Goldstone's Gaza Report:A Miscarriage of Human Rights, Part Two / Richard Landes

The second part of this two-part article explores two main themes: 1) How journalists and human rights NGOs created the body of information Goldstone largely replicated, and 2) the role of intimidation and advocacy on journalists, NGO workers, witnesses, and judges. It concludes with an analysis of how such a systematic misrepresentation of events repeatedly occurred and the dangerous results for the very cause Goldstone espouses--the protection of civilians and the human rights culture.


In order to understand how the Goldstone Report, with all its pervasive flaws, came into existence, one must first appreciate the culture from which it arose. The pattern is largely as follows: Palestinians create alleged facts or information--often through the mediation of NGOs--journalists hear and repeat the claims, NGOs repeat it once again in their formal reports, and finally it makes up most of the Goldstone report, without any real critical evaluation taking place at any step in the process.

Media Coverage, Gaza War 1.0

The Gaza operation garnered immediate and sustained attention from all Western news outlets. Due to a controversial decision by the Israelis not to allow journalists in through their border crossings, much of what happened on the ground was accessible only through Gazan journalists such as Rushdi Abu Aluf (BBC), Hazem Balousha (The Guardian), Taghreed El-Khodary (New York Times), and Talal Abu Rahmeh (CNN, France 2), who dutifully reported on hospitals running out of medicine even as Hamas refused to allow Egyptian doctors and ambulances as well as Qatari medical supplies to come across the border.[1]

Gazan “medical officials,” which is often merely another way of referring to Hamas spokesmen on these issues, insisted there had been great carnage and Palestinian-held cameras showed shocking glimpses of desperate hospitals overwhelmed by victims, with special attention to women and children. UN representatives, NGO workers, and free-lancers--such as the Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert--all emphasized the high civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis.[2]

These reports had an enormous impact on public opinion in both the Arab and the Western world. The vision of bombs falling on “the densest population concentration on earth”[3] immediately conjured up visions of women and children blown to bits, and inspired violent protests in the West and in the Arab world. Annie Lennox, a participant in a pro-Hamas protest in London on January 3, 2009, commented to the BBC: “When I saw the images of the warplanes dropping bombs in Gaza and knowing that there are innocent civilians, women and children, at the receiving end of this uh potential absolute carnage, I became incredibly concerned.”[4]

Massive demonstrations in Europe and the United States expressed outrage at Israel’s “disproportionate response” and brought out a hostile anti-Zionism that spilled into antisemitic rhetoric.[5] In the Arab world, in addition to the demonizing of Israel, demonstrators made clear that the Arab leaders who remained silent were themselves unworthy cowards.

One of the more revealing of the tales retailed by news media came from the alleged bombing on January 7, 2009, of the UN School in Fakhoura, a neighborhood of Gaza City where over 1,400 refugees had taken shelter from the hostilities. Journalists, depending on “Palestinian health officials,” reported over 40 dead, primarily civilians.[6] John Ging, the UN representative in Gaza spoke angrily about the insecurity of the people in Gaza and specifically mentioned people who had taken refuge in the school and were killed by Israeli bombs.[7] Commentators like Juan Cole waxed eloquent about both the Israeli crime and its role in stimulating jihad.[8] It turns out that the school was never hit, no one killed, and the casualties--many of them combatants who had been firing mortars from near the school--numbered at most 22, possibly fewer than 20.[9] As for the civilians killed in the shelling, some were children recruited by combatants to help fortify their position near the school.[10]

Why would the media so eagerly seize on these stories, so single-mindedly focus on the humanitarian crisis, despite the notorious tendency of local sources to misrepresent? Obviously, “if it bleeds, it leads,” that is, the drama of the claims made them big stories. One gets a sense, however, that something else is at work here, something that overrides the journalist’s normal inhibitions about running with unverified news, and that is a moral imperative. One also gets the sense that they believe that by emphasizing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel, they somehow contribute to peace. By putting pressure on the Israelis, they reason, they can help to stop the bombing. Christiane Amanpour revealed this concept in a question to Tony Blair: “The civilian casualties in Gaza are obviously going to put a huge pressure on Israel. How long can Israel withstand this pressure?”[11] When such diplomatic dynamics are so obvious to the media, why should they not think that the more they emphasize a humanitarian catastrophe, the sooner the violence will end? Thus, instead of showing caution at the potentially inflammatory nature of some of the tales they retail, journalists actually want the most lethal narratives precisely to bring about the urgently needed ceasefire.

This approach, however well intentioned, reveals a fundamental violation of journalistic principles against shaping the news to promote a result, and, implicitly, a bias that assumes that the “solution” will come from pressure on Israel, not on Hamas.[12] The ironic result of this approach toward how to achieve peace and end the violence was a strong overlap between Hamas’ and the news media’s talking points--humanitarian crisis, civilian casualties, Israeli brutality, Palestinian suffering, the hell of war brought home to the viewer, the inevitable failure of Israeli violence to stop the rockets, and the strengthening of solidarity between Hamas and the Palestinian people.[13] Indeed, news anchor Nisha Pillai aggressively berated Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa for not immediately including Hamas in the preparation of any response the Arabs made to Israel.[14] News providers such as CNN began each hour with an update, each starting off with a collage of Palestinian suffering.[15] In a far-reaching way, this approach worked: Even if it did not end the carnage immediately, it triggered widespread and influential outrage against Israel among many opinionmakers, especially among “progressives.” In particular, the “human rights community” voiced its outrage based entirely on accounts coming out of Gaza via the media, and expressed profound sympathy for Hamas.

