Western outlets] focus on these claims of 40 beheaded babies and women being gang-raped, then what they are effectively doing is justifying the brutality of Israel’s counterattack,” Mounzer told Al Jazeera.

“How else do you sell the idea of self-defence when [Israel] is bombing what is basically a concentration camp?”

Fired for empathy

While some journalists at Western outlets may want to do more thorough reporting, many actually fear losing their livelihoods and careers if they speak out against their network’s pro-Israel bias, said Layla Maghribi, a British freelance journalist of Palestinian-Syrian descent.

A non-Jewish Arab colleague of hers, she told Al Jazeera, has been instructed by their news outlet not to attend any demonstrations or post anything on social media that suggests he empathises with Palestinians.

Her Jewish colleague, she continued, hates that he cannot tell his readers about the real human cost of Israel’s bombing of Gaza.

Journalist killed in the Israel-Gaza conflict

“My Jewish colleague is just mortified with his editor’s coverage of the conflict. That is, if you can even call it a conflict. It’s a massacre,” Maghribi said.

Other journalists who are not reporting on the conflict have been fired for comments or actions that imply empathy with victims in Gaza.

Michael Eisen, a Jewish journalist who was employed by the open-source scientific journal eLife, said he lost his job for sharing a headline on X (formerly Twitter) from the US satirical news website The Onion.

“Dying Gazans criticised for not using last words to condemn Hamas,” read The Onion headline, which was published on October 13.

Journalists at the BBC are understood to have objected to the United Kingdom broadcaster’s framing of the war in Gaza.

While the BBC has used words such as “massacre”, “slaughter” and “atrocities” when describing Hamas’s attack on Israel, it has refrained from describing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in a similarly negative way, according to an email that staff at the network sent to Director-General Tim Davie, the UK’s Times reported.

Maghribi says she believes the climate of intimidation against journalists and the failure of mainstream outlets to humanise Palestinians is causing the Arabic-speaking world and Arab diaspora in the West to lose even more faith in the credibility of Western media coverage.

“We’re not just witnessing a breakdown in humanity,” she said. “We are witnessing a breakdown in the profession.”

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