Media war of words: Can journalists express their views on Israel and Palestine?

Published July 27th, 2014 - 06:32 GMT

Perhaps the most rudimentary measure of the destruction of any war is casualty numbers -- answering the question, how many dead?

The answer to that question, in relation to the ongoing Israeli slaughter in the Gaza Strip, continues to horrify. As of this writing, it is more than 800.

Children, most spectacularly, are the victims of this war. Entire families have been killed in their own homes. The injuredinfirmdisabled, and elderly have been targeted. Almost all the dead are civilians. 

And every day, the number only gets bigger, sometimes in staggering increments

Every hour, photos and video emerge documenting the carnage in Gaza, too gruesome to be imagined. 

Every minute, another person in Gaza tweets an expression of sheer terror, keeping followers like myself, half a world away, sleepless, panicked, and heartsick. 

There are not words capable of characterizing the outrageousness of this latest Israeli assault. There is no language equal to the suffering and devastation being wrought upon the people of Gaza.

In describing the victims -- as children, women, families, the elderly -- we attempt to return some humanity to those whose systematic dehumanization is part and parcel of Israel’s regime of crime and impunity against the Palestinian people. 

Despite their inadequacy, it seems that words are nevertheless not entirely useless. 

According to Paul Mason, the advent of Twitter as people's primary news source is causing Israel to lose the social media war in Gaza (if not the actual war). Mason argues that followers’' access to real time news from reporters and others on the ground who are live tweeting updates, photos, and videos, short-circuits cumbersome and censorious news channel editing processes and renders Israeli propaganda less credible by comparison.

This argument is catching on, although when asked about it, Ali Abunimah -- himself an extraordinarily prolific tweeter - responded appropriately enough when asked about it recently on Al-Jazeera English. Far more urgent, he insisted, were the deaths in Gaza and the need for a ceasefire.

And yet, it seems, words do make a difference. In a remarkable turn of affairs, veteran Gaza reporter Ayman Mohyeldin was reinstated to report from Gaza after NBC inexplicably yanked him from the region. 

It is suspected that Mohyeldin's sympathetic reporting and tweeting about the murder of four Palestinian children on a Gaza beach -- combined with his contextualizing of this war within the overall Israeli occupation -- broke too decisively with the Zionist party line. 

But it is also widely believed that the outrage expressed on social media was crucial to getting Mohyeldin reinstated.

CNN Reporter Diana Magnay was both more explicit in her tweets and also less lucky than Mohyeldin. She filed a report on Israelis who were cheering the bombing of Gaza as they watched it unfold from their lawn chairs on a Sderot hillside. 

At some point, these exemplars of humanity also threatened to wreck Magnay's car. In a tweet, she called them "scum." She was promptly pulled from Gaza and re-located to Moscow.

Meanwhile, MSNBC journalist Rula Jebreal has had all her network appearances cancelled since she called out the network's blatant pro-Israel bias.

It is clear, then, that words matter, despite their inadequacy to convey the toll of human suffering. Indeed, they matter politically. They are a tool of political change. As Abunimah explained, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead and in response to a question about the "framing" of activist demands at the One State Conference at Harvard in 2009: "Does language matter? Of course language matters. Language -- and the steel of bulldozers -- are the two things that change reality."

Language is an inadequate tool to express either Gaza's suffering or our sorrow over it. Yet the power language has to transform our shared world requires that we attend to it when we do describe the destruction in Gaza. 

When reporting on that rudimentary measure of the toll of war -- the answer to "how many dead?" -- it is all too common to find Palestinian casualties disaggregated by sex. I am sure this is done to underscore the viciousness of Israel's military incursions.

As with the deaths of children and old people -- who are obviously civilians and thus impossible to construe as "legitimate" military targets -- so, too, the deaths of women are cited as evidence that Israel targets non-combatants. Disaggregating by sex, then, highlights the "innocence" of those being killed in Gaza.

Of course, there is already plenty of evidence that Israel targets civilians.

Yet disaggregating casualty counts by gender as a further way of documenting that crime is not simply an attempt to capture the devastation in Gaza. It is also a political practice that unwittingly reinforces sexual difference, women's inferiority, and gender binarism. I have written on this issue previously in 2012; Maya Mikdashi has investigated this question recently in Jadaliyya.

First, disaggregating casualties by gender suggests that women, by definition, are not or cannot be freedom fighters. This is simply false.

Second, disaggregating casualties by gender suggests that women's deaths are more offensive or tragic than men's. This is perhaps because of women's presumed "innocence," as mentioned already (i.e., they are not resistance fighters), or because women (like children) are more vulnerable and therefore their murder is especially egregious, or because women are the bearers of children and so their murder is especially damaging to families or communities. 

However, it is long past time to dispose of the mythology of women as "the weaker sex," a canard we make true in part through our faithful repetition of it. And valuing women because of their potential for pregnancy is a false flattery that reduces women to female biology and women's importance to maternity. 

Not only are men also potential parents, but they are never reduced to this biological capacity when their deaths are catalogued. Indeed, imagining women as only or particularly mothers marks a shared politics with those on the Right who seek to outlaw abortion, birth control, and solo motherhood.

Third, disaggregating casualties by gender naturalizes men's deaths and suggests that men are the obvious targets of war and its inevitable casualties. Men thereby become less grievable and the dynamics of warfare more normalized. But men's deaths in war are tragic and grievable -- just as much as, and no more than, women's.

Finally, disaggregating casualties by gender reinforces gender binarism. It suggests that, to be human, and therefore to have a properly grievable death, one must be clearly determinable as a man or a woman. 

Feminist and cultural critics have long established that clear and determinate gender is essential to rendering us human to other people. Without a distinct gender, we remain unintelligible, not fully human, and therefore more easily ridiculed, brutalized, and killed. The case of Tyra Hunter illustrates this -- a woman whom emergency medical personnel allowed to die in the streets of Washington, D.C. when they cut off her clothes to treat her injuries and discovered her penis. 

By insisting that the dead be gendered, we reinforce the belief that only the properly gendered are truly human.

Yet we need not seek further reasons to condemn Israel's brutalization of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. What is happening there is an offense to justice, regardless of anyone's gender.

As we bear witness to the unbearable destruction taking place in Gaza, then, we would do well to remember that language, for all its inadequacy, nevertheless has power of its own to shape and inform our understanding of reality. It is on this basis that it, like the steel of bulldozers (and the explosions of bombs and missiles), is capable of changing the world.

By Heike Schotten


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