On January 10, 2009, for example, “Stop the War” held an anti-Israel rally in London’s Hyde Park whose theme was “We are Hamas.”[16] The following day, a number of prominent public figures signed a letter published in the London Times entitled, “Israel’s Bombardment of Gaza Is not Self-Defence – It’s a War Crime.”[17] Its use of casualty figures and reports of destruction as “facts” played a key element in its censorious judgments and thereby illustrate the power of “Palestinian sources”: “The killing of almost 800 Palestinians, mostly civilians [emphasis added], and more than 3,000 injuries, accompanied by the destruction of schools, mosques, houses, UN compounds and government buildings, which Israel has a responsibility to protect under the Fourth Geneva Convention, is not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire.”[18]

This overlap between the Western news media and Hamas did not limit itself to articulating the same points, but also to observing the same silences about other issues. For instance, Hamas frowned on the Western news media reporting on how Hamas fired at Israelis from civilian areas; used Palestinian civilians as shields; blocked medical help at the Egyptian border; shot mortars at the Israeli crossing points when supplies were coming in;[19] stole supplies intended for the civilian population; used ambulances for military purposes;[20] and incited its population to genocidal rage against the Israelis. By and large, the news media complied. In a way, even this makes sense within the “peace advocacy” position of the news media: If Israelis hit violently at those consistently portrayed as being complete innocents, the outrage will grow even stronger than if they are seen struggling with ruthless “guerrillas” who hide among their population even as they provoke the violence. If the latter were true, then those voices justifying the attack might gain traction with the public.

Accordingly, the Western public heard barely a word critical of Hamas or its tactics from reporters. At best, in their search for some balance, journalists vaguely alluded to Hamas’ intransigence. The BBC did a special feature explaining Hamas on January 10, 2009, in which it spoke of Hamas’ desire that Israel “cease to exist,” in its charter over 20 years ago, but that since then it has “evolved,” and now, the “pragmatist” Isma’il Haniya suggests that “co-existence with Israel might be possible.”[21] No mainstream reporter mentioned that that charter invokes the genocidal apocalyptic hadith (words and deeds of Muhammad)--that on the coming day of judgment the Muslims will kill every last Jew--with the pious wish that now it be implemented.[22] Nor do they mention that Palestinian media and mosque sermons regularly repeat this hadith and that it plays a central role in the feelings of Gazans towards Israel, and explains the “morally repugnant” embrace of the culture of death that Goldstone briefly noted and then ignored.[23]

Ironically, while the Western news media thought it was furthering peace by proclaiming an Israeli-caused humanitarian catastrophe and passing over in silence the Hamas role in the tragedy, Hamas used the same narrative to ensure violence continued. By insisting that there was deliberate and terrible Israeli violence aimed against innocent Palestinians, Hamas had a message useful in fomenting the spirit of jihad among Muslims.[24] In late December 2009, the Jordanian suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who killed seven CIA agents wrote: “The sight of the blood of Muslims in Gaza, small children, women, and powerless people, who were killed by the bombs of the brethren of apes and pigs, encouraged me to publish the article, so that it may strengthen the resolve of [even] a single Muslim in the frontlines, and that I will gain reward from Allah.”[25]

As Abdel Bari Atwan, the Arab editor of al-Quds al-Arabi in London noted to CNN: “Hamas enjoying a huge sympathy in the Arab world, they have many channels like al-Jazeera, al-Arabiyya, al-Manar, and they are putting forward Hamas view twenty-four hours a day. And what’s happening in Gaza, the carnage, actually is helping and supporting the Hamas position.”[26] In short, Hamas thrives on the very things that horrify the Western liberal mind. This suggests that Hamas’ strategy creates and sustains the belligerent framework which so concerns a peace-minded media; and yet that same pacific media, by almost exclusively blaming Israel, help Hamas maintain and escalate their belligerence. When Juan Cole seizes on and amplifies every detail of Israeli crimes, and warns, like Christiane Amanpour, that they create radicalism in the Muslim world, they are in fact contributing to that process. [27]

The role of the media in generating the first draft of the Goldstone Report entered a new stage once the fighting was over. Journalists were then able to enter the area and report a second round of alleged atrocities without noting how, in some cases, these contradicted earlier Palestinian reporting. While some unearthed evidence of Hamas’ brutality, explained off-camera[28] with the most extreme of lethal narratives.[29] The most incendiary case concerned the January 6, 2009, death of three girls belonging to the Abd Rabbo family. Ma’an News Agency had reported the following day that they died as the result of air strikes. Yet a fortnight later, the story changed into an elaborate tale of gratuitous, cold-blooded murder, in which an Israeli soldier popped out of a tank while his mates munched on oranges and chocolate, and shot the three girls and their grandmother, then the soldiers crushed the ambulance that came to evacuate them, so they bled to death. This story became headline news around the world, most notably in Tim McGirk’s articles for Time Magazine.[30] Those who argue that coverage might have been more responsible had the Western press been there from the start should note how the work of Bowen, McGirk, and others calls into question that idea.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the overlap between journalists and Hamas/Palestinians is...



*Prof. Richard Landes was trained as a medievalist, teaching history at Boston University. His work on both forgeries and on the role of intimidation in affecting narrative in medieval history led him to switch fields to the way the media (and academia) represent the Arab-Israeli conflict in the twenty-first century. He maintains four sites, The Center for Millennial Studies (quiescent), The Second Draft, Understanding the Goldstone Report, and he blogs at The Augean Stables. His book on millennialism: Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford University Press) will be out in December of 2010. He is also currently writing a book entitled, They're so Smart.


(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.
Site: - Email: [email protected]

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